Book Review: Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars
Genre: Science Fiction
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Ballantine Books (May 4, 2020)
Length: 496 pages
Andy Weir found a winning formula with The Martian, and do you know why it worked? He played to his strengths, putting his super space nerdery and geeky sense of humor to good use, ultimately creating a smart, funny, tech-savvy survival story that is at once action-packed and full of heart. So it’s no surprise that for his latest novel Project Hail Mary, Weir has returned to the tried-and-true, except this time, he’s perfected his methods, and the result is a must-read for his fans.
Like The Martian, this one is also about survival—but here, the stakes are much greater than one man. Humanity itself faces extinction as a former scientist turned schoolteacher finds himself the lone survivor on a desperate, last-ditch space mission to save the Earth and all life upon it. The planet’s fate now rests in his hands.
But first, he’ll need to get his memory back.
As the story begins, our protagonist wakes up alone on a spaceship. He can’t remember how he got there, but somehow he’s aware that he has been asleep for a very long time, and that his vessel has carried him far from home. Any crewmates he had are now dead, assuming they were the two corpses he later finds onboard, though he can’t remember who they are either.
Eventually, he does recall his name—Ryland Grace—and what he used to do—teach junior high. But of course, that was his life before the discovery of the Astrophage, a tiny microorganism that literally eats stars, and now clusters of them are threatening to sap the sun’s energy and plunge Earth into eternal cold and darkness. Since then, Ryland has been recruited by Eva Stratt, the head of a global taskforce whose goal is to save humanity by putting together a team of the best and brightest minds. As the coma-induced fuzziness in his brain gradually clears, Ryland also recalls that once upon a time, he was a leading researcher of life in space, before one of his wilder theories got him ostracized from the scientific community. Yet apparently, his knowledge and experiences were exactly what Stratt needed.
Still, that doesn’t explain his current predicament. After all, he was no astronaut. His original role was to support the space mission crew with his findings. So just how the heck did he end up on this ship, lightyears away from the solar system? And what was he expected to do?
What follows next is the slow, delicious unraveling of this mystery, as our protagonist’s memory returns little by little. In a sense, this was the added element that really set this story apart from The Martian, bringing Project Hail Mary up to a whole new level. For you see, a lot of the ingredients remained very similar. We have a lone astronaut, faced with seemingly insurmountable obstacles, who must also “science the shit out of things” to solve problems. But while it was the people of Earth who pulled together to save The Martian’s Mark Watney, here it is the people of Earth that needs saving and poor Ryland Grace has to do it all by his lonesome! (Well, mostly. But saying more on that front will be spoiling, so we’ll just leave it at that!)
There’s also the fact that Project Hail Mary feels a bit more “out there” when it comes to its sci-fi aspects. Granted, there’s still a whole lot of the premise grounded in astrophysics, biology, space aeronautics, etc. but there’s also an over-the-top element involved this time around, and the author clearly enjoyed going to town with it.
Speaking of which, despite the anxiety-inducing tensions and thrills, this was still—by and large—a highly entertaining and damn fun book. This is because, while Watney and Ryland are very different characters, they nonetheless share an important feature in their personalities: infectious optimism. Often, a well-time joke is all it takes to lighten the mood, or a charming little quip to bring hope to a dire situation again. This makes the protagonist genuinely likeable, and easy to root for. Without a doubt, had it been anyone else but Ryland at the story’s helm, Project Hail Mary would have been a very different, much less enjoyable book.
As for criticisms, it’s probably no surprise that some of the same issues that plagued The Martian also cropped up here. If you’re not expecting them, the lengthy segments of tech and science lingo might be a turnoff for some, and especially when Ryland loses himself in a problem, the writing can get a bit carried away with the info dumps. Still, those who are familiar with Andy Weir’s work will know that that’s his trademark and will know to anticipate them. Probably trickier would be the farfetched plot points I alluded to before, as readers will have to make a pretty swift and sudden adjustment once these elements are introduced about a third of the way into the story. How you feel about them will depend entirely on the individual.
All told, I had a great time with this book. It feels like as readers, we’re always demanding of our favorite authors something new and different to keep things fresh and exciting, but as Project Hail Mary proves, sometimes sticking to what works can also turn out just fine. Of course, it helped that Andy Weir knew just how to up the ante, tweaking certain aspects of the story and characters to make them bigger, bolder, better, and simply irresistible. Reading this was a delight, and it’s certainly not to be missed.