Friday, June 11, 2021

"Project Hail Mary" by Andy Weir--Fiction Review

Today’s review is on one of my favorite author’s newest book. Get your space suits on obscurists because we’re talking about Andy Weir’s “Project Hail Mary.”

Andy Weir

***The Non-Spoiler part of this review***

What I love about this book:

This book does exactly what I love about “The Martian,” but more so, and you can tell how Weir has evolved for the better as a writer. What I mean by this, it takes a hard science fiction plot, sticks with it throughout the novel—with only minor flights of fancy such as astrophage itself—and wraps it around a character-driven story.

I was happy that Weir’s humor is also preserved in this novel. The density of this book’s technical details would be dry if it weren’t for the numerous chuckles throughout this book. The protagonist’s battle with the robotic arms of the Hail Mary at the beginning of the novel was especially funny to me.

Storywise, for all its similarities to “The Martian,” “Project Hail Mary” is a darker story than that novel. That book was all about the incredible survival of one man, but this book is about the survival of Earth itself—so, to put this as delicately as possible, death is never far in this story. I know I often get accused of enjoying bleak fiction, but it isn’t all that grim of a story—trust me.

The protagonist of this novel isn’t Mark Watney, and that’s a good thing. Don’t misunderstand, I love Mark Watney, but he’s such a strong character that it would be easy for a writer to fall back and create lesser versions of him. This protagonist shares certain qualities with Watney, to be sure, but still, I feel that his individual character is distinct from his predecessor’s—for one, he’s not nearly as technically handy. Also, I can’t bring it up here due to spoilers, but there are revelations about him in the latter half of the book that really demonstrates his not Watney-like qualities.

As a great lover of audiobooks, I was practically giddy—ok, there wasn’t anything “practically” about it—I was absolutely giddy when I heard that my favorite narrator Ray Porter read this book. Porter’s performance was terrific—as always—and I genuinely feel this novel is an entirely different experience without him, and the musical sound effect touches added to the audiobook edition.

What I don’t love about this book:

So this book features a case of amnesia, and it’s why I’m referring to the main character as the protagonist, even though the publisher’s summary just comes out and says his name. But anyway, amnesia is a bit of an overused cliched plot device, and that warrants mentioning. It’s used to set up the novel’s B plot, which tells the story of how the protagonist got involved with project hail mary and how the ship was created. Having read the whole novel at this point, I can’t imagine it any other way, so this literary device does its job, which means I don’t hate it. I might not love it, but I can’t say it isn’t well done. There is undoubtedly an emotional gut-punch toward the end of the novel because of it. That story beat wouldn’t be so effective without the amnesia. 

This also happened in “The Martian” for me, but I never grew as invested in the other crew members of the mission as literally every other character in the book. That was a bit disappointing to me that the Hermes and the Hail Mary crews outside of the protagonists themselves weren’t as well developed as, say, the NASA engineers on Earth in “The Martian” or the project administrators in “Project Hail Mary.” The protagonist certainly thinks about his crewmates a bunch, and I assumed his memories would be supported in the B plot to make their fates more tragic, but no, not really.

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Author’s Website:

***The Spoiler part of this review***
***Ye be warned to turn back now***

The quick and dirty synopsis:

The story begins with our protagonist waking up with all kinds of tubes and medical instruments connected to him. In his weakened state, not only can’t he remember why he’s there, but he can’t even remember who he is or even his name. This is a problem since the computer that is taking care of him with two robotic arms that come out of the ceiling keeps asking him what his name is. Eventually, he regains his strength enough to get up and survey his surroundings, there are two other beds in his room with him, but both occupants are long dead.

Eventually, the protagonist does remember his own name, which is Dr. Ryland Grace—and that he’s on a spaceship accelerating with enough force to create 1.5 Gs of gravity, and he’s on a mission to save the very Earth itself. He figures that all out before remembering his name. Finally able to answer the computer with his name, it lets him in the ship’s cockpit. In there, he realizes that the star he is approaching isn’t Sol—our sun. He’s in the completely different star system of Tau Ceti, which should have been impossible by conventional wisdom.

Grace remembers that the whole point of project Hail Mary was to find a way to save Sol—or rather the solar energy that Sol radiates to Earth—from a single cell, interstellar life form called astrophage. Astrophage breeds like crazy, can live in the vacuum of space, in Venus’s clouds, and even on the very surface of the sun. On top of being very hearty, it lives off of nothing but sunlight, to the detriment of Earth. It absorbs so much light that the planet is starting to cool, which in a few short decades will cause catastrophic environmental collapse. 

Earth’s scientists discover that Sol isn’t the only star infected with astrophage. All of its neighbors are too and are dying as well—all, except for Tau Ceti. It is right in the middle of the epidemic but isn’t affected. So, assuming astrophage is present there too, because it would be inconceivable that it wouldn’t be, given how widespread astrophage is, the governments of Earth pool their resources to build the Hail Mary. This mission is a one-way suicide mission to fly to Tau Ceti, find out why it isn’t dying, report back the findings, and hopefully save Sol.

In the Tau Ceti system, Grace soon discovers that his world wasn’t the only one with intelligent life with this plan, and he meets an alien ship. Grace makes friendly contact with the alien ship that hails from the Eridani star system, so he dubs them Eridians. They spend months learning how to interpret each other’s languages because Eridians are profoundly different from Humans. They’re more crystalline spider-like things that speak through musical tones. Grace and the Eridian he calls Rocky manages to overcome the language barrier eventually, and it’s then that Grace discovers Rocky is a sole survivor as well—Rocky’s whole crew, which was much larger than Grace’s, all succumbed to radiation sickness.

Pooling their resources, Grace and Rocky set out to discover why the astrophage in Tau Ceti aren’t killing the star. After a harrowing adventure to one of the planets in Tau Ceti, they eventually discover that this is where astrophage comes from. It evolved in Tau Ceti. Since nothing evolves alone, there are natural predators to astrophage in Tau Ceti that keep it in check. They capture and cultivate some of the predator species, and Rocky saves Grace’s life by offering to refuel his ship, his ship having plenty to spare.

They part ways, each to return to their own star system with the predator species that will save their worlds from astrophage when, a few months into the journey, disaster strikes. The predator species can escape from its container, made from a specialized material Rocky made for the purpose, and it can destroy all of the fuel in the starship. Grace manages to solve the problem before his ship is wrecked, but he knows Rocky’s ship, made entirely of that unique material, has no chance. So Grace makes the ultimate sacrifice for his friend. He sends his probes back to Earth with everything they will need to save Sol, as his original mission parameters dictated, and turns the Hail Mary around to save his friend and take him home to save his people.

The last chapter, which functions more as an epilogue, sees Grace living on the Eridian homeworld, living in a specialized habitat explicitly built for him. The Eridians see him as a hero, and Rocky visits him regularly. On one of these visits, Rocky lets him know that Sol has returned to full luminosity—they managed to save both worlds.


So there is a lot more to this book that I couldn’t put in above because of spoilers and the synopsis running too long. In this analysis, I will talk about a few more things that I loved and didn’t love that couldn’t be addressed in the non-spoiler section.

Grace’s whole relationship with the alien he names Rocky is a treasure—and yes, he named him after Sylvester Stallone’s character Rocky, which as a boxing fan, I loved that as well. How they overcame the language barrier makes sense, but I felt it was a tad unrealistic in how fast they did it because while they were both super smart characters, neither Grace nor Rocky were trained linguists in their cultures.

I did like how differences in biology led to different advantages and blind spots in technology between the two of them. Rocky’s people don’t have eyes and get around exclusively by sound, using a kind of ultra-advanced echolocation, since they hear with their entire bodies, unlike how we hear with just our ears. Once I started thinking about it, it does seem kind of amazing that humans evolved two orbs in the front of our skulls that sense radiation—which is all that light really is—and uses that to create a picture in our brains. In any case, without sight, discoveries such as radiation never happened on Rocky’s planet, so they never built their ship to protect against it. Rocky only survived because, as the engineer, he was always around the astrophage that the ship used as fuel, which protected him from the radiation present in interstellar space.

I know I didn’t cover this in my synopsis, but you learn over the course of this story when Grace’s memory finally recovers that he isn’t a brave, stalwart astronaut who volunteered for this suicide mission to save Earth. He was the last resort, a final option, and more importantly—he was a coward. Grace tried to shirk the responsibility because he was too afraid to die and had to be drugged—which caused his amnesia—and shanghaied into the whole mission because the director knew that once he got there, he was too good a man not to do his best to save Earth. When Grace ultimately decides to give up on going home, he’s grown as a character, accepting that he will die to save his friend, and his friend’s people, because it was the right thing to do.

Parting thoughts:

So, despite being a new release, this book is already insanely popular. It just goes to show that every so often, things are in the mainstream deservedly because the writing is just excellent.

I’ve read a few books out there, and I’ve certainly come across a few books in my time where I thought, “how did a major publisher pick this to print?” Which is a thought I think most avid readers and especially starving authors such as myself have had. It’s easy to get into a cynical spiral about how only the well-connected ever see any success.

I think that’s why Andy Weir is such a hero to me, because when he initially wrote “The Martian,” he didn’t land the big deal right out of the gate. In fact, he didn’t get representation until after he started sharing his objectively brilliant work with the world on his own. I think that most indie-authors have at least a secret hope that they’ll be the next Andy Weir. He’s a great author to look up to—I know I do.

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