Caution, mild spoilers ahead. I have tried not to explain too much beyond the blurb in this review, but I don’t think I can talk about Project Hail Mary properly without pulling back the curtain—just a little—on one of the major plot points. It probably won’t be a huge deal as this book has been out a while, and I suspect most people are probably already conscious of the little point I want to reveal, even if they haven’t read the book.
But I just feel it’s kind of polite.
I have a confession to make: while I am a huge Sci Fi nerd, I have never been a super-big fan of the ‘harder’ branches of the genre. One of my main complaints about this subset of Sci Fi is balance; all too often there is so much focus is given to the little details that the other aspects of storytelling are left by the wayside. While I was not as big a fan of Andy Weir’s The Martian as most people I knew, I did appreciate that Weir managed to strike a balance between the details and story telling in a rather charismatic way. And I admired him for this, as this balance is much more difficult to get right than you think. (Doubly so, as it was his first novel.)
So when I first picked up Project Hail Mary, I was expecting something along the same lines. And for the first part of the novel, I don’t think there was anything to the contrary. At first blush, our protagonist—Ryland Grace—shares a few similarities with The Martian’s Mark Watney. They’re both lone men, far from Earth, who sort of do ‘science’ things in a similar sort of fashion. But in Grace’s case, he’s stuck a little further from home than Watney—we are introduced to him waking up on an interstellar spaceship with a terrible case of retrograde amnesia. From here, we follow two narratives: one set in the present as Grace tries to work out what’s the deal with the spaceship, and one in the past presented as Grace’s memories of the events on Earth that lead hime here; a convenience to the reader as much as Grace.
It turns out that back on Earth, life as we know it is being threatened by a mysterious extra-strange, extra-terrestrial microbe dubbed ‘Astrophage,’ whose near-on exponential growth is somehow dimming our Sun. In a book that mostly constructed around harder Sci Fi elements, this is the one ‘soft’ conceit that gets the plot up and running. To Weir’s credit, he does give a plausable-at-first-blush explanation for the phage as not to break with the narrative flow, and it sounds like he had a bit of fun doing so too.
But I think we can all appreciate just how huge a threat solar dimming would be. So do most of the governments of Earth, leading to considerable co-operation on projects that could attempt to halt the impending death spiral society is facing. One of these is the Hail Mary—a space-ship powered by Astrophage that is being sent to the star Tau Ceti. It turns out that our Sun is not alone, and that many star systems are starting to show the ill-effects of Astrophage. But for some reason, Tau Ceti is looking remarkably unchanged.
And this is where the book shifts a gear. Because as it turns out, we are not the only civilisation that is trying to save themselves from the Astrophage. Nor are we the only ones who want to take a closer look at Tau Ceti. So, in a shock to himself, Grace ends up initiating first contact with someone who is well and truely alien. And just as desperate as he is.
It is this relationship with this other spacefarer that elevates Project Hail Mary above The Martian. Grace’s friend, who he dubs Rocky, is an absolute delight. I mentioned in my review of A Desolation Called Peace that first contact stories are quite commonplace, which makes it so much harder for an author to distinguish themselves. The approach Weir takes here is that of an optimistic attempt of co-operation and friendship. Think of the kind of interactions Becky Chambers details in her Wayfarers series when different species cross paths, suit around with a cup of tea, and get to understand each other. But in this case, we are dealing with a dozen more doses of SCIENCE. As these two are both nerdy-boys who need to do their very best science nerd-ing in order to save both civilisations. And this, I think, was one of the coolest things explored in the novel: so your biology is different and your culture is different–but what about you scientific advances? How are they different?
However, there needs to be a large dose of science-based exposition to detail both the project behind the Hail Mary and Grace’s nerdery with Rocky. Not unexpected, coming from this particular author. Different people handle these kinds of info dumps different, and I found that I had to adapt the way I read the book to get the most enjoyment out of it. Just like how Weir has to strike a balance between exposition and story telling, I, the reader, had to strike a balance between how much I wanted to nit-pick and how much I wanted to just along for the ride for. With regards to the SCIENCE part of the book, I decided right from their introduction that the Astrophage were a plot tool and I was NOT going to over-analyse those, as that would be a sure-fire way to break my immersion. But there were one or two other little things as well that looked pretty good on the surface that I thought might falter a bit under scrutiny. But I mostly decided not to do that, in the name enjoyment. (If you do want to read ONE example of where I indulged myself in a wee bit of overthinking, I have it all whited it out below the review, as it comes fairly late in the book)
I also took a similar approach with regards to the on-Earth politics that lead up to the development of the Hail Mary. Weir is very much correct in that such a huge undertaking would require a good deal of co-operation from a large range of people across almost every nation, but we could argue until the cows come home about how many people would get involved and how smoothly things would proceed. I personally am a bit of a pessimist so I was less inclined to believe that things would go as well as detailed—and believe me, things are not portrayed as going smoothly. I don’t think Weir is being a blind optimist! Parallel to this, I am still slightly incredulous that Grace ended up being so omnipresent with regards to each and every aspect of the project. But like the science-y stuff, I decided not to get myself bogged down with the details of either of these—and I advise other potential readers not to either, at least until the end.
Although I think everything that I’ve mentioned above would make for some great debate fodder for your local book club.
Part of their reason things to go half as well as they do though for the Hail Mary project is that a number of powerful entities grant a considerable amount of political power to a former European Space Agency administrator from The Netherlands. Eva Stratt is cleared to do whatever the hell she thinks has to be done to save the human race. And she makes some huge decisions and signs off on some big, controversial shit. Before he meets Rocky, Stratt is the main character Grace spends his time tangling with. And I found it really fascinating that Weir has given us a such an extreme utilitarian to act as our modern day Cincinnatus. But Stratt knows there will be no retiring out to the farm for her like her Roman counterpart when her legal immunity expires. She will not be loved.
Overall though, the ideas presented here are excellent, and Weir really does have a knack for writing this style of Sci Fi in a highly entertaining way. If this sort of thing is your bag, you really can’t go wrong with Project Hail Mary. And if you’re a big fan of audiobooks, you’re in for a real treat, as this one was done really, really well. Ray Porter is always a great narrator, but the production team have added a number of other little flourishes too that really put the icing on the cake.
Maybe I was lucky that the version of the book they sent out with the Hugo Voting packet ended up crashing my ereader?
For Bingo, this is Adapt. Organisms adapt, societies try to adapt. And someone is trying to make a movie adaption.
Now, about one of the little things I overanalysed:
During one part of the novel, Grace attempts to perform a selection experiment on some microbes that he finds in order to give them more favourable traits for the purpose he wants them for. (Yes, being deliberately vague here.) Now this really got my attention, because I have previously attempted, and later on, reviewed papers on, selection based experiments. And they can be quite hard to pull off—for example, the one I tried to perform during my PhD did come up with some mildly positive results, but it was only ever detailed in my Thesis. And not published. There is a reason for that. Although I will confess that was insects and not microbes. (For that, you should really read into the LTEE.)
So when Grace started thinking he could solve his issues just by applying a little artificial selection, a couple of things came to the forefront of my mind?
Did he have enough standing (read: already present) variation in his population sample that he could select for the trait? They only took a representative sample—could he have had an insufficient population size? Founder effects?
Or could a high enough mutation rate compensate? I have no idea if these little guys had plasmids, even. I know very little of their biology. And neither did Grace when he started!
And if they did, could we be certain that selecting for this one trait not affect other traits too? And would they incur a fitness cost?
Or on the other side of the equation—what if it turns out he was selecting for more than one trait? Lab adaption in selection experiments can be an issue.
But to Weir’s credit, one of the issues I thought up of did end up coming into play. And that ended up being very important! So that was rather cool.
But God, imagine if I did that to every science-based drama they came across? I would never have finished. Hence why I advise people to try not to overanalyse! Save it for the end!