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Project Hail Mary

May 17, 2021
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I read a book recently that was so compelling I eventually learned not to pick it up if I wasn’t comfortably sitting down, because I’d emerge after some time had passed and think “why am I still leaned over this way?” The book is Andy Weir’s new science fiction novel Project Hail Mary, and it’s fabulous. He’s gotten to be a better writer through practice and he’s one of the best ever at explaining science stuff so it makes sense to a layperson. More than that, though, he makes it all a little funny and a lot exciting.

The novel starts with its protagonist suffering from memory loss. As we learn where he is (a spaceship arriving in the Tau Ceti system) and what he’s doing (trying to save Earth), he discovers it too. And then the discoveries just keep coming. He meets an alien. He learns to communicate with the alien. And then they save Earth and the alien’s planet.

The first big discovery is a single-celled organism that the narrator, Ryland Grace, decides to call “Astrophage.” The person in charge of the project says, as the reader is presumably thinking, “people always assumed our first contact with alien life—if any existed—would be little green men in UFOs. We never considered the idea of a simple, unintelligent species.”

Ryland was working as a middle-school science teacher before he got involved with Project Hail Mary, and because of the order in which he remembers events, we believe his main motivation in being on the spaceship is that he was worried that the middle-school students, or as he calls them, “my children,” were “going to end up in a Mad Max nightmare world if we don’t solve this problem.” We gradually find out that Ryland is a “science guy,” as he calls himself, all the way through. When he’s trying to find out more about Astrophage he tells someone that he “penetrated the outer cell membrane with a nanosyringe” and that person responds “you poked it with a stick?” His reply is “no!….Well. Yes. But it was a scientific poke with a very scientific stick.”

Ryland’s memory loss is a problem on the space ship because the two other people on the ship didn’t survive the coma they were all put into for the years-long journey and now he has to “make guesses as to what the functions are. What I’m really looking for is something like ‘Information’ or ‘Here to save humanity? Press this button to learn more!’” In the process of exploring the ship and finding out where he is, he discovers there is another space ship pulled up beside his and someone in it is eager to communicate.

This is one of the most inventive and fascinating parts of the book. Weir has managed to invent an alien who is really different from humans and figure out ways for them to communicate. This alien can’t share human atmosphere and doesn’t have the same kinds of sensory organs, but soon enough Ryland figures out that the alien is from the 40 Eridani system and they’re having the same problem with Astrophage that Earth is and have come to the Tau Ceti system for the same reason, to save their planet. There’s a long process by which the two learn to talk, the likelihood of which is explained by Ryland’s reasoning that “thinking rationally, you can’t make spaceships without a civilization and you can’t have civilization without being able to communicate. So of course they have language. It’s interesting that communication is done with sound, like humans do. Coincidence? Maybe not. Maybe that’s just the easiest way to evolve that trait.”

There’s a kind of aside about intellectual property law and how copyright and patent lawyers can’t even put aside their money-grubbing in order to help save the human race. I enjoyed that. (If you’re interested in this issue, I recommend Lewis Hyde’s book Common as Air.)

A great part of the novel comes when the alien makes a tunnel between the two space ships and they figure out a way for the alien to come aboard Ryland’s ship. While the alien works on the airlock, Ryland goes inside and says, in his characteristically understated way, “I spend the next hour tidying up. I wasn’t expecting company.”

Once they’ve learned to communicate, the dialogue is fun. I love the moment when the alien decides that they should work in Ryland’s ship: “You ship has more science than my ship. Better science. I bring my things into you ship. Release tunnel. You make you ship spin for science. You and me science how to kill Astrophage together. Save Earth. Save Erid. This is good plan, question?” And then Ryland’s comment: “I’ve gone from ‘sole-surviving space explorer’ to ‘guy with wacky new roommate.’ It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out.”

How it plays out is fascinating, and I don’t want to tell you much about it because you should experience it for yourself. Seriously, this is the best book I’ve read in a long time. It’s good enough that something I often do (and that Jenny at Reading the End always does)—reading the end—will pique your curiosity and make you want to get to the end even more than you already do, if that’s even humanly possible.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. May 17, 2021 2:02 pm

    I was totally not planning on reading this because even though I liked Artemis well enough I didn’t think it was all that good. But now you have me rethinking my decision not to read this. Hmmm….

    • May 17, 2021 2:11 pm

      I wasn’t all that jazzed about Artemis, especially because he tried writing a female narrator. This one, though…it is so good! Don’t miss it!

  2. May 17, 2021 2:37 pm

    Yay!!

    • May 18, 2021 10:02 am

      I am a very big fan of fictional aliens that are not at all like humans!

  3. May 17, 2021 4:33 pm

    I’m looking forward to this one!

    • May 18, 2021 10:02 am

      Clear your schedule! You won’t be able to put it down easily.

  4. May 18, 2021 7:47 am

    Wow, okay, this is quite a recommendation! I wasn’t planning to read this because I had heard such bad things about his second book, but it sounds like he’s really gotten his act together with this one.

    • May 18, 2021 10:04 am

      Read it! And read the end somewhere around the middle!

  5. May 20, 2021 3:30 am

    The Martian is still waiting for me to get it down from the top shelf, even though I enjoyed the film. And now you tempt me with this.

    • May 20, 2021 7:28 am

      If you’ve seen the film you got most of the story. Move on and read this one! Be tempted!

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