Andy Weir’s 2021 science fiction novel Project Hail Mary is exactly what I’ve always wanted from a science fiction novel: A buddy novel where the buddies are a human and a spider-like alien.
Wait, what? So, I loved Weir’s 2014 book, The Martian, where the main character, Mark Watney, is left stranded on Mars in 2035 and has to improvise on that hellish planet to survive and get back home.
So, with Project Hail Mary, as the name might indicate, Weir simply ups the stakes: Not only do we have someone stranded in space again (and this time in an entirely different solar system with a different star), but the entire fate of Earth is at stake.
Our main character, Ryland Grace, wakes up to this new solar system 12 light years from Earth all alone because him and his two crewmates, who don’t survive, were put into a coma (which a rare handful of humans have the genetic capacity to survive being in a coma for so long) for the 13 years it took to get to the new solar system and as it turns out, despite the gene predisposition, the other two didn’t make it. He also has amnesia and as the book progresses, he regains his memories of what’s going on, which clues us, the readers, in as well.
Basically, the sun is dying because an alien species, named Astrophage because it’s Greek for “star eater,” are eating away our sun. If the sun dims too much, that upends the biosphere on Earth, resulting in essentially another mass extinction event, but this time, including humans.
These Astrophage emit enormous amount of energy beyond anything human beings have. They seem to migrate between Earth and Venus, reproducing and sucking up more energy in an endless loop.
Once the scientists of the world realize this, Eva Stratt, an American who heads a United Nations task force, recruits … Grace, a high school science teacher of all people, to look at the Astrophage. The reason she got curious about him is because he previously wrote a paper about the possibility that life could exist without water (a controversial opinion, given that all life, as we understand it, needs water to exist). But as it turns out, Astrophage use water, too. Womp womp.
Okay, to be fair, Grace is a former molecular biologist; he’s not a slouch, but still.
It’s also weird we don’t get much in the way of characterization with Stratt; all we know is she’s been essentially invested with the power of a queen to do whatever she wants to assemble the best minds, who can create the greatest technology (and maximize existing technology) to help solve the problem of Astrophage. She’s steadfast in the objective nothing else matters when compared to the continued existence of the human species.
… and she’s right! A rare exception where the ends do justify the means.
I have to admit, on the characterization front, I didn’t like Grace for the vast majority of the book. At first, I thought I did. His demeanor struck me as someone who was a real person: A bit goofy, sarcastic, but also smart and serious about his work. He’s giddy about the Astrophage (it is alien life, after all) and he just … talks normal. But as the book progressed, he came across whiny and weird to me. He for some reason takes umbrage with another scientist later in the book (I didn’t understand their animosity at all) and comes across petulant, egotistical and again, whiny.
As it turns out, the scientists, engineers and astronauts pegged for the trip aboard the starship, Hail Mary, are on a suicide mission. Get to Tau Ceti, a nearby star for some reason unaffected by Astrophage, figure out why and send that information back to Earth on these recently invented small ship beetles (so named after the musical group), giving Earth a fighting chance to mitigate a new ice age. All told, getting to Tau Ceti and sending the information back is the equivalent to 26 years of Earth life.
The concept of time throughout the book is hard to follow because time is just weird, but I think the basic idea comes from Albert Einstein: The faster you go, the less time you experience. So, the faster Grace goes through space (thanks to the Astrophage fuel), the less time he’s experiencing, but relative to him, those on Earth are experiencing a longer amount of time.
But back down to Earth and that 26 years. I have a hard time imaging two things: 1.) The entire world not collapsing upon the realization of a world-ending ice age within 30-years time; the ripple effects of that upon human living is hard to even fathom; but also, 2.) Given how people react to deadly pandemics, climate change and the like currently, I bet a strong segment of the population would be like, Astrophage? That’s just made up government gobble-gook to usurp our freedoms. That’s not true.
Nonetheless, the point being with the trip to Tau Ceti, is that it’s a suicide mission. That’s why the beetles exist to send back information. There isn’t enough fuel or food to be a roundtrip.
As it happens, two of the lead scientists (the lead and the back-up) decide sex is more important than the fate of billions of lives and the environment, so end up being in the same place at the same time when they accidentally blow up some Astrophage. Oh yeah, that thing about the Astrophage being powerful is that it’s also our savior to the extent of being able to turn it into fuel that can get us to a solar system 12 light years away.
However, once those two scientists are dead, that’s when Stratt turns to Grace to go on the mission. He whines! And complains! And Stratt rightly calls him a coward. Because he didn’t want to do it. “I don’t want to die!”
I just couldn’t understand it. To me, there’s no decision to be made there. It’s a foregone conclusion that if those two scientists died, which they did, and I’m asked to go on that starship one-way mission — and as Stratt points out, I have the knowledge of Astrophage (so I don’t need to be brought up to speed) and other scientific information — to save humanity, um, yes. How can you say no to that? That’s not even a martyrdom thing or “do it for the statues they’ll make of you” (as she tries to cajole him into it), but because it’s the right thing to do.
And our hero couldn’t do it! He’s no hero at all!
I was bummed with him, to say the least, but more on his redemptive arc in a moment.
While in space, Grace encounters an alien life form that shares a common evolutionary ancestor to humans, but is more spider-like, breathes ammonia, can live up to 800-some years, its culture needs to watch each other sleep and they have echolocation.
Grace names the alien “Rocky” after the Rocky movies, which is neat. As it turns out, Rocky and his species, Eridians, are also trying to save their home planet from the Astrophage and like Grace, Rocky is the last of his crew, who unknowingly were all killed by radiation.
That’s another cool, unique part: The aliens have interstellar flight, but aren’t on our level when it comes to certain aspects of science, like knowing about radiation. Grace will teach him about that.
Too many science fiction stories across books, movies and television obviously depict aliens as vastly smarter than us and often adversarial to us. Thank you, Weir, for putting some dang respect on humans! We’re better than we think, okay. I like the idea of humans and aliens being on relatively equal footing because we have the same evolutionary ancestor, as if we’re long lost twins in the cosmos; that is, we grew up in and evolved in different environments. It makes sense then, that we would be roughly at the same place with interstellar travel.
One of my favorite parts of the book, as a lover of language, is Grace trying to establish an understanding of Rocky’s language, so they can communicate and then work together. That’s where our buddy galaxy novel really kicks warp drive: Grace is the brains for science and Rocky is the man (uh, spider?) for engineering and can fix anything.
Again, though, I couldn’t help, but be annoyed by Grace. At various times on the Hail Mary before and after meeting an ALIEN LIFE FORM, he either talks about being bored (I despise the idea of boredom, as I’ve blogged about before), seems annoyed by the ALIEN LIFE FORM, or comes across weak, to be honest. I just have to say, as much as I don’t like to criticize writing, Grace’s dialogue, whether it’s his inner monologue, with Rocky, or with other humans, is often atrociously bad and again, made me not like Grace more times than not.
Eventually, Grace and Rocky part ways to save their respective planets (and turns out, Rocky has a crapload of Astrophage-made fuel, which he can give to Grace and help him get back to Earth) because they solve the problem: Astrophage, like any other living creature, has a predator, a microbe Grace names “Taumoeba.” Get some of those and fight back against Astrophage and stop the solar dimming.
However, there’s one wrinkle in the problem, as the two made Taumoeba strong enough to resist nitrogen, which was previously killing them, but also made them resistant to the material the aliens use, including of their own ship.
That’s when Grace got back into my … good graces, by deciding to turn around his ship and go save Rocky instead of returning to Earth. Going to save Rocky surely meant death because he can’t eat Eridian food and he doesn’t have enough human food left to make the journey all the way back to Earth once at 40 Eridani (the alien planet).
He became a hero! So, maybe Weir is a genius after all because he brought that dang arc WAY low to the ground so that when this moment comes to save Rocky (who is the opposite of Grace in terms of being funny, kind and optimistic), it really represents something profound and indeed heroic. I loved it. Well-done, sir.
I’m a sucker for stories like this. First, the fascinating science stuff. Sure, some of it goes over my head, but the general idea of other life being out there and being on the same page (relatively speaking) with us, is cool to consider. And it’s also scary to consider that there could also be a space invader at the molecular level that could come through and destroy (or try to) us.
I like to think that humans, as Grace comes to think, are more resilient than that. That we can adapt. After all, the most renewable resource we have is our human ingenuity. It built the Hail Mary. It sent humans 12 light years away. And it stopped an alien microbe from eating our sun.
So, really, Stratt is the true hero of the book. She’s a genius. She also makes a great point that Grace, during his whiny phase, shrugs off, that for most of human history before the Industrial Revolution, human life was awful because everything was geared toward harvesting, producing, storing, disseminating and so on, food. Food was everything.
Imagine a life and a world where your every waking moment isn’t consumed by how you’re going to get your next meal. Welcome to the last 200-some years of civilization and what made much of space travel itself possible at all.
But I also loved the book for its real human (and uh, alien) relationship between Grace and Rocky. That Grace, for all his other faults, wasn’t scared or suspicious or hostile to Rocky. And that Weir didn’t make Rocky a hostile alien or swerve us later that Rocky was secretly undermining Grace (I was worried that would happen). Nope. Just two people trying to save their respective planets. I loved it.
I want to know more about Eridian culture, though! Yeah, their biology was interesting, but that’s like learning about human biology (which Rocky rightly pointed out is weird. The interesting stuff about humans is all in our culture and our norms. I imagine the same is true of Eridians.
If you liked The Martian (I haven’t read his second novel, but I plan to now!), I think you’ll like this one because it’s more of the same, but with higher stakes and more alien intrigue. If you just like science fiction, then this one is a no-brainer. And if you’re iffy on science fiction, then I’m not sure you’d like this because it gets pretty heavy on science-y stuff, but I still think it’s intriguing!