Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

book cover

Thirty years. I looked out at their little faces. In thirty years they’d all be in their early forties. They would bear the brunt of it all. And it wouldn’t be easy. These kids were going to grow up in an idyllic world and be thrown into an apocalyptic nightmare.
They were the generation that would experience the Sixth Extinction Event.

No, that’s not creepy at all. Being in a spaceship twelve light-years from home and having someone knock on the door is totally normal.

At least Mark Watney was in the same solar system. At least Mark Watney had a rescue ship that might, at least, have been on the way. At least the sun that was shining down on Watney’s potato garden was not being nibbled to bits by some intergalactic pestilence. At least life on Mark Watney’s home planet was not looking at an expiration date measured in decades. Pretty cushy situation next to the one in which our astronaut finds himself in this story. At least Mark Watney knew who he was.

I slide one leg off over the edge of my bed, which makes it wobble. The robot arms rush toward me. I flinch, but they stop short and hover nearby. I think they’re ready to grab me if I fall.
“Full-body motion detected,” the computer says. “What’s your name?”
“Pfft, seriously?” I ask.
“Incorrect. Attempt number two: What’s your name?”
I open my mouth to answer.
“Incorrect. Attempt number three: What’s your name?”
Only now does it occur to me: I don’t know who I am. I don’t know what I do. I don’t remember anything at all.
“Um,” I say.
A wave of fatigue grips me. It’s kind of pleasant, actually. The computer must have sedated me through the IV line.
“…waaaait…” I mumble.
The robot arms lay me gently back down to the bed.

The astronaut struggles to find out not only who he is, but where he is, and how he got there. Part of that is a running joke in which he makes up names to tell the computer. It’s pretty adorable. After working on a pendulum to help with an experiment, for example, he answers the computer with I am Pendulus the philosopher. Incorrect. He does, eventually, remember his name.

Andy Weir – image from his Facebook pages

The title of the book may seem opaque to some folks outside the US. Weir is referring, of course, to a last-ditch play to win or tie American football games. It is called the Hail Mary pass. Keep enough blockers back to protect the quarterback while all available receivers head for the end zone as the quarterback lofts a pass, usually of considerable distance, in the hope that one of the receivers can haul it in through an act of divine intercession. The play is named for the prayer of course.

It’s caused a lot of headaches with the translators. Nobody outside the U.S. knows this phrase. Even English-speaking countries like the U.K. don’t have that expression. In most of the language translations, they’re changing the title. In one of them it’s just called The Astronaut or something like that. – from the GR interview

In Andy Weir’s latest novel, the survival of life on planet Earth, and whatever other life might be swimming, flying, creeping, or otherwise meandering about in our solar system, is imperiled by an invasive species. (Not really a spoiler, more of an aside. OK, a pet peeve here. We have a few names for our home planet, and for the rest of the rocky and gaseous chunks floating about our particular star. So why has humanity been so singularly unable to come up with a decent name for our solar system? I mean calling our solar system “the solar system” is like slapping a label on a can that says “food.” (Yes, I know this was done in the movie Repo Man, but it was intended to be ironic. At least I hope it was.) I mean how generic and undescriptive can we be? There are billions of solar systems out there, and I bet there are plenty that have nifty names. So, I am gonna go for it and claim that from now on our solar system should be called the Will Byrnes Planetary System (WBPS). Recognizing that this is in no way deserved, I will happily cede it to a more reasonable name, one grounded in actual achievement or cultural significance…for a cup of coffee (20 oz at least) and a couple of doughnuts (one glazed, one jelly). Until then, it’s mine, all mine. The nasty little buggers have a talent for converting energy to mass and mass to energy. Their little eyes (if they had eyes) light up in the presence of an active power source the way some of us feel compelled by the sight of pastries in a shop window. Which would make our sun a doughnut shop with a few quadrillion hungry customers beating down the door. Not a wonderful situation for the shop. A more apt, if somewhat less entertaining image, is that of a vast swarm of locusts denuding a landscape.

Hoping for an act of god might be worth a shot. His ship, and the project that spawned it, are named for the prayer, even though by way of a sport. Hail Mary full of…um…Ryland? Well, Ryland Grace. It remains to be seen whether or not the Lord is with him, or his ship. But he is not alone, although, after finding that his crew-mates did not travel well, it seems like he would be.

Luckily for Ry, Earth is not the only populated planet imperiled by this galactic pain in the neck. He encounters another, and thus begins a beautiful friendship. I won’t bother with describing Rocky, other than to say that Rocky is not at all humanoid. Through engineering ingenuity and commonality of purpose the two find a way to communicate with and help each other in their mission to save their respective planets. There is a child-like quality to Rocky, as well as a very creative brain, and a universal decency, that will make you care about him/her/it/whatever. There is no one better than Weir at writing adorable.

Weir, the Ted Lasso of science fiction writing, has been trying to work on his character-writing skillset. He is amazed that so many people loved The Martian, despite the fact that his hero goes through absolutely no change during his ordeal. He had given Watney his best personal characteristics, on steroids. Then had a go at a less idealistic character in his novel, Artemis, using what he saw as some of his lesser personal characteristics to inform his lead.

Ryland Grace was my first attempt to make a protagonist not to be based on me. He’s a unique character I’m creating from whole cloth, and so I’m not limited by my own personality or experiences. – from the GR interview

I am not sure he has succeeded. The special energy that powered astronaut Watney was a combination of superior technical skills, a wonderful, wise-ass sense of humor, a can-do attitude, and a deeply ingrained optimism. Mark Watney could have been on the Hail Mary in place of Ryland Grace and I am not sure most of us would have noticed, well, except for a couple of personal downsides. The sense of humor is pretty much the same. Ditto for the technical talent and scientific problem-solving predisposition. He may be a tick down from Watney on the optimism chart, but you will get the same satisfaction from watching Grace as you did his Martian predecessor. But while Weir’s character development skills might still be…um…under development, his story-telling skills remain excellent.

The stakes are high, global extermination, multiple global exterminations actually, and the future of life as we know it, and some life we know very little about at all, is dependent on two creatures working together to solve the biggest problem of all time. No pressure. So, a buddy story. A tale of friendship far from home.

The narration alternates between two timeframes. In the contemporary one, Ry uses his special scientific-method powers plus base of knowledge to figure out the situation he is in, and come up with serial solutions to serial challenges. This is totally like The Martian, although this guy is maybe a bit less funny.

I’m a smartass myself, so smartass comments come naturally to me. For me, humor is like the secret weapon of exposition. If you make exposition funny, the reader will forgive any amount of it. And in science fiction—especially with my self-imposed restriction that I want to be as scientifically accurate as possible—you end up spending a lot of time doing exposition. – from the Publishers Weekly interview

The other is the history of how he came to be there. This will also remind one of the back and forth of the on-Mars and Earth-politics alternating streams of Weir’s mega best seller.

Although his writing is out of this world, Weir’s process ain’t exactly rocket science. Like his characters, he uses available parts, plus a base of knowledge, to build what needs to be built. He had a few lying about in his shop.

After The Martian, I had this idea for this massive space epic—a traditional sci-fi pilot with aliens, faster-than-light travel, and telepathy and a war and, yeah, a ten-book series and everything. I worked on it for about a year; it was going to be called Zhek. I got 70,000 words in, and…I realized that it sucked…But there are a few nuggets in Zhek that were solid. There was one interesting character who was this absolutely no-nonsense woman with a ruthless drive to get what she needs to get done and a tremendous amount of secret authority. And she became Stratt in Project Hail Mary. The other thing is, in Zhek there was this substance called black matter, which was a technology invented by aliens that would absorb all electromagnetic waves, all light, and turn it into mass and then turn it back into light…if humanity got ahold of some of that, it would be neat, but it would suck if we accidentally let any of that get into the sun—that would be a disaster. I’m like, “Wait a minute, that would be a disaster! That’s where books come from!” – from the Goodreads interview

And divorce lawyer billables. Love his evident excitement at this EUREKA moment. There is a decided innocence to it, and a natural-born optimist’s way of seeing the bright side of life, a characteristic with which Weir very successfully endows his leads, well, some of them anyway.

I quite enjoyed The Martian, despite Watney’s immutable self. And I liked Artemis as well, with its more nuanced lead. This one feels like more of a throwback to his earlier work. If you loved The Martian you are gonna love this one. Tough situation, far from home, charming, brilliant, smartass lead, with an adorable, brilliant, very non-human mensch of a pal, lots of mostly accessible science, and some fabulously interesting concepts. For a book that is pretty down to earth in many ways, Project Hail Mary is absolutely out of this world.

Science teachers know a lot of random facts.

Review posted – May 7, 2021

Publication date – May 4, 2021

Thanks to Ballantine books for an early look at Project Hail Mary and to MC (you know who you are) for interceding on my behalf to make that happen. You have been an answer to my prayers.

This review has been cross-posted on Goodreads.

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages

—–GoodReads – The Science (and Math) of Andy Weir’s Sci-Fi Success by April Umminger – a particularly good one
—–Publishers Weekly – Weir(d) Science: PW Talks with Andy Weir by Lenny Picker
—–Writer’s Digest – The Writer’s Digest Interview: Andy Weir, Author of ‘The Martian’ and ‘Artemis’ by Tyer Moss – as is obvious from the title, this 2018 interview was done when Artemis was released. But it still offers a good look at Weir
—–Salon – “I don’t want to be L. Ron Hubbard”: Andy Weir on writing escapism & new book “Project Hail Mary”

I do not put current events or modern analogs or anything of that sort into my stories. My stories are 100% focused on entertaining the reader with no message or moral. I’m not trying to educate you on anything or change your mind about anything. When you’re done with my book, I want you to put it on the shelf, and the only emotion I want you to have is, “That was fun!” and that’s it. Then you move on with life. I’m not so arrogant as to think that I have some duty or even the right to tell people what they should think or how to live their lives. I just want it to be fun. It’s simple. My books are simple light-hearted reading. They’re not deep. They do not have any hidden meaning. I just want you to have fun. That’s all.

My reviews of other work by the author
———-2014 – The Martian
———-2017 – Artemis

—–Short Stories
———-Annie’s Day
———-Diary of an AssCan
———-The Egg

—–The Beatles – Get Back
—–The Beatles – Sergeant Pepper – Chapter 18 – refs the album – I linked the title song
—–Aretha – Chain of Fools – Chapter 19
—–Monty Python – Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life

Items of Interest
—–A stack of Weir’s writings
—–Amatersu – no, not named for amateurs, but a Japanese sun goddess. This is the name of a Japanese probe that is studying the sun.
—–JAXA – the Japanese space agency
—–Spin Drive
—–Poseidon Adventure – Chapter 20
—–Aeon – Proof of Life: How Would We Recognize an Alien If We Saw One? by Samuel Levin

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Filed under Action-Adventure, Artificial Intelligence, Fiction, Reviews, Science Fiction

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