Midway through I was very grumpy and wanted to give this a lower review, but upon finishing I’m a feeling a bit more charitable and so three star it is.
To summarize this book in comparison to Weir’d well known debut (which I will spoil in general sense below): take every plot arc in The Martian and dial it waaaay up.
To elaborate: The Martian was subtitled amongst some subset of audiences as “a fantasy of what we could do if NASA had a fully funded budget and prioritization.” That’s not a bad answer, and multiple interviews with Weir have confirmed that he spent a decent amount of time throwing around scenarios with engineers and scientists to ensure fidelity to physics as we know it. There are some elements that are exaggerated for dramatic tension (I believe Mars lacks the atmospheric pressure to create sand storms) but otherwise, we’re on solid ground.
Mark Watney, All-American Astronaut, is also within the bounds of reason. He’s an astronaut, trained as part of an ongoing series of missions with clear objectives and command structures. So when everything goes south, his specific set of skills seem reasonable as well. He’s primarily a botanist, but would have been trained in a few of his crew members’ skills for redundancy. He’s in constant (albeit time delayed) communication with Earth, which has rounded up a cadre of the most qualified scientists to help him troubleshoot all the engineering and scientific problems he has to solve. It’s a 21st (22nd?) century homage to Apollo 13 and Ken Mattingly’s “working the problem” on the ground.
Project Hail Mary…takes all of that and just throws it out the window.
Sure, there’s a grounding of real physics throughout. Time dilation is an issue. Hot things are hot, cold things are cold, and there are a lot of issues around pressure, capabilities, etc that are just problems to be solved. Grace and his crew need to work the problems, and they are worked well.
It’s just that anytime Weir attempts to establish context for the story…
Like. I’ve had some pretty smart science teachers, PhDs and ex-industry both, and like none of them can rattle off the top of their head *deep inhale* topics in particle physics, human visible wavelength spectrum in nm, the notes that go into a major chord, the distance from earth to Tau Ceti, on-the-fly calculations of force vectors, relativistic physics, and goodness knows what else.
Ryland Grace is an eighth grade science teacher, whose adoration of his students is admirable but who apparently is also a modern day genius science savant who was bullied out of academia for suggesting that life doesn’t need water to survive. What sort of paper is this, anyhow? A single author philosophical treatise that angered his lab so much that he was hounded out of science entirely instead of, you know, plodding away through his post-doc or whatever until he found another branch of astrobiology that held his interest?
Basically I couldn’t help but laugh every time Dr. Grace, good ol’ American male, did a little Liam Neeson bit: But what I do have are a very particular set of skills; skills I have acquired over a very long career…
Which is a pity, because I think that with a little less self-insertion (Weir, after all, is a non-[writer] who burst onto the [writing] scene in a very successful way) and some more help on the emotional filler this book could be a lot less…distracting, on the whole. I’d be clicking along, enjoying the adventures of Dr. Grace [and alien life form!] in space, and then be reminded that he’s a Gary Stu.
The bits on Earth as well, which are meant to evoke the “Earth coming together to fight against common enemy” atmosphere from things like Star Trek, Pacific Rim, Battlestar Galactica, lack a bit of emotional rigor. There’s really hard hitting realizations and choices at play on a planet that has to eke out survival for x years while a solution is found (if a solution can be found) but the first person narrative of Dr. Ryland Grace (he who never met an event that couldn’t use a ?!) doesn’t usually rise to match the gravity (heh) of the situation.
But enjoyable, and I didn’t want to put it down! Literally fell asleep while reading it yesterday, fell out of my hands and everything.