It’s alarming to wake up from a coma in completely unfamiliar surroundings, tethered to a bed by tubes and electrodes, with a computer voice quizzing you and robotic arms controlling your movements. It’s even more disturbing when you realize that you have no recollection of your name or your past life, and that there are two long-dead bodies in the room with you.
But gradually, through a series of flashback memories, Ryland Grace remembers that Earth is facing an extinction event: a Russian scientist discovered that a strange line has developed between the sun and Venus, and it’s causing the sun to lose energy at a rate that’s high enough to cause a worldwide ice age in the next few decades. Grace, a disgraced molecular biologist who abandoned academia to teach middle school science, was one of the scientists investigating the unique microorganisms, christened Astrophage, causing the sun’s disastrous decline in energy. Now his explorations of his current surroundings lead him to the realization that he’s in a spaceship headed to the Tau Ceti star system, on a one-way trip in search of a way to save the Earth, and the other two members of his crew didn’t survive the medically-induced comas during the long voyage of the Hail Mary. But a major surprise awaits Grace at his destination: humanity isn’t the only race looking to the Tau Ceti system for a possible answer to the problem of Astrophage.
Andy Weir’s latest science fiction adventure, Project Hail Mary (2021), marks a welcome return to form for fans of The Martian, after his lackluster second novel, Artemis. There’s the same hyper-focus on fine details of technology and science, one of Weir’s hallmarks, along with a series of critical events that our intrepid main character needs to overcome through a combination of scientific knowledge and inventiveness. Ryland Grace, who narrates the novel, also bears a distinct resemblance to Mark Watney: he’s an enthusiastically geeky and inventive scientist with an engaging voice and sense of humor, faced with a life-and-death situation.
“How did you do it? What killed it?”
“I penetrated the outer membrane with a nanosyringe.”
“You poked it with a stick?”
“No!” I said. “Well. Yes. But it was a scientific poke with a very scientific stick.”
But the stakes are higher here, the adventure more far-reaching, and there’s a subtle complexity to Grace’s character that is fully revealed toward the end, along with a (related) twist in the narrative that is logical but still managed to surprise me. Weir displays some subtleties in his writing in Project Hail Mary that go beyond his previous works of fiction. Weir also handles the dual timeline in this novel well, with the flashbacks flowing naturally as a result of Grace’s slowly-dispersing amnesia. These memories gradually fill in the background and reveal the full scope of the Astrophage problem and the reasons and hopes for Grace’s current mission, while the current timeline follows his adventures and mishaps once he reaches the ship’s destination … and beyond.
Much of Project Hail Mary is about Grace’s unanticipated friendship with another character who is tremendously pleasing in both his sheer alienness and his open-heartedness toward Ryland. While my practical mind debated the wisdom of Grace and the alien sharing too much information about their home worlds (I was deeply influenced by Murray Leinster’s classic novelette First Contact at an impressionable age), their developing trust and friendship is undeniably heartwarming.
Great books and movies are often marked by their attention to themes of love and redemption, and Project Hail Mary has both in spades. (I’m still trying to decide whether the title and the main character’s name are a deliberate call-out by Weir to “Hail Mary, full of Grace.” I’m inclined to think it is.) In any case, these compelling themes, plus a suspenseful, page-turning adventure and the inspiring scientific creativity of the characters (assuming you’re a reader who enjoys Weir’s attention to technical details in his plots), make Project Hail Mary a sure-fire hit for fans of The Martian … and may very well win him new fans.
Let me note up front that I did not read Project Hail Mary but listened to it as my son and I traveled out West, and I am fully willing to admit that I might have had a (somewhat) more favorable response had I read the text instead. Mostly because I read pretty quickly and so I likely would have gone further in the story, and possibly (though it’s iffy) even finished it, given the much smaller investment of time. That said, on audio, the book fell almost entirely flat for me, despite some good humor throughout, thanks to its repetitive nature, questionable premises, monotone voice, and a play by play style of narration that made the book feel utterly interminable to both of us.
It opened well, with the main character, middle school science teacher Rylan Grace, waking up in a strange place with no memory of who or where he is, or why he is there. The book splits into two narratives, one following his present time as he eventually pieces together that he is on a spaceship and the other presented as a series of flashbacks as his memory slowly (and at times conveniently) comes back, revealing he is on a mission to save humanity from an apocalyptic event — the dimming of our star. It’s an intriguing cold open (though I preferred the greater complexity of Dark Matter doing the same thing but with multiple amnesiac characters waking up on the same ship), and Grace’s voice is engaging and funny, sometimes laugh out loud so, even if it has very strong echoes of Mark Watney from The Martian. The same is true with the early plot, as Grace is faced with a problem and uses math and science, then does so again. And again. And again. And. Well, you get the picture.
In my review of The Martian, I noted how Weir managed to delay if not negate the respective nature of the plot, as well as break up the one-note voice of Watney, by wisely broadening the story first to Earth and the NASA people and then to Watney’s crewmates. Here, at least as far as we got, there’s no such broadening, and thus no break, no variety. As individual moments, these “break out the calculator or the science fair projects” are fine, but in sequence they grow predictable and wearisome.
A problem exacerbated by Grace’s seeming need to narrate every moment of his existence. Eventually I was screaming in my head (seriously, screaming in my head) “There is nothing wrong with ‘later’ or ‘after’! They’re your friends! As in, ‘After I returned to my ship and the lab … ‘ I don’t need to see every second of you doing that!” It reminded me of old movies where a character would arrange a meeting by phone, and the poor audience would watch them collect their jacket, their hat (old movie), their car keys, then walk out of the house, get in their car, and drive to the meeting with a bad background behind them. Until some director (and thank you whoever you were) realized they could just have the character say, “I’ll meet you at Louie’s” and then cut to them pulling up in front of Louie’s. Done. Maybe Weir likes those old movies. I don’t know. But after a few hours of this over-narrated style I was considering driving off the steep mountain roads we were on.
Finally, there was the premise. Now here again, I’ll note that I am notorious amongst my friends for having a hard time letting go of a bad premise. Not all the time, but often enough that we’ll discuss a recent film and my friend will say, “You couldn’t get by the fill in the blank, could you?” And then listen to me rant. So mileage will vary on this. But yes, I could never quite bury in my head the huge nagging question of how the hell is this guy the one doing all this? It just made no sense. Ever.
Ok, he wrote a paper years ago arguing life didn’t require water. But am I seriously to believe he is literally the only one? Or that nobody considered it seriously? When does that happen in science? Darwin’s theory of evolution was so “unique” he had to rush it into print so he wasn’t scooped by Wallace. Not to mention earlier proponents of similar or proto-versions. Or those like Huxley (Darwin’s Bulldog) who were won over and became vociferous defenders. Not to mention that science isn’t static. He left research years ago, but I’m still supposed to believe he’s on the cutting edge despite having a full time teaching job? And being a great, not average, teacher besides. (As a teacher, I guarantee you he does not have the time. This is why research professors often hate teaching — it steals research time).
The attempt to explain this away further makes even less sense, and even if one accepts it (I don’t), it doesn’t explain why he is the only one to be doing the research, with no observers, no advice, no coaching, etc. (again, we’re taking human extinction stakes here). I could perhaps have gotten by this, or at least forgotten it, if it were for the fact that Grace is present at nearly every major decision about the mission (this being driven by single voice POV) even though it makes even less sense. Why is he being asked about spaceship design, for instance? He’s not an engineer, let alone one who specializes in space. At one point, the question of high tech equipment and its reliability comes up, and he says he’s used high tech equipment and it can be finicky. Which is, of course, a valid comparison — the equipment his public school can afford (or he himself as a hobby) and the equipment being built to save humanity where money is literally no issue and the best and brightest are put on the job. I almost gave up then and there.
The last point I’ll note is that the plot turns in a major fashion that for a brief while redeems the story, though it happens too late, things go too easily, and it falls right back into a repetitive pattern. We gave up when we realized with great dismay that we had yet to reach the halfway point. From reading a summary, I know there is another big revelation that turns things yet again, so I’ll just say I’d argue this would have been a more effective plot point had it been revealed much earlier so we could watch its repercussions and the character’s internal struggle with it throughout. And I’m not even going to get into the amnesia trope and its manipulative nature.
It’s too bad because I think the ideas here were excellent, and Grace’s voice, done in moderation and broken up with other POVs (which would have also deepened secondary characters), was often a winning one. I’m assuming like The Martian, the movie version of Project Hail Mary will fix a lot of the flaws and make for a highly entertaining outing.
I had all the issues with this novel that Bill had but I did manage to get through it (had to significantly increase the reading speed of the audiobook) and enjoyed the humor and much of the story. (The parts where he wasn’t calculating stuff or giving advice outside his area of expertise.) Ray Porter’s performance is excellent, as always.