JOINT REVIEW: Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir
Janine: Project Hail Mary, Andy Weir’s latest science fiction novel, opens when astronaut Ryland Grace wakes up aboard a spaceship named the Hail Mary with no memory of how he got there. He realizes quickly that his two crewmates died en route (they were all put in comas on the way to their destination; the other two never woke up). At first Ryland doesn’t remember his own name. He soon discovers that he’s in another solar system near a different star than our sun—Tau Ceti.
Ryland’s mission comes back to him in bits of flashes—he is orbiting Tau Ceti to save Earth from astrophage, an organism that is causing the sun’s light to dim. If the dimming isn’t stopped it will wipe out humanity in thirty years. Tau Ceti is the only nearby star that is not suffering from this problem and his and his dead crewmates’ mission was/is to work out why.
Ryland also remembers that at one time he was a high school science teacher. How and why a science teacher ended up on a spaceship and on such a critical mission is part of the mystery of Ryland’s past and it is eventually explained.
Ryland deduces from his skill set that he was the ship’s science officer and so he may still be able to accomplish the ultimate goal—finding a means to save Earth. Only now he has to act as navigator and engineer too. His is a one-way mission. He will send the information back with four probes (amusingly named John, Paul, George and Ringo) but he doesn’t have enough fuel to get back to Earth himself.
It seems hopeless at first. But then Ryland has an alien encounter. The alien, whom Ryland nicknames Rocky for the texture and density of his body, speaks in musical notes. His appearance is spider-like and creepy. He breathes methane and his body requires a much higher temperature to survive than a human’s. His and Ryland’s natural habitats are deadly to each other’s. But the star in Rocky’s solar system, 40 Eridani, is on a similar trajectory to dim as Sol and he too is alone. He and Ryland find a way to communicate and decide to pool their talents and resources.
Each has suffered the loss of crewmates, loneliness in deep space and the weight of a crushing burden. So Rocky and Ryland quickly go from allies to friends. Rocky is an ingenious engineer and he finds a way to make it possible for them to survive on the same ship. And that’s a good thing because to survive and save both worlds will take all their combined skills.
The flashbacks present a picture of the discovery of Earth’s trajectory toward disaster and the scramble to get the Hail Mary mission off the ground, as well as to delay the extinction by other means. A Dutch woman named Eva Stratt leads a taskforce whose role is to find a solution and she has been given authority over governmental bodies so she can achieve that goal. She can forcibly conscript anyone whose skills she deems necessary and she conscripts Ryland early on (because reasons).
Why was Ryland chosen to go on the mission? Can he and Rocky succeed in their goals, even in the face of multiple obstacles? Will the bond they forge be powerful enough to make that possible? And will they both survive?
Weir’s books have a lot of science and I enjoyed that aspect of The Martian. It was a refresher on high school chemistry, biology and physics. When the scientific decisions were explained, I understood them because they jogged my memory.
I didn’t have a similar experience with Project Hail Mary. I know almost nothing about astronomy and the alien biology so it was harder for me to understand. There was just as much science here as in The Martian but it was different science. Whereas in The Martian I made an effort to follow each and every scientific solution, here there were some I let wash over me. Because the science here fell farther from my knowledge base, that aspect of the book was less fun for me.
Jayne: Oooh, the science and space porn. Ryland does dry humor with a soupçon of snark. I thought it was a clever way to explain all the science by having Ryland have to slowly remember it after his coma. But as interesting as the science is to read about, there came a point when I started to skim read it, too. Why? Because a little bit went a long way and it usually only served to slow down the action. Something interesting is about to happen and BAM – Ryland has to explain yet another scientific thing then describe how he comes up with a way to test a hypothesis or determine some data he needs to know or wants to check. Zzzzzz. I also got really tired of the description “back of the napkin math.”
Janine: That metaphor was pretty ubiquitous. I didn’t experience those explanations as slowdowns, though. They were high-stakes considerations; the success of the mission depended on them. So that made me invested in them.
But there was a lot of hand-waving in this book. I read this with my engineer husband and he was quite the peanut gallery where the science is concerned. He brought up a bunch of places where there were simpler solutions to problems than the ones the characters used. I’m trying to avoid spoilers but one that stood out as particularly egregious had to do with sample collection.
The engineer in my house had over twenty such comments that I noted in my kindle. Some of these were things you didn’t need to be an engineer to understand, i.e. “Why doesn’t he use a flashlight?” “Why doesn’t he use his 3D printer?” or “Why doesn’t he have a DNA sequencer in his amazing lab?”
There were other plot holes too. Ryland doesn’t try to contact Earth when he first enters the ship’s control room. And he has a hard drive with a ton of books and information on it, including everything in the Library of Congress, but it’s missing an operator’s manual for the spaceship.
Jayne: Yes, yes, yes! So many things made me question – why doesn’t he do this or use that rather than reinventing the damn wheel? He’s supposedly got SO MUCH tech in his space lab (despite how small it seems to be) and every damn thing ever written by a human on his computer drive so (1) why does he have to invent ways to check data and (2) double yes – why didn’t the program directors make sure that the user directions manual for the Hail Mary were loaded! Oh yeah, because we need to see him being clever and inventive, that’s why. Uuuuggghhhh!
And where is all Ryland’s food stored? He mentions the medical “hands” retrieving his food packets and parcels from above his head which would then have needed to be in some compartment between the sleeping area and the lab but this was never truly discussed. It might have been the only thing that Ryland didn’t mentally jabber me to sleep about.
Janine: LOL. It’s true, though, that if he and NASA had been smarter about some of these things, there would not have been as many surprises, exciting moments and MacGyver-like solutions. For the most part I thought those disasters and pitfalls that had to be solved/avoided added stakes and entertainment—good stuff. But yeah, the need for them was frequently contrived.
As another example, Rocky, Ryland’s alien friend, is incredibly good at math and can come up with an accurate answer to any equation instantaneously, but Ryland still does a lot of the (“back of the napkin,” LOL) calculations himself instead of asking Rocky to do them, even after they team up.
Jayne: Rocky is initially doing all the work. But then Rocky quickly became my favorite character. I did like Stratt because – woman in charge of steamrolling everyone in order to figure out how to try and save the world – but Rocky was wonderful. Rocky is also the brilliant engineer character who can build practically anything which is handy as Ryland needs so much stuff built.
Janine: I loved Rocky too. What an adorable
human being alien.
I was torn about Stratt. It was fun to see a woman in charge and one who is so Machiavellian, too. But I thought it was a reach. Not only that a woman would be given the job, but that there would be such a job at all. We are faced with looming extinction now via climate change and we can’t even get the leaders within our country to get on the same page so I couldn’t imagine how the entire world would agree to cooperate, much less assign one woman to head its task force. Not to mention commandeer/conscript any resources and people she needed no matter their previous purposes and roles, as well as issue orders to heads of state. But it was part of the premise, so I went with it after rolling my eyes a bit.
On another topic, the book had some stretches of one exciting event after another when I wanted a little downtime. This is something that other readers might actually prefer.
Jayne: A big problem for me is that the bro relationship between Rocky and Ryland was by far my favorite part of the book yet so much time was spent with them figuring each other and language out then doing more science over-explaining that I often found myself mentally urging the book to get back to, you know, saving their planets. Except they were trying to figure out how to save their planets but still I was bored with it taking three pages to explain something to a half page to actually do it!
Janine: The language learning did take too long. Not in the sense that I was bored reading about it but rather in the sense that I thought that they should be feeling more urgency.
Jayne: I’ve thought this some more and though it still bothers me, I can see that compared to the number of years it took Ryland to get to Tau Ceti and the number of years it will take any information he finds to travel back to Earth, this time spent language learning in order to work together to solve the problem was actually probably time well spent.
Janine: Good point. I thought Project Hail Mary was better than Artemis, Weir’s last book, in many regards, but one exception was the setting; much of the book takes place on the spaceship which is less interesting than the setting of a moon or (in The Martian) Mars. But overall, I liked Project Hail Mary better than Artemis.
I did not get as spectacular a high from this book as I did from The Martian. To be fair I can’t think of another SF novel that gave me such an incredible high. Nevertheless, and despite all I’ve said above, I feel that in some ways this is a stronger book. Relationships and interactions were a weak spot in both of his earlier books, but not so here, or at least, not to the same degree.
While there are some wobbles with Ryland’s dealings with people on Earth, Weir’s growth in this arena shows in his depiction of Ryland and Rocky’s friendship. Their connection is very much at the book’s center and it’s cute and endearing and thus a strength. Rocky is a lovable character and Ryland, who has never been close to anyone, comes to realize and value that. Their friendship is unusually touching. The book is sentimental; at its core, it’s a story about what closeness to another person—even an alien—can mean, the worth of a true friend.
More generally, Weir’s characterization is better here. Ryland has more dimensions than Mark in The Martian or Jazz in Artemis. He’s a more rounded character. Outside of how he manages the science his motives make more sense than Jazz’s and he has a fuller range of emotions than Mark.
Jayne: There is so much time spent inside Ryland’s head and when we’re not privy to his thought processes, then we get to hear him talking to himself. I get that since for a lot of the book he’s the only character on page this is the only way to know what’s going on but it gets old fast.
Janine: This didn’t bother me much, and it’s the kind of thing that frequently does.
Jayne: Ryland isn’t always the fantastic guy he likes to think he is. And beyond being Stratt’s little pet, why for the love of astrophage is he at every single meeting beyond the need for that for us to know that? It strained my credulity beyond the breaking point.
Janine: I actually appreciated Ryland’s flaws. The tension between self-interest and heroism gave him dimension. He wasn’t as much of a one-note character as the protagonists of Weir’s earlier novels. I agree about his presence at the meetings, though. Eventually an explanation was provided, but though it made his inclusion more convincing, I still wasn’t 100% sold. And because of Ryland’s amnesia and his being the only POV character, the explanation takes a while to roll out. It felt a day late and a dollar short.
Jayne: There is some diversity to the characters—gender, ethnicity, nationality—but mainly these people are seen during Ryland’s flashback / memory sections and often there is little to these people beyond these descriptions and stereotypes.
Janine: Yeah, I would agree with that. I felt similarly with Artemis. This will probably be a controversial opinion but I honestly think some authors should stick to writing about white people since they don’t handle characters from marginalized groups with deftness. Weir is one. His portrayals of POC are awkward at best.
Jayne: I did like Rocky and his sense of humor.
Janine: The humor is much stronger here. On occasion it’s corny but not nearly as much as in the earlier two books. Thankfully there’s also none of the mansplaining here that there is in Artemis and Stratt is a strong female character with a prominent role in the novel.
Jayne: How many times have you thought, “If I ran the world I would …” Well, Stratt gets to actually do it. Bwahahaha! Only a few times we do get to see the horrible strain on her as she fights to get this planet saving mission off the ground.
But for all that this is in the near future (or I assume it’s supposed to be) one thing still apparently hasn’t changed as evidenced by this exchange between Ryland and Stratt over the choice of the crew for the mission.
“Women,” I said.
“Yes,” Stratt grumbled.
“Despite your guidelines,”
“No, it isn’t.” She frowned. “I got overruled by the Americans and Russians on it.”
I folded my arms. “I never would have thought a woman would be so sexist against women.”
“It’s not sexism. It’s realism.” She righted a strand of hair that had blown into her face. “My guidelines were that all candidates must be heterosexual men.”
“Why not all heterosexual women?”
“The vast majority of scientists and trained astronaut candidates are men. It’s the world we live in. Don’t like it? Encourage your female students to get into STEM. I’m not here to enact social equality. I’m here to do whatever’s necessary to save humanity.”
Janine: I didn’t read this book as being set in the near future. I read it as starting in our own time, and then going forward only a handful of years from there. Their more advanced technology was developed very quickly due to the energy output of astrophage and the rush to save the world.
Stratt was an asshole in this scene and in others but I thought it fit her character and her role. She did not care about equality, fairness or diplomacy, only about saving the world. She wasn’t always a likable person, but I did enjoy reading about her.
Jayne: Gosh darn it, I did keep reading.