Project Hail Mary: Complete and Incomplete Passes



By Andy Weir

Random House, 496 pages.





Andy Weir (no relation) scored so big with his 2011 debut, The Martian that Hollywood came calling. His second book, Artemis (2017), is “in development,” a phrase that could mean anything from “about to go into production” to “thanks for letting us work up a script, Andy; here’s some money, now go away.”  In both previous books, Weir went off world and he stays in space for Project Hail Mary­–deep space.  


There is much speculation over whether humankind can save itself. In Weir’s novel, though, climate change isn’t the culprit. Something is sucking energy from the sun and if something isn’t done to stop it, Old Mr. Sol will die 5.5 billion years early. The villain is astrophage, a space virus that extracts energy from the sun and light from Venus. Step one is capturing some of the beetle-like little devils. If harnessed, astrophage could power a space ship in ways that aren’t quite warp drive, but would certainly be superior to any current fuel source. That’s needed because, unless a team can trace the source of the astrophage and figure out how to stop its path, Earth has just decades before it becomes a lifeless hunk of space ice.


Probes secure some astrophage, but a lot of it must be bred to provide fuel for what will certainly be an out-of-the-galaxy space voyage. That’s where Ryeland Grace comes in– to his surprise and chagrin. In graduate school, he explored a theory of replicating space viruses that met with derision and hurled him toward a very different profession than he once envisioned: junior high school science teacher. He’s very good at it, though, and has no desire to reopen a topic that made him an academic joke.


Not that he has a choice in the matter. Public calm is holding, but world powers know the real score and for once, China, India, Japan, Russia, and the United States are on the same side. They’ve even handed global dictatorial power to Eva Stratt to “draft” anyone who doesn’t volunteer to do research or be part of a space team whose mission is surely suicidal. Ryeland is spirited to a lab to work on replicating astrophage and it doesn’t matter if he wants to do it or not. When I say Stratt is all-powerful, I mean she has the authority to buy Earth more time by melting Antarctica so it can release methane gas and create a greenhouse effect that delays Earth’s rendezvous with icy lifelessness.


If you know Weir’s work, you know there are two constants. First, he loves geeky stuff. There is a lot of math and science in the novel–some that’s highly speculative. You know also that Weir likes to pit a single individual against seemingly impossible odds. Ryeland thinks he has done his bit when he actually creates astrophage via ideas pooh-poohed by those with fancier pedigrees. Imagine his reaction, though, when Stratt next informs him he’s going to be a no-return astronaut to Tau Ceti in a different solar system. He refuses, but Stratt gives him the choice to “volunteer,” or be taken to the ship in shackles. She assures him he won’t know much, because the crew of four will be in suspended animation until the ship is ready to collect data and send a “solution” back to earth. Ryeland wakes up, but that’s more than can be said of his three colleagues.


Ryeland has no choice but to improvise everything—repairs, food, water, leaking astrophage, or what have you. Imagine being alone among the stars. He won’t be for long, as he makes first contact with an Eridian sharing his fate. So, how do you communicate with a blind spider-and-stone-like alien whose planet has an atmospheric pressure (and spaceship) 8 ½ times greater than that of Earth? Soon, though, Ryeland and “Rocky,” as Ryeland dubs him, cooperate in trying to save their respective planets. (Rocky’s comrades also perished.) Thus begins a race against time that involves lots of physics, math, and trial-and-error. 


I enjoyed, but didn’t love, Project Hail Mary. At its best, the novel is a gripping thriller that sucks in readers, though we’re pretty sure something good will happen. In its weaker junctures, it’s as if Weir is channeling Michael Crichton, with echoes of an old Star Trek (Original Series) show involving a critter called a Horta. (The episode is titled “The Devil in the Dark,” if you’re keeping score.) Depending upon which side of your brain you use the most, the calculations, science, and science fiction in Weir’s novel will either excite your Inner Nerd or send you running for the Aspirin bottle. I experienced both sensations and I also didn’t think much of the tacked-on sappy ending. Call Project Hail Mary a satisfying but bumpy ride.


Rob Weir

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