Book review: Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

The highly anticipated third novel by Andy Weirs checks all the right boxes.  It’s educational, highly entertaining, upbeat and easy to read.  All characters are eminently likeable.  The story may sound far-fetched but is plausible.  Weir mixes in just the right amount of humor at the right time to score laughs, and just enough emotion to keep the reader invested.  This is a well-crafted book that’s fun to read and doesn’t tax the audience too much.

A man wakes up in a strange medical facility, not knowing who he is or why he is there.  He needs to muster all his powers of observation and deduction to figure out what’s going on.  This modern Sherlock Holmes slowly eliminates all possibilities, until the improbable one proves to be true: he is on a spaceship that’s accelerating at high speed, traveling from somewhere to who knows where.  As the man’s memory returns in bits and pieces, he realizes he is Ryland Grace, a school science teacher who was drafted to save the mankind by traveling to Tau Ceti in a spaceship named Hail Mary.

Through flashbacks, he learns that our Sun had been infected by a strange microbe, which is sapping the solar energy and is causing the Sun to dim.  In about 30 years, the effect would be strong enough to trigger a new ice age.  Grace was forced into service by Mrs. Stratt, an administrator who had been given absolute power to resolve this crisis.  He researched the microbe, determined its lifecycle and helped to find out that it could store obscene amounts of energy.  Meanwhile, astronomers found that the microbe was able to spread throughout the local star cluster, infecting other stars as well.  The only star not affected was Tau Ceti, and Stratt decided to send a manned mission to find out why.  Grace, as the world’s foremost expert on the Astrophage, as he named the microbe, was sent as the biologist.

In order to preserve the crew’s sanity, everyone was placed in a coma.  Unfortunately, only Grace managed to survive the trip, at the apparent cost of temporary memory loss.  He arrives at the star, and almost immediately is confronted by another spacecraft.  Through a few tentative efforts, he establishes contact with the ship’s single occupant, a spider-like creature he names Rocky.  Over the next few weeks, they work out an understanding of each other’s languages and cultivate strong friendship.  Rocky is the only survivor from his ship, which came from 40 Eridani, in search of the same cure for their star.  Where Grace is one of the world’s best scientists, Rocky is one of his world’s greatest engineers.  They devise a plan to harvest the atmosphere of a nearby planet, where the Astrophage go to multiply, to see why they are unable to affect the local star.  They find the Astrophage’s natural predator, which they want to bring back to their home planets, to stop the Astrophage from spreading.  Unfortunately, their foray into the planet’s atmosphere damages the ship, and they first need to focus on fixing the Hail Mary and recover from their wounds, then to breed a strain of the predator that would survive in the atmosphere of their planets (Venus, in our case), before parting ways.

Grace follows Rocky’s progress back home, when he realizes that the strain of the predator they evolved would not stay contained in Rocky’s ship.  It would spread into the fuel tanks, where Astrophage is used due to its enormous energy density, and eat it all, killing the engines.  When Rocky’s ship no longer shows any engine emissions, Grace makes the choice to return to help him.  He sends automated probes with all his research materials and samples back to Earth, turns his ship around and rejoins Rocky.  He knows this would be a one-way trip: he would die of starvation.  Fortunately, after they arrive on Rocky’s home planet and save it, Rocky’s civilization devises ways to clone food that Grace finds digestible.  He then stays on the planet, in a confined environment.  Decades later, he learns that the solar output has stabilized as well, so Earth has been saved.  With Hail Mary refueled and restocked, ready to take him home, Grace instead walks to his classroom where he teaches young Eridians science.

Reading this book was an absolute delight.  Even in the most critical phases, I never felt worried about the protagonists or mankind, and instead I could simply enjoy the story.  Weir managed to keep the story engaging, without resorting to drama.  He did it by sparking an almost childlike curiosity in me, through the description of scientific process and deduction.  All advancement Grace did, be it in restoring his memories or in researching the Astrophage, was meticulously described.  All plot holes, even those I never thought about, were explained away.  In this sense, Project Hail Mary is a science book, dressed as science fiction.

Just consider: Grace finds himself in a strange place.  It takes him a little while to physically recover enough to start moving around.  He quickly injures himself and realizes that the gravity isn’t as it should be.  Weir then goes to explain all the experiments Grace had to do to determine the force of the gravity, and to figure out that he is in a spaceship, and not a centrifuge.  As most science fiction fans, I’ve had a fair bit of science in my education, and so I was able to follow the experiments, even though I’d get lost with the necessary formulas.  Later, however, when relativistic models, cosmic radiation and other more advanced concepts came into play, I became a little lost, but the author did an excellent job simplifying everything for me.  As a result, I truly feel that I learned a lot of new scientific concepts, in a fun and engaging way.

Speaking of engaging, Weir’s gentle humor with occasional uproarious moments were both welcome and for me personally, painful.  I’ve been listening to the excellent audiobook rendition of the story while running, and my already heavily taxed abs got an extra jolt when I suddenly started laughing like a maniac.  It didn’t happen too often, but these scenes were expertly paced throughout the book.

Another strength of the work was a complete lack of characters I’d dislike.  Grace himself, as the narrator, was very likeable and engaging.  Even the twist in his back story towards the end didn’t change my opinion of him, as he redeemed himself very quickly.  Rocky was not as well developed, serving more as a plot device, but that was to be expected from an alien with whom the reader could not share common background.  However, my favorite character by far was Mrs. Stratt.  She is an administrator, who in the face of the largest global crisis in history is given full authority over the world’s affairs to come with a solution to the problem.  She is single minded, opinionated, ruthless and direct.  She does not hesitate and takes full advantage of her authority. She is also Dutch, and having worked with many Dutch people, some of whom I call friends, I consider her characterization to be spot on.  Just the fact that a Dutch administrator was selected to head the project gives lots of credence to the story.  Her chemistry with Grace is the source of much of the humor in the book.  Not for the obvious reasons, though.  Instead, watching Grace bash his head against her unwavering focus is like watching ocean waves hit the Cliffs of Moher.  Others she interacted with have already resigned to the fact that they must dance to Stratt’s tune, but Grace, the scientist and teacher, turns into a petulant child in her presence.  She gets her work done, despite her own worry about personal consequences she’d face.  I think it’s best for the story that her fate is not discussed when Hail Mary leaves Earth’s orbit, so that the reader can hope for the best for her.

The last element I’d like to praise is the overall upbeat mood of the story.  When the crisis hits, everyone works together.  It’s not just Stratt’s bulldog personality that gets the result; it’s the willingness of all nations of the earth to work together on a solution.  At Tau Ceti, Grace’s scientific knowledge is enough to solve most problems.  There are no miracle breakthroughs, just persistent and dedicated work.  The book convinces the reader that science will ultimately prevail over politics.

There is very little to criticize in the book.  Perhaps it’s been polished a little too much, so that it comes across as slightly forgettable.  I don’t think I’ll forget the concepts or overall story, but any feelings towards the book will fade away relatively quickly.  It’s one of the best books of 2021 I’ve read, but it doesn’t have a strong character I’d remember in the years to come.  There was also one obvious insert that read like the author’s pet peeve: an attack on copyright trolls.  While amusing, it stuck out like a sore thumb from the story and didn’t contribute anything to it.

The book is still fun to read.  I must admit I felt a little trepidation after Weir’s Artemis and one of the least likeable science fiction protagonists I care to remember, but here he turned around and designed very authentic and personable characters.  Project Hail Mary is also one of the rare contemporary science fiction books that are upbeat.  The book is heavy on science, but still very accessible to all readers with even the most rudimentary scientific education, and those without will still find it enjoyable.  In fact, even people not interested in science fiction may find this title entertaining.  I’m happy to recommend it to everyone.

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