Earth has a problem. But as Project Hail Mary begins, the protagonist and first-person narrator has no idea what the problem is. He knows a lot less than that, in fact. He doesn’t know where he is, doesn’t know how he got there, doesn’t even know his own name. Why is the room round? Why are there two dead and desiccated bodies strapped onto things like medical beds next to him? Why is he strapped down, for that matter?
Andy Weir has taken the opening to The Martian and amped it up by taking away any of the protagonist’s knowledge of where he is or what he is doing there, along with most of the skills he needs to do whatever he is supposed to be doing. Before long, the protagonist has to contend with a not-very-bright AI that controls his immediate environment, and the whole thing reads for a while like a novelization of an Infocom game, where only exactly the right verbal response will get the computer to do what one wants it to do. I guess the approach is supposed to increase dramatic tension, but I found it only aggravating. Memories return to the narrator in large chunks, and that is how Weir gradually reveals the backstory.
Earth’s problem is a neat one, from the perspective of a science fiction story, rather less so for anyone who happens to be living through it. Astronomers discover a funny line going from the sun’s north polar regions to Venus. Simultaneously, they discover that the sun’s luminosity is measurably dropping. The energy is going into the link. At the detected rate of decrease, earth’s ecosystems will be in grave danger in a matter of decades no matter what terrestrial actions are taken. The protagonist — who eventually remembers his name is Ryland Grace, Dr. Ryland Grace, former academic speculator about extraterrestrial metabolisms and current teacher of middle school chemistry — is pretty bummed to remember that.
Further flashbacks reveal that scientists were able to find out what was going on in the sun to Venus link. A hastily assembled probe that travels to where the link is widest at Venus discovers a massive amount of ten-micron particles throughout the sun-to-Venus beam. “They look a little like microbes, wouldn’t you say?” (p. 31) Extraterrestrial life, identified on live TV. But it’s life of a sun-stealing sort, unintelligent and indifferent, with side effects that are deadly to earth-bound life. The probe gathers some of the particles and returns them to earth.
Enter the middle-school chemistry teacher. He is unceremoniously drafted to help analyze the particles, soon dubbed Astrophage. Life scientists from around the world work out Astrophage’s life cycle, which it turns out is pretty neat and would make for a fascinating research project, if not for all the side effects of star-dimming. Grace’s pet theory when he was an academic was that water was not inescapably necessary for life, and thus scientists searching for extraterrestrial life were confining themselves to far too narrow a set of conditions. Well, Astrophage’s chemical cycle involves quite a bit of the same biochemistry as earth life, including DNA and mitochondria. So Grace’s theory does not apply to this particular case, but he’s on the project anyway. He turns out to be crucial and/or lucky, because in his experiments he is the first to figure out how Astrophage reproduces. Even just that one contribution would have been huge for the research effort, because that meant that biologists were no longer limited to the supply of Astrophage brought back from Venus.
While the life scientists were busy figuring out how Astrophage ticks, and eats, and breeds, astronomers went through data and discovered that Sol wasn’t the only star dimming over an observable time span. The same thing was happening to others in the stellar neighborhood. More significantly, one star that by all logic should have been affected by Astrophage, wasn’t. That’s the beginning of Project Hail Mary: send a spaceship to Tau Ceti in hopes of finding out how to keep the sun from dimming. (Certain properties of Astrophage enable near-lightspeed travel and also solve the radiation and impact problems of said travel.) The memory comes back to Grace about a quarter of the way through Project Hail Mary, along with him figuring out that not only is he on a spaceship, he’s in another solar system. The corpses in the travel area were the other two members of his mission, whose medically-induced coma went wrong somewhere along the way.
The setup and structure go a long way toward why I didn’t enjoy Project Hail Mary half as much as I did The Martian. The initial amnesia — which is eventually explained, though not very convincingly in my view — struck me as a gimmick, and the gradual dribble of revelations served to leach most of the emotional resonance from the scenes. Grace says he wept bitterly when he remembered his crewmates, but if Weir had told the story chronologically all the way through, readers would have known them well and could have wept with Grace when he woke up to find them dead. For that matter, Grace’s amnesia would have been more compelling if readers had known him whole from the start. Readers would know the stakes even during the time that Grace didn’t, and could have been beside themselves with urgency as he tried to cope with his diminished self.
I don’t know why Weir chose to structure the story the way he did. From the amount of attention he devotes to different parts of the novel, my best guess is that he was most interested in the problems posed by Astrophage, by events at Tau Ceti, and by complications that he introduced along the way. The backstory on earth with other humans is just that, details to be filled in to make the main part of the story work. The political aspects of things on earth — willingness of all of humanity to work together, the amount of resources committed, the authority given to one person to make things happen — struck me as highly improbable, not to say daft. But a story of humanity’s hopes running aground on the shoals of bureaucracy is not the story Weir wants to tell. He wants to write about someone sciencing the shit out of things, and overcoming obstacles. That’s Project Hail Mary.
That the one human to remain on the scene is a middle-aged white American man is just par for the course. Grace’s crewmates were a Chinese man and a Russian woman. Wouldn’t it have been interesting for Weir to try to write one of them as the sole survivor, if Project Hail Mary had to be a one-person show? Not interesting enough for him to try, apparently. (And of course the story didn’t have to be a one-person show. Nor did the name of the project have to be a sports cum religious reference that’s both American and Christian. For a global effort, that’s just another piece of unlikeliness.)
The aspect of the book that I enjoyed most is a bit spoilery.
Earth is not the only inhabited planet with an Astrophage problem; in fact, it’s not the only planet that is trying to solve its Astrophage problem at the same relative time by the long-shot effort of sending a single starship to Tau Ceti. And the Hail Mary is not the only starship with a single survivor. Weir piles improbability on improbability, but it’s the sort of thing I’m willing to grant to enjoy a good science fiction adventure. Weir plays within the rules that he sets — the reason only one alien survived is consistent with what they would have known — and that makes this part of the story run well. Grace dubs the alien “Rocky” for reasons of composition; the alien’s own name for itself is a musical chord that would be impossible to render in letters.
The story of how Grace and Rocky establish conversation is not all that remarkable for someone who has read a lot of science fiction, but probably necessary for the part of Project Hail Mary‘s audience that hasn’t. Once they can talk to each other, Grace and Rocky play well off of each other, and their skills are complementary for the joint task at hand: find what keeps Astrophage from overwhelming Tau Ceti. They are much like the characters of 1950s and early 1960s science fiction, scientists and engineers working out puzzles and contending with obstacles that the universe throws in their way. I’m sure Weir put a lot of effort into getting details of physical problems right, but I found myself skimming through these sections, the more so the deeper I got into the book’s nearly 500 pages.
Except for the last one. Finally, Weir brought character and physics together in a way that mattered to me. That last obstacle, and the ending that follows, they are full of grace.