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


The Lost Weekend: Innovative for 1945



Directed by Billy Wilder

Paramount, 104 minutes, NR (pre-ratings system)





The Lost Weekend cleaned up at the 1946 Oscars. It got seven nominations and won four: Best Picture, Best Director (Billy Wilder), Best Actor (Ray Milland), and Best Adapted Screenplay (Wilder and Charles Brackett). It would have won a fifth for Best Original Score, except that Miklós Rózsa lost–to himself! (Rózsa also scored Spellbound and won for that film instead.) The Hungarian-born Rózsa is no longer a household name, but few rivaled him for scoring films whose subjects begged for tension-laden music. But, The Lost Weekend was really Ray Milland’s moment in the sun.


Perhaps I should say Milland’s moment in the murk. His was once considered the portrait of an alcoholic. Milland is Don Birnam, a New York-based critic/writer who has struggled with the bottle, despite the efforts of his brother Wick (Phillip Terry) to keep him sober, and support from his attractive girlfriend Helen St. James (Jane Wyman). Don met Helen when their coats were mixed up at an opera house. The Lost Weekend leads with that and tells its tale in reverse.


That was one of several innovative things that led to Billy Wilder’s Oscar. Back-to-front scripts are now so common that today’s directors often dispense with any sort of linear plot. Wilder didn’t invent reverse narratives, but his was a superior take on the device. He also added edginess by having Milland walk/stumble the streets with everyday New Yorkers while hidden cameras filmed him. Wilder also got permission to film inside an alcohol ward of Bellevue Hospital, which added another layer of verisimilitude.


Wilder wasn’t showing off. Don Birnam is the very embodiment of character disorder. Drunks do horrible things, but most of the damage they inflict upon those who care is the equivalent of a daily dose of paper cuts, not any one (or two, or three, or…) blow-up moments. If you see a film in which the latter happens more than once, you know that the script writers are more in love with melodrama than fact-gathering. In essence, the cumulative toll of most alcoholic behavior unfolds slowly and is hard to portray on film, let alone lend itself to being encapsulated in a single “lost weekend.”


Don’s crisis coincides with Yom Kippur, not because Don is Jewish but because most of New York’s pawnshops were once operated by Jews. That’s inconvenient for an alky who wants to pawn his typewriter (again!) to buy rotgut. He will manage to get a few drinks on tab at Nate’s Bar, until Nate (the vastly underappreciated Howard DaSilva) cuts him off with a lecture on how shabbily he treats Helen. Message sent, but not received. Don cons an ex-girlfriend (Doris Dowling) out of some dough, drinks to oblivion, and wakes up in a Bellevue drunk tank overseen by cynical ward nurse/counselor Bim Nolan (Frank Faylen, in an acidic turn). Don manages to bust out and not take the cure. All of this leads to a crisis point when he does find an open pawnshop, but uses his gain to buy a gun to put an end to his woes. Does he do it? Watch and find out.


The Lost Weekend was bold on other levels. The Hollywood Code was still in effect and had strict rules about how to portray tough subjects. The usual standard was that your subjects had to experience comeuppances or land in a net when they fell from the wire. Some studios, especially Warner, pushed the envelope because they owned theaters and could ignore pressure on distributors. (That would change in 1950.) By 1945, the Code was weakening, Paramount had its own screen network, and it needed the big hit The Lost Weekend provided. (Paramount was in receivership from 1931-40.) Another gutsy thing Wilder snuck in was that Birnam was modeled on one of his friends, crime fiction writer Raymond Chandler.


The Lost Weekend occasionally feels naïve and old-fashioned. That’s because we know a lot more about alcoholism today. Suffice it to say that in 1945, alcoholism was viewed as a moral or psychological failing, not a disease. Remember also that Freud was once the gold standard for disorders. The film’s glancing forays into dual personalities is a nod to Freud. All of this said, no matter what lens you bring to your living room chair, The Lost Weekend is a poignant reminder of the bottle and the damage done. Treatment modalities have changed, but the problem remains.


Rob Weir   


Enter the Aarvark is both Weird and Weighty



By Jessica Anthony

Little, Brown and Company, 179 pages.



When I began reading Enter the Aardvark, my first reaction is that it was weird for no apparent reason. As I read, though, I surrendered to its quirkiness and realized there is more to it than meets the eye. But, yes, an aardvark really is the pivot around which the novel rotates. 



The obvious part of the book is its circular structure. It toggles back and forth between a story set in the 19th century and a parallel in 2020. Let’s meet the insectivore in question. In 1875, taxidermist Titus Downing receives a heavy shipment from Namibia from his friend and sometimes lover Sir Richard Ostlet. (Both are closeted and if you wonder why, Google what happened to Oscar Wilde.)  Few in Britain had the slightest idea of what an aardvark looked, including Downing. His job is to stuff and present a beast quite unlike any he had ever tackled. Gaze upon the critter and you’ll see why. It’s what you might get if you mixed a rabbit, a pig, an anteater, a giant opossum, and something that survived the age of the dinosaurs. Downing is pleased with his work, except for the eyes and ordinary beads won’t cut it. His eventual solution is both biologically incorrect and unorthodox.


The 21st century story involves the thoroughly unlikable Representative Alexander Paine Wilson, a Republican from Virginia. Like the aardvark, Wilson is suggestive of a hybrid. He worships Ronald Reagan to the point of emulating his wardrobe, stocking his home with Reagan memorabilia, and believing he too will be president one day. Yet he’s also an obnoxious and corrupt Yuppie who knows the cost of everything–$6,000 kitchen tiles, $4,125 showerhead, $4,560 Armani suit, $339 Hermes bath towel–but the value of nothing. He is contemptuous of the public and has no trouble behaving like TV evangelists who rely on supporters to keep themselves in the manner to which they’ve become accustomed. His descent into hubris begins the same way Downing’s does. He’s also a closeted gay, though he denies this even to himself: “You know you are Not Gay, and Greg Tampico is Not Gay;” just two guys who like to have oral sex with one another and like to fondle naked in bed. (This reminded of the chilling scenes involving Roy Cohn in Angels in America.) Tampico happens to be of Namibian descent and sends a Fed Ex package to Wilson’s Georgetown home just before he unexpectedly dies. Guess what’s in it.   


I am revealing nothing here, as you learn all about this before you’ve even unraveled who’s who. The novel’s crises points involve the aardvark’s eyes and who owned it between the years in which Downing stuffed it and it shows up at Paine’s home. As you might anticipate, it involves poorly kept secrets.  Enter the Aardvark is hysterical, surreal, political, and backdoor spiritual. If this sounds an unlikely combination of qualities, it probably has a lot to do with Anthony’s unlikely life. She lives in Maine now and writes novels, but as her bio informs us, she’s also been an unlicensed masseuse in Poland, an Alaskan butcher, a guard on a bridge between Slovakia and Hungary, and a secretary. In other words, her life has been as improbable as the plot to her novel.


The surface structure of Enter the Aardvark is so deceptively straightforward that it takes a few moments to discern the other things going on. It involves numerous contrasts and dualisms: ego and hubris, cynicism and morality, masked selves versus the natural selves, (mere) desire versus authentic passion, blindness and sight, cowardice and courage, fantasy and cold reality…. Nothing is wasted in a short work in which camphor, ghosts, Nazis, the Herero people, lavender marriages, and the transference of souls make appearances. When the aardvark enters, something is about to happen; when it exits, it’s time to reckon with consequences. In many ways, the concept of jiva is the novel’s glue. Like many Sanskrit terms, its English translation is more analogical than precise. It (sort of) means essence and/or living soul. Anthony uses it to raise issues of authenticity and what has a soul and what doesn’t.


Aardvarks are funny looking, but who knew they packed so much profundity in their schnozzes? You may or may not share my enthusiasm for this book, but either way you’ll have to tip your hat to its originality.


Rob Weir