This review is brought to you in three levels, according to your tolerance for spoilers. I would like to state, for the record, I think anyone reading this review who hasn’t read the book should go in knowing as little as possible. If you think that’s just a swell idea, please remain at review level one, no spoilers: only the info you can find on the dust jacket. Level two will have some basic premise spoilers, and I’ll go into a little detail about the structure of the book. Level three will go all out. I recommend the highest possible spoiler avoidance here, when I normally don’t care one way or another if I’m spoiled, and sometimes actively go out of my way to spoil entire plots for myself in order to alleviate stress. This isn’t a moral objection to spoilers. In this case, I’m just very hesitant to take the joy of the surprises in here away from you. I found them all delightful. I want that delight for you, too!
LEVEL ONE OF THIS REVIEW
I haven’t been so giddy because of a book in a very long time. I was positively gleeful while reading this. I was cackling at points, repeating things the characters said out loud to myself (and the cats, who do not speak English), and also talking back to the characters. I only do these things when a book is so delightful that it switches off my rational brain and I lose track of reality for a while. Like, a part of me just forgets that what I’m reading is not real. I’ve bought into the illusion. This does not happen often to me! I finished the book and immediately wanted to start it over again, and I don’t believe that has happened to me since I first read The Martian.
And, I mean, the best thing about this is that after reading interviews Weir has given (with Goodreads, the New York Times, and others) it’s clear that two contradicting things are true: 1) He has succeeded in making a book that above all will make his readers have fun, which was his main goal; and 2) He still doesn’t know exactly why people respond, and continue to do so, so well to his work (Artemis being an exception here, or rather, maybe is a case of him doing something that interested him but not his readers as much).
I thought this book was just as fun as The Martian. They have similarities, for sure. The way Ryland Grace and Mark Watney science things is very similar, but they are, ultimately, different characters. (Weir has said that he knows characterization and character arcs are his weakness as a writer, and you can tell he made an effort here to work on that.) There is also a survivalist element at the core of both books. Watney has to find a way to survive on Mars alone. Grace has amnesia, and has to figure out where he is and why (answer: on a spaceship, trying to save Earth). But there are also a lot of differences, enough so that this book more than stands on its own, and doesn’t come across as him just doing The Martian again. These differences are all spoilers, though!
To wrap up level one, this book is more than worth checking out. If you’ve been hesitant because you were disappointed by Artemis, I don’t think you will regret picking this one up.
Level two below, contains plot details and spoils the main reveals of the book:
LEVEL TWO OF THIS REVIEW
(highlight for spoilers)
Okay, so I did this review this way because I did want to talk about the biggest reveal, as well as the specifics of how Weir sets this book apart from his others. The biggest difference here is that while The Martian is about survival, I would say Project Hail Mary is about friendship.
Ryland Grace is not a heroic astronaut, he’s a disgraced scientist who was roped into Project Hail Mary by a determined bureaucrat; he was in the right place at the right time, with the right passion for science. He spends the first part of the novel alone on the Hail Mary, trying to remember how he got there and figuring out how to survive in space alone, and what he needs to do to fulfill the mission he’s forgotten about. He’s very alone, and very sad. He allows himself to get very emotional over the fates of his two dead crew mates, who were his friends (he woke up and they were both long dead, having not survived the trip). I was really touched by this and even though I was already pulling for the guy, I just really felt for him in that moment. We toggle back and forth for a bit between flashbacks to Grace’s getting wrapped up in the discovery of the world-ending microbe, Astrophage, and his amnesiac state on the ship, long enough for you to think you know that’s how the rest of the novel is going to be. And then! Rocky shows up.
Rocky is an alien, also there in Tau Ceti (where the ship is) to find out how to stop Astrophage from destroying his home star, just like it’s destroying Sol. As soon as Rocky shows up, this novel goes from good to great. I was having a jolly good time before, but the switch from a survival story to a first contact story was so welcome and lovely. We watch as Rocky and Grace learn to communicate, exchange science and cultural ideas, and ultimately begin to work together to solve the problem of Astrophage. It’s so lovely to watch Grace and Rocky appreciate one another, tease each other, fight, all the things friends do. The spirit of discovery is alive and well with these two. I loved them so much.
I really have to commend Andy Weir for what he did in creating Rocky and his species. He’s one of the most genuinely alien aliens I’ve ever encountered in fiction. You can tell he really had fun coming up with different ways that sentient life could have evolved on a place as different from Earth as you can get. The contrast between Rocky’s so very alien nature and the ultimate personhood at his core, makes the friendship he builds with Grace all the more dynamic.
(One of the things I kept repeating out loud to my cats was Rocky’s version of ‘Thank you’: “Thank.” It’s very fun to say. And efficient!)
There’s a running, unexplained gag that Grace does not swear, except for once, and it could have been so cheesy, but Weir made it work. I will admit that I am very disappointed not once did someone in the book point out that the ship was the Hail Mary, and it was “full of Grace”. This leads me to believe that either Weir didn’t notice, or he wanted to see how many other people would notice his little Catholic joke.
The Rocky/Grace relationship is the heart of this book, but everything else that surrounds it is fun as well. The science here was VERY SCIENCE, and there were points where it lost me a little, but in general I really do think Weir has this great talent for making hard, hard sci-fi relatable and fun. The flashbacks that spanned years of Grace’s life were very illuminating, and though it was a tad awkward at the beginning of the book as a plot device, those sections weren’t just filler. We learned important plot details and a lot of Grace’s character growth was set up there. Weir also seems to get a kick out of making people from other countries put aside all differences to work together towards a common goal, although here it’s a little more cynical than it was in his first book, where everyone just genuinely wanted to save Mark Watney. Here, they are manipulated or forced into it, in some cases, and I thought that added nuance.
Level three below, SPOILERS AHOY for the ending:
LEVEL THREE OF THIS REVIEW
(highlight for spoilers)
A great thing about this book is that it didn’t end up where I thought it would end up. A big source of tension throughout the book is that Project Hail Mary is apparently a suicide mission, a one way trip. Grace is very upset by this. He doesn’t want to die, but he’s here, and he has billions of people to save. So, this whole time you think the ending is going to be that Rocky somehow is going to help Grace live and return to Earth (this is especially affecting when it’s revealed that Grace was coerced/tricked onto the mission by Stratt, and the amnesia is deliberate, and that he was too afraid to accept a place on the ship when it became obvious he was the best candidate after the two people ahead of him died). You’re just waiting for that to happen! And it does, and they say goodbye. And then something goes wrong, and Grace realizes that that thing has probably also gone wrong for Rocky, and unless Grace goes back to save him, Rocky and all his species will die. He sends the Earth-saving info forward, and he goes back to Tau Ceti. But it’s Rocky himself who is the motivator here. Grace essentially gives up Earth to save the life of his friend. And it is so heartwarming when they see each other again!
I loved this ending, all the more because I didn’t see it coming, and because in hindsight it’s the only way it could have ended.
A true joy of a book for me. Adding to favorites shelf, will read again.