During the first third of the novel, Project Hail Mary reads like a really elaborate escape room in novel form. A man wakes up in a strange, futuristic place. He observes that he has certain skills and knowledge, but has no memory of who he is, where he’s at, and why he’s solving little environmental puzzles in what seems like a laboratory inside a spaceship.
Just a few pages beyond that introduction, amid a flurry of various clever and intricately described physics experiments involving stopwatches, pendulums, and falling objects, author Andy Weir establishes that this book isn’t afraid to get knee-deep in the science. Almost every page contains something -- a factoid, an experiment, or an observation -- that will elicit memories of the most interesting parts of biology, chemistry, and physics class. It is fascinating stuff.
A bit further in, Project Hail Mary reveals that there’s actually two narratives going on: the present-day one with the man and the mystery, and intermittent flashbacks that describe the events (or rather, the big event) that led up to this mystery. It’s a big one, in fact: an extinction-level event for planet Earth involving what could best be described as light-eating microscopic space ants that will eventually dim the sun to the point of making it incapable of sustaining life on the planet.
It sounds ridiculous, but it’s the science and the methodologies applied that make it all believable. Everything from the discovery of the threat, to the process of understanding it, to the eventual lead-up to the man in the room is explained in a reasonable and logical manner. Technologies are proposed and developed and the world gears up for a last-ditch effort to save humanity: a Hail Mary. In the movie adaptation, this is the part where someone gives the camera a knowing look.
In fact, Project Hail Mary, for all its world-ending bluster, is a book that doesn’t take itself too seriously. The protagonist and narrator of the story has a very wry tone and a dry sense of humor, and by chapter 5, where he stealth-drops a video game reference that only the oldest nerds will appreciate, it’s clear that the story isn’t about to wallow in doom and gloom.
There’s a lot of twists and surprises in both narratives, and there’s a very significant event right around the midpoint that forms the foundation for the rest of the book. It would be a disservice to spoil it here, but it also introduces what could be the most interesting character -- and the most interesting series of interactions -- in the novel. This may be in part due to the relative blandness of every other character present in it: most of the people are one-dimensional and cartoonish, which creates a very sharp contrast to how deep and detailed (and yes, how very cool) the science is. It’s a bit of a shame. It’s like being in a hyper-realistic virtual world populated by cardboard cutouts.
In spite of all this, the novel finds some heart towards the end, when the extended escape room sequence has mostly faded and the silent, introspective atmosphere has given way to a manic (but still science-filled) rush towards preventing the end of sentient life. The humanity is strong in the final events of the story, and sometimes comes through in the oddest ways possible.
It’s hard to describe Project Hail Mary without spoiling its coolest surprises, but here are the important things to know about it: there’s tons of cool science, a handful of breathtaking action sequences, and a premise so utterly far-out that it’s amazing how the author made it seem so plausible. Space and science fans: a wonderful read awaits.