[Read as an ebook from the public library.]
I read The Martian in one sitting — couldn’t put the thing down. It was pretty much everything I love about science fiction and being a giant NASA dork. I got a few chapters into Weir’s next book, Artemis, but it was just too much heist and too little space for my tastes. Project Hail Mary is a welcome return to a lot of what I loved about his first book. It’s a love letter to science and being a nerd and figuring your way out of problems. And there’s an alien in this one! An alien who’s also a big nerd! They communicate in math and chemistry and I don’t even like math and I still was utterly charmed.
Brief plot synopsis: Earth is facing a catastrophic solar dimming event because something is basically siphoning off sunlight. This dimming is going to lead to a new ice age that will kill off most of the current life on earth within a few decades unless it can be reversed. A three-person one-way mission is sent 12 light years to Tau Ceti because, while it should be dimming like everything else around it, it isn’t, and maybe there’s a reason. If the mission can find a cause, they’ll send the information back and hopefully save the earth, but the astronauts won’t have enough fuel for a return trip. Years later, Astronaut Ryland Grace wakes up alone aboard the ship with no memories after being in an induced coma and basically has to figure out where he is, what he’s doing, and how to do what he’s supposed to do.
There’s quite a bit about this book that’s like The Martian but there’s a lot that’s different. It’s a survival story in space and it’s centered on a science guy, so that’s definitely similar. There are lots of moments of progress (yay!) and then dramatic setbacks (oh no!) which kind of mimic plot beats in The Martian and in a lot of sci-fi. A lot goes wrong in space. The overall stakes are definitely bigger in Project Hail Mary, and that whole plot line is…weird. You just kind of have to go along with what’s happening with the Astrophage and not think about it too hard beyond the explanations you’re given. Same with Rocky, when we eventually meet him. Rocky is great and I love him, and I love that Weir makes Rocky weird and not just a humanoid with maybe some extra appendages and a different skin color. But unlike The Martian, where most of the science exists or is close enough to existing that it was fairly easy to extrapolate, there’s definitely a lot of speculation happening in this story. I don’t think it ever went off the rails into craziness, but it’s not quite the hard science fiction that Weir’s first book was, if that matters to you.
There were places where the story dragged a little bit, but not over much. Weir does his usual good job of explaining the scientific bits enough that you don’t feel overwhelmed and he keeps the plot jogging along at a pretty good pace. There were parts that I really liked and felt very real and parts that went one toe over the line into treacly territory. Without getting into spoilers, Ryland’s big choice felt very in character but I wasn’t wild about the very end, which felt like a bit too much. There are just moments that feel like Weir is thinking more about what it will look like on screen rather than what might suit the actual written plot better. And the story has of course been optioned and Ryan Gosling wants to produce and star in the movie, and y’all know how I feel about my Baby Goose, so I’m not against this idea.
So I didn’t love this as much as I loved The Martian, which I felt was grounded a little more in the near future and reality and space exploration and NASA nerdery. But it’s a pretty good follow-up all the same, and I don’t think anyone can resist Rocky the dorky alien engineer, who is worth the price of admission by himself.