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Finally got to dig into Andy Weir’s 2021 novel Project Hail Mary. It’s a relatively new book in my local public library system, so I only get to keep it a max of fourteen days with no renewals. As of this writing, I have five days left.
My main reason for bumping it up on my reading list is also the reason I wrote my May 22nd blog post Does Every Single SciFi Story Absolutely Have to Have a Social Justice Theme?.
Some people I follow on twitter (and like) mutually complained that Weir’s book:
feels like the Hugo Award nod for Project Hail Mary fell out of a time travel portal from the year 1986 (Like many of the best-selling science fiction novels of that time, the book largely ignores pesky questions of race, class and gender).
My answer is that not every single story in the universe published after 2001 HAS to be about “pesky” race, class, and gender (my Oxford comma included).
If it will be of any comfort to critics of Weir and the year 1986, the book does tend to lean heavily on a climate change lecture at times. Also, Weir seems to take the same tact of folks in public education by saying teachers (at least sometimes) are better for children than their own parents. He doesn’t go so far as “parental rights be damned,” but he did ruffle a few of my proverbial feathers.
In case you want to know (boy, this book is tough to summarize), “Project Hail Mary” is about a strange, space-going microorganism that, due to it’s odd properties, can absorb energy from the Sun, travel to Venus to breed, go back to the Sun, and absorb more energy.
This happens pretty fast, maybe sending the Earth into its next ice age and sixth extinction event in about 30 years. Half the human race will die of starvation and a bunch of related causes before that.
The protagonist, Ryland Grace, a 30-something, single, childless (he thinks of his students as his “kids”) junior high science teacher (a cool one) used to be a research scientist who quit the field because he had an unpopular view on life being able to originate without liquid water (so science isn’t all that unbiased).
Once the world governments realize people are going to die a lot faster than what “traditional” climate change would allow, they hand nearly absolute power to a project leader who mines the world for experts and resources.
Inexplicably, she chooses Grace to be part of the project, and just as inexplicably, he becomes an expert, almost in spite of himself.
The project discovers a lot about they call “Astrophage” and that it seems to have infected not only the Sun but all of the local stars except Tau Ceti. They believe there is Astrophage at Tau Ceti but don’t know why it’s immune.
There’s only one way to find out. Use Astrophage as a fuel to send an interstellar spacecraft to the target star, discover the answer, and send it back to Earth in remote probes (the mission is one way for its human participants).
Grace is a last minute replacement for the crew due to an accident (there are a lot of of them), but worse, when the ship the Hail Mary arrives at Tau Ceti, his other two crewmates are dead, killed by the coma process that let them travel three years, and Grace, though alive, has partial amnesia.
He finds the star, starts slowly recovering him memory, finds Astrophage present but not affecting the star, and also finds an alien spacecraft.
He and the surviving engineer on “Blip-A” which Grace names “Rocky,” enter into a fascinating collaboration and friendship, each one trying to solve the mystery of Tau Ceti and save their respective worlds.
I can’t fault Weir for his science, but the problems Grace and Rocky have to solve makes the challenges found in his first major book The Martian (2014) seem like proverbial child’s play.
I said I couldn’t fault the science, mainly because I’m not as smart as Weir, but relative to the scientific method, everyone is clumsy, careless, and to quote Rocky, “stupid.”
If you like “hard” science problem solving, you’ll probably love this novel. If you know a fair amount of science, you might end up being frustrated in places.
I think I figured out why his two protagonists, Watney (The Martian) and Grace were single and childless, in spite of them both being somewhere in their thirties. Weir just turned 50 last June. He was married for the first time very recently, and he and his wife had a son born sometime in 2021. I don’t think his personal experience allowed for him to write male characters who were “family men.” Perhaps as time passes, that will change.
There were times I couldn’t figure out why Grace made certain decisions. For instance, with his spacecraft at a completely unknown location in space due to an accident, but with a possibly in a decaying orbit around a planet, he spent a lot of time tending to a wounded Rocky when he should have been stabilizing his ship. Helping Rocky would have been moot if the Hail Mary was going to burn up in the planet’s atmosphere in the next thirty minutes.
I won’t give away anymore plot points and certainly not the ending, but ultimately reading this book was a lot of fun.
No, there was no mention of race, gender, class, or all of that stuff. The story didn’t require it, and artificially adding those elements just to satisfy the expectation of “representation” would have been all too obvious shoehorning. In my day to day life, unless I’m on social media, those themes don’t play out very heavily for me either. Life is much more than a series of popular topics being debated on twitter.
I wish people would remember that science fiction can be created just for fun, too.
I’m too tired to record one of my “Three-minute or less book reviews.” I’ll tack that on later.
Oh, don’t forget to support your indie authors and publishers. Someday, maybe soon, we might be the only resources left for good and fun storytelling.
Addendum: And now as promised, my three-minute or less book review on TikTok