Andy Weir, of The Martian and Artemis fame recently put out his third novel, Project Hail Mary. In his most expansive work yet, Weir takes us out of the Solar system entirely to meet Ryland Grace, an astronaut who wakes up with no memory on an interstellar starship. As he slowly pieces his memories back together, he learns a horrifying truth: Earth is dying. Or more specifically, the Sun is being colonized by a strange “space algae” called Astrophage, which is absorbing sunlight, causing it to dim enough to plunge Earth into a new ice age. Ryland has been sent on a mission to Tau Ceti, the only nearby star that doesn’t seem to have Astrophage, to try to find a way to fix the Sun. Unfortunately…it’s a one way trip. And also, things are only starting to get crazy.
I definitely liked this book. It has some interesting new ideas and is mostly well-researched, and most importantly, it tells an engaging story with a very relatable main character. However, I felt like it was a bit too overextended to quite live up to the quality of Weir’s other books.
My rating: 4 out of 5.
So, I do think this is a pretty good book. I don’t want to diminish that. I could say a lot about what a like about it, but the way the book is constructed, it would be huge spoilers to say much more than the summary I gave above, which really just applies to the first act. (It’s interesting how he managed to construct a book that has so much hidden from the summary that I don’t want to give away without feeling like a bait-and-switch, because it’s definitely not.)
Anyway, I really enjoyed the story, and it was a refreshing change in some ways. You rarely see hard sci-fi really get into the nitty-gritty of interstellar travel. Usually, authors will either invoke faster-than-light travel or, failing that, it will be something like A Deepness in the Sky where it’s assumed that there’s well-developed sleeper ships and life extension technology and the like, without the challenges of just starting out.
And…well, from one perspective, Project Hail Mary isn’t exactly hard sci-fi. However, except for its unconventional power source, the Hail Mary does conform to known physics. It’s something that we could do with five or ten years and a few trillion dollars to play with. In that respect, it’s hard sci-fi like Weir’s other books, and he does his usual quality work of mostly getting the research right.
I actually have a hard time quantifying whether this is hard or soft sci-fi, to be honest. Objectively, the science is pretty screwy, but Weir glides over the pitfalls surprisingly well and makes it look like hard sci-fi where it counts. Probably half a dozen times, Ryland encounters something that ought to be impossible, and he says so, but instead of finding or even hypothesizing an explanation, he basically says, “I dunno; life is weird. Let’s just roll with it.” It’s the kind of thing I (and others) would normally criticize as shoddy science, but by actually drawing attention to how impossible it is, Weir really changes the dynamic. He’s allowing himself to go pretty far outside known science, but he’s not treating it like magic, and it works surprisingly well.
I have three points from which to make my rating—three things that I felt detract from Weir’s usual quality, none of which are particularly serious on their own, but which come together to leave me a little unsatisfied.
First, in the exposition, the scientists were, honestly, being stupid. This maybe isn’t a fair criticism to make. This is my personal field of study, while Weir is a computer scientist by trade, and on top of that, there’s the issue of having to actually explain the science to the reader. But I couldn’t believe the scientists being so shocked that it was aliens when there were three or four times I had already said, “It’s obviously aliens,” or at least, “It could be aliens,” because these were clearly not natural phenomena. (Ironically, they turned out to be a lot more natural than I thought.) But the scientists in the book seem to barely even think of it before they see it.
Also, Ryland would not have been ostracized from the scientific community for his views on astrobiology. I could maybe cut him a little slack because he’s meant to be a microbiologist instead of an astrophysicist—plus he has some personal hangups. But come on; ideas like his are the whole point of astrobiology!
Second, I think Weir was being overambitious in scope—not in the scope of the story, but in that the book was too long—half again as long as The Martian. And while many books work well at that length, with Weir’s particular writing style, it starts to weigh down. Not that it drags; it doesn’t. But it seems like Ryland just can’t catch a break.
In all of Weir’s books (though less so in Artemis because it’s not a survival story), he’s fond of throwing one curveball at the characters after another. There’s always another setback that they barely survive even after they solved all the others.
Matt Damon Mark Watney loses his food supply, and then the resupply mission fails, and then his escape launch fails to reach orbit… In an even longer book like Project Hail Mary, it gets to be too much by the end.
And that was my third issue. Without giving anything away, the ending just didn’t quite work for me. I admit it makes sense from a thematic standpoint and is an important wrap-up to Ryland’s character arc. But the timing didn’t work. It came about 30 pages too late and made the ending feel rushed, like Weir was trying to squeeze in one last curveball.
I was more annoyed with that until I got to the last chapter. He pulled out of that crisis in a hilarious way, but it still needed some ironing out.
Anyway, it’s a good book, and I do recommended, but I don’t think it was Weir’s best work.
Also, I had some specific points where Weir really did fail the science, but those are MAJOR spoilers, so I’m going to mention those in a separate post.
Pingback: The Science of Project Hail Mary | Science Meets Fiction