It’s hard not to mention The Martian when reviewing a new Andy Weir book; it was the story by which all the others of his would be judged. Okay, I paraphrased that from Stephen King, but it is nevertheless true. Project Hail Mary does feature a similar premise as The Martian. But this time, the stakes are higher, the scope is grander, and it resolves in a tender and satisfying note.
Everyman with a Mission
Project Hail Mary begins in medias res, with the protagonist waking up not knowing who he is. As he gradually regains his memories (interspersed as flashbacks in alternating chapters), he learns he is Ryland Grace, a school teacher who also happened to be a brilliant scientist. We also learn that he’s in space, the only survivor of a crew of three, and is, quite literally, light years from home.
It turns out that the sun is becoming less brighter because of a microscopic organism called Astrophage, which they named as such because it literally consumes energy from the sun. It also behaves like an invasive species without a natural predator: it just consumes resources and multiplies very fast with nothing keeping it in check. The sun’s gradual dimming is causing an unprecedented global cooling that can result in an extinction-level event within a few decades. They later find out that all the surrounding stars are also plagued with Astrophage. All except Tau Ceti, a star system that’s twelve light years away from our own.
Grace is drafted as a consultant (and later, astronaut) for what turned out to be a Hail Mary pass in space: a manned one-way mission to Tau Ceti. They’re to find out what makes Tau Ceti resistant to Astrophage, then report back using data “pods” with navigational capabilities.
Most of Project Hail Mary is focused on a single protagonist, so it can be forgiven if some of the supporting characters feel a bit off for a story that’s supposed to be grounded in real-world science. Stratt, who is essentially the Project’s big kahuna, is a walking, talking Deus ex Machina. Need some tech for faster-than-light travel? Done. Need volunteers with one-to-several-thousands genetic resistance for long-term induced coma? You got it. Ilyukhina, who was part of the Hail Mary’s crew, seems to be just there for the “crazy Russian” comic relief trope. On the other hand, there’s Rocky, whom I will not talk about here, but I’m sure he’s bound to be a fan-favorite.
The character of Ryland Grace himself seems to be Weir’s response to readers’ reactions to The Martian’s foul-mouthed Mark Watney. In contrast, Grace is a total milquetoast, a pre-Heisenberg Walter White who actually says “gosh-darn” by way of cursing. But they both have an altruistic core in common, a likeable quality that propels the story.
I find science fiction grounded in real-world science strongly appealing. Think Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar and Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (later adapted into film as Blade Runner), or even Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game. The technologies in Project Hail Mary are those that can be developed in the real world if resources (and red tape) are not an issue. They make the story richer and more believable.
The author put in a lot of detail for science fiction nerds, like non-montage versions of Tony Stark developing his suit in the Iron Man films. Some readers may feel this is a story roadblock, but trust me, all of it is essential to what happens in the later chapters. It doesn’t even matter whether or not you’re a science fiction fan. Project Hail Mary is not just about an everyman trying to save the world; it’s also about finding home and friendship in unexpected places.
Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night
If you haven’t read any of Andy Weir’s work, it’s perfectly fine. Buy the book and immerse yourself in the story without backreading required. In fact, thanks to the protagonist’s temporary amnesia, you’ll be just as much as a blank slate as Ryland Grace when you start reading the novel. I guarantee you will find fulfillment at the end of it. And hey, I’ve read somewhere that Ryan Gosling will play Grace in a film adaptation. Better get in on the ground floor and get the first edition when it comes out.