So, full disclosure, I never read The Martian. Haven’t read Andy Weir’s second book, Artemis, either. Both books were on my to-read list, and when the 2022 Hugo Award Nominees came around, and I saw that Project Hail Mary – Weir’s latest book – was on the list, I decided that it was time for me to get around to reading some Weir.
Project Hail Mary tells the story of Earth facing an extraterrestrial threat that threatens to render all life on earth uninhabitable. However, thanks to a space-ship built using technology closely related to that threat, humanity sends a ship on a desperate gamble to go to a distant star system, and retrieve a method that would reverse this threat and save the world. They just have to get through the Gamillan Empire fir-*whack*-ow!
Okay, fine, it’s not even remotely close to Space Battleship Yamato/Star Blazers. No Wave Motion Engine as analog to the potential promise and threat of nuclear power. The threat that could render Earth uninhabitable is not a deliberate, malicious act by an imperial colonizing power. And, more like The Martian’s premise (well, part of it), and unlike Space Battleship Yamato, the protagonist of Project Hail Mary is on his own.
The threat, in this case, is an interstellar microorganism that travels from star, feeding off of solar radiation, and dimming the star in the process. Through some research involving the microorganism’s range, and some data from astronomers, various scientists identify the Tau Ceti system as one that’s in the migration path of the organism (now known as the Astrophage). A mission is put together to send a crew on a potentially one-way mission to Tau Ceti to find out why Tau Ceti is unaffected, and send a hopefully reproducible answer back to Earth before the planet becomes borderline-to-actually uninhabitable. They can get there before then (and send word back) thanks to a way to harness the Astrophage themselves as fuel. However, our point-of-view character, Dr. Ryland Grace, ends up on his own after the other members of the crew die in stasis on the way to Tau Ceti.
Well, Dr. Grace isn’t entirely on his own – shortly after waking up, he discovers an alien spacecraft in the system, which also has a crew member on it, who is also looking for a way to stop the Astrophage. This leads to the other half of the plot, outside of Dr. Grace trying to science the fuck out of this, which is Dr. Grace doing first contact with a member of another alien race, as they try to find ways to save their respective worlds.
To be blunt, Weir feels like he’s trying to moisten a potentially very dry alien first contact story by marinading it in wit, with the use of an amnesia and memory recovery subplot to add background to the mission (through flashbacks). This isn’t to say the story is boring – not by any stretch of the imagination – and the dialog certainly has wit and charm to it. I didn’t come away being annoyed or bored, or find myself finishing the book out of obligation. However, neither did I come away from the book grabbed by it in the way where I found myself going “I would need to remember this around nomination time,” the way I did with Master of Djinn. Master of Djinn grabbed me, and left me thinking about it and the world for weeks afterwards.
To make a culinary comparison – Master of Djinn was a wonderful meal prepared well, one where I’d gladly make that restaurant a go-to place going forwards, and that particular menu item as a favorite of the available options. Project Hail Mary was fine, in a way that – to continue the analogy – would lead me to return to the restaurant, but to order different things on the menu – not because I didn’t like this, but because I’d want to see if something else would be the thing that blew me away.
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