Project Hail Mary

Andy Weir

6/3/2021

When you read a Dan Brown book you leave it ready to put on your tin foil har. Andy Weir books make you feel ready to don a lab coat. He writes books that are clearly well researched and very involved, but they’re still readable. Dan Brown gets (at most) one of these two things.

Project Hail Mary is inevitably going to be compared to Weir’s 2011 The Martian, a book which received (well deserved) critical and public acclaim. It’s a good book (read it) and an okay movie (watch it with friends, drink if you want). Just like The Martian, we follow a lone human (Ryland Grace) confined in a spaceship in space and faced with a laundry list of life-threatening problems. Grace is there because there’s an existential threat to the human race, and so he’s got to get on a space ship to solve it.

Whereas The Martian’s Mark Watney speaks to us through Captain’s Log entries (v. enjoyable), Project Hail Mary has a more traditional narrative. Weir’s 2017 Artemis follows a bigger cast of characters, so the narrative is more traditional. In fact, Artemis suffered a bit too much from bing “more traditional” which is why not a lot of people talk about it.

The writing in this book is solid. It’s caricatured in places, and rarely (if ever) poetic. I wouldn’t highlight or want to remember any particular part of this book. But I didn’t expect it to be. Weir presents us with some really interesting biological/evolutionary theories and ideas, which challenge what you might think of as “life”. I don’t need lyrical prose if you’ve good big thinkers like that one. Still, don’t expect to have your morals shifted.

Take his book as something to be enjoyed on its own. It’s like a party: good for you to do, but hard for you to explain why.

We follow Grace through various engineering and biological challenges, twists and turns, which he dutifully solves as he tries to save a) himself, and b) the rest of humanity. The pacing is textbook. It is predictable and unsurprising, but well-enough written that it never lags, though towards the end you certainly start to predict the rhythms.

The other problem is that the stakes never differ, or feel actually on the line. A problem emerges which is a 6/10 emergency, Grace does something to solve it and it goes down to a 0-3/10, and then something unexpected happens and we’re at an 8-9/10 before he solves things and we move on to the next cycle.

Even though you might not understand the problems, you always know that Grace is going to solve the problem, because Grace always has solved the problem. Everything is going to be okay in the end,.

The content of the problems is what makes them interesting each time, though. Weir brings a level of knowledge and a depth of research that make you feel glad that you’re not on a spaceship and that humanity isn’t depending on you. Weir has the great scientific quality of “X happened… so therefore Y”. He’s able to set the table rules in physics, chemistry, and biology and then explore problems close enough within those rules.

If you’re a practicing research scientists in any of these areas I’m sure you’ll roll your eyes at it. I’m sure it doesn’t withstand informed scrutiny, but I enjoy it.

Despite all this heroism and know-how, Grace is a coward. Not an entire coward, not cripplingly. Humans can be many things in many contexts. Grace is a high school teacher in his 30-somethings (before he goes to space). His life has been shaped heavily by a lack of action or boldness in everything other than his academic career. Even in that he doesn’t commit to it.

We don’t see any character development or changes in him. At the end of the book you know that he’s the same person he was at the beginning, and I’m unsure if he’s had any level of self-awareness or knowledge. But (low-level spoilers here) he does manage to save the world and humanity, so maybe he’s earned the right to stay a flawed man.

It’s a reminder that “cowardly” people can do good things, and that Andy Weir can write excellent science fiction, just maybe not great character work.

I listened to the audiobook of this one, and I would definitely recommend. There are parts of the book which play with sound/language, where having an audio component really made this shine. The production quality added in a few non-vocal aspects which really brought it to life. I would totally recommend picking this up on Audible if you even remotely like audiobooks.

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