July 17, 2021

Review: Project Hail Mary

Project Hail Mary Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This third book by the author of The Martian follows the same general template: a thorny problem that our science/engineering nerd hero has to solve. In this case, the problem, if unsolved, will lead to the extinction of the human race. Ryland Grace, our protagonist and (as we find out, very reluctant) hero, wakes up from an induced coma aboard the Hail Mary, a ship traveling to the nearby Tau Ceti solar system. At first he doesn't know who he is or why he's there. Both his backstory (in past tense) and ongoing story (in present tense) gradually unfold, as he explores the ship and discovers his two crewmates have died in transit. He is alone and must solve the problem of the mysterious Astrophage, a space-dwelling life form that is gradually consuming the sun's energy and will result in an iceball Earth if it is not stopped.

This book has a very retro feel to it. It would be right at home alongside Robert A. Heinlein's and Isaac Asimov's novels from the 50's and 60's. The author makes an attempt to have female characters (although the most prominent of these, Eva Stratt, the head of the Petrova Taskforce, is a cardboard character at best). An intriguing, well-thought-out, and truly alien species is introduced and the representative thereof is given some decent characterization (although as soon as Rocky learns English he ends up sounding as much whitebread male as Ryland). Rocky has come to the Tau Ceti system for the same reason as Ryland--his home star, 40 Eridani, is also infected with Astrophage. The two of them team up to solve the problem, work together, and develop a genuine relationship. So much so that at the book's climax, Ryland sacrifices his chance to return to Earth and, he thinks, his life (because he doesn't have enough food to make the trip) to save Rocky and his species.

This is all fine. But this book is full of hard-science NASA minutiae, and since my own inner engineering nerd is pint-sized at best, the endless loving descriptions of tools, equipment, measurements and calculations began to get on my nerves after a while. And I couldn't even roll my eyes and groan, "Get on with the story," because that is the story. The introduction of Rocky, and the unfolding relationship between him and Ryland, helped a bit. There were also a couple of nail-biting action scenes. But for the most part, this is a linear line of: Identify problem; brainstorm solutions; implement solutions; solve problem; move on to the next problem. Which, again, is fine for a book that feels like it should be sixty or seventy years old....but nowadays, that is such a restrictive (and it must be admitted, a white male American) definition of SF. The field has broken wide open, and there is so much more to science fiction and fantasy nowadays that in the end this book (at least to me) comes off overall as generic and boring.

It was on the New York Times bestseller list, however, and I have no doubt it will eventually be coming to a Theater Near You, so it's found an audience. And I didn't dislike it. But there are just so many more exciting things to read.

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