It seems only fair that if I dealt with Ernest Cline last month, I’d deal with Andy Weir this month. In some ways, they are the most recognizable names of popular science fiction right now—Earnest in a pop-culture sort of way, Andy in a more hard but accessible SF way.
Weir is best known for The Martian, which was made into a hit movie with Matt Damon. His follow-up novel, Artemis, is something I covered earlier and enjoyed a whole lot, combining what is essentially a heist caper with the plausible realities of a sustainable moon colony.
His latest novel, Project Hail Mary, goes in a very different direction. Some people have compared it to The Martian because the core of its premise involves a lone astronaut trying to survive a nearly impossible scenario… but it is so much more than that.
This, to me, is a throwback to golden age SF, and feels like something Arthur C Clarke might have written… though admittedly Weir’s quite a bit funnier. What can I say, Andy does humour well.
The story begins with the protagonist, Ryland Grace, waking up on board a strange facility with no memory of how he got there or who he is, and two dead people mummified in the beds beside him. He soon figures out he’s on a spaceship, on course for a nearby star, and has to try and remember what he’s supposed to do there.
This story is structured as two alternating trains of narrative: the main story, and flashbacks that allow him to piece together his identity, then his mission, then how he ended up on board when he should still be on Earth.
I’m just going to say this now; while I’ll limit how much I give away after this point, if you really want to enjoy the mystery of the story and intend to read this book, stop reading this review now and go get it. Go on, git!
Earth is facing a crisis that dwarfs that of global warming. For some reason, the sun is cooling, and it’s going to lead to an extinction-level event on Earth within a century. What’s more, it’s not just affecting Earth, but many other star systems in the local area… except for one.
The reasons behind this phenomenon, once discovered, shake the foundations of science as we know it. As devastating as it is for Earth’s future, it also opens up incredible possibilities in other fields, including the possibility of extremely efficient fuel for a spaceship.
This leads to a desperate mission, Project Hail Mary, where a team of three will visit the only star in the area that is not being affected by this stellar cooling and discover the reasons for it, then relay that information back to Earth.
Unfortunately, it’s going to be a one-way trip for the crew.
That’s the scenario Ryland Grace finds himself in. But it’s also only half the story, because once he’s there, he discovers he’s not the only one looking for a cure…
Okay, so maybe you ignored the spoiler warning earlier because you figured, “Eh, he won’t give away too much.” And maybe this has given you enough to work with. So, now I’m going to give you one last chance to back out. After this, most of the fun surprises will be ruined forever!
SPOILERS AHEAD! NO REALLY! TURN BACK!
The best part of this story, what really makes it feel like an Arthur C Clarke story, is that it involves first contact with an alien species. Weir does a great job of exploring the biological differences of a species that evolved on a very different world—one that would be uninhabitable to us.
What makes it unique, however, is that this species, while far more advanced than ours in some ways, is also far less advanced in others. This allows for a real sense of collaboration between the two species, and Weir makes these differences feel believable. Not unlike the way biological evolution can work along different paths, so can technological advancement.
I don’t think doing hard SF well requires everything in the story to be real. The reason behind the stellar cooling and new fuel source doesn’t have to be something that we know can actually exist; it simply has to follow the rules of physics beyond whatever assumptions we initially give it. Speed of light and relativity remain in effect. Gravity still behaves correctly.
There are nail-biting scenes in this novel that will remind you of The Martian in their intensity because you’re so easily reminded of how everything in space can hang on the edge of a knife, and you can’t just hit a reset button to fix it.
Project Hail Mary is a great old-school SF story updated for the modern age. It creates a sense of wonder, opens a window to the remarkable, yet stays grounded in the kind of accessible science writing Weir is known for. I highly recommend it.
I have no idea if this one can ever be made into a movie, but if it is, I will be there on opening day. Maybe they can get Ben Affleck this time.
(UPDATE: Looks like they are, and it might be Ryan Gosling that stars. Fingers crossed!)