Earth in the Balance: Andy Weir’s Project Hail Mary

Back in 2014, Andy Weir’s The Martian became a surprise hit novel, and then an inevitable hit Matt Damon movie. The story of a man accidentally abandoned on Mars and his fight to survive by sciencing the shit out of his impossible situation was immediately captivating. Weir followed this up with Artemis, about a mystery on a moon colony, and now he’s back with an interstellar thriller, Project Hail Mary.

I went into this book a near-tabula rasa. All I knew was that it involved an interstellar journey by an astronaut on a last-ditch mission to save Earth. Now, here’s the thing—if you haven’t read the book, I recommend you go into it with as rasa a tabula as possible, because this sucker is so crammed with plot twists and reversals that the less you know the more fun it’s going to be.

To be clear, they’re not gratuitous plot twists. Much as he did in The Martian, Weir sets up a couple base problems and then works through them, inexorably. Sometime there are solutions, sometimes not, and sometimes the solutions breed new problems that need to be dealt with. You can practically hear him backing his main character, Ryland Grace, into new and more difficult corners, then asking, “OK, how do I get him out of this?” This is the fun of the book.

Without getting into details (for now), Project Hail Mary becomes three or four different books over the course of its plot. While it suffers from some clunky sections, and more exposition than it needs, it’s also an engaging thriller with some genuine heart and emotional heft. If you enjoyed The Martian and/or Artemis I think you’ll love it. But to really dig in, to paraphrase Mark Watney, I’m gonna have to spoil the shit out of this. If you haven’t read it, you should bail out now.

For the rest of you, let’s get spoilery:

SPOILERS AHOY!!!

Book #1: A Martian-esque survival thriller! This is probably the second strongest thread. As in The Martian, Weir sets his stakes very high and then ratchets them up to incredibly stressful levels. We learn very quickly that our Sun is dimming because of an alien element called “Astrophage”. This means that Earth is doomed to another Ice Age…with only about thirty years to prepare. We’re pretty much fucked. To try to cope, all the Earth’s major governments band together for “Project Hail Mary”, studying the Sun, diagnosing the problem, and building a ship to try to solve it. One of the joys of the book is seeing everyone set their differences aside to work together as a species. As Grace travels into space, deals with the Astrophage, and tries to figure out ways to send life-saving info back to Earth, each solution he comes up with has drawbacks, risks, downsides, consequences. He almost dies, a lot.

Book #2: A surprisingly heartwarming First Contact story! Here’s where those of you who have read the book are nodding at my decision to bury this under a spoiler line. I had no idea there were aliens in this sucker? I’m just reading along, like, gosh, is Grace going to figure out the Astrophage? Will there be any way to get home, or is he really doomed? And then WHAM! Alien ship! Right there! And here again, Weir thinks of a problem: what if Grace has to handle First Contact, alone in space, with no backup, and no obvious way to communicate? How would a person work through that kind of stress? I loved watching Grace and the alien he comes to call Rocky gradually build communication—though I do think it was a little too easy at some points. And I loved Rocky. But for me the element that really got to me was thinking about Rocky’s intense bravery. To be alone for as long as he was, see an alien ship, and make the terrifying choice to reach out to an alien—especially as Weir lets us learn about his intensely communal species, and just how lonely and terrified he must have been. I also appreciated the fact that this First Contact story casts the human as well-meaning but not always heroic, allowing the alien to be the real star of the show for sections of the book.

Book #3: The ongoing taxonomy of an alien species! Ryland Grace is the first person to meet an alien who is sentient by our definition of the term. He has to describe Rocky, work through how he thinks, eats, sleeps. He has to try to help him when he’s injured—and his efforts are somewhat disastrous. He has to deduce ideas about Rocky’s planet, civilization, and cultural history. And Weir does all that, and gives us a bunch of worldbuilding of an alien civilization, through conversations and monologues between characters in a three-room spaceship.

Book #4: A story about Earth apocalypse! This one is, I would argue, considerably weaker. I never had a sense of how much time was spent on Project Hail Mary. While I liked Grace’s boss Stratt being a merciless hard ass who has to do an impossible job, I think more time could have been spent making her real and complicated, and showing her character rather than telling us about it via Grace’s snarky monologues. The catastrophe that face humanity was so enormous that I thought Weir needed to check in on it a bit more often, and with more in-scene action. For instance, the idea of an environmental scientist nuking Antarctica is terrifying, and I think spending more time on that, building up to that scene, would have been much more effective than the later monologue Weir gives to Stratt. Hearing her outline how much of a hell the Earth is about to become, and hearing her justify her attempts to give humanity a chance, was a fun twist on a classic villain speech—but it would have been far more powerful if we had seen more of Earth’s collapse along the way. Also, just the throwaway line that Stratt fully expects to live through Earth’s collapse in a prison cell after all the governments prosecute her for all the laws she broke—in a way she’s as doomed as Grace is, and I think playing with that more, and in more subtle way, would have served the story better and added to the tension in Book #5. Speaking of…

Book #5: Both is and isn’t the book I hoped we were getting! As soon as it’s clear that Grace has woken up with amnesia, and keeps talking about how much he wished he could remember leaving Earth, I began to suspect that the truth of his heroic mission was more complicated than he thought. I love that Weir went with “Grace was literally drugged, kidnapped, and sent to his doom after saying no” rather than “heroic schoolteacher acts heroic.” It’s such a great thread to weave through, when even Rocky refers to both of them as “good people” because of their sacrifices, to have the rug pulled out from under Grace and the reader. I especially like the idea that here is a schoolteacher who could be seen as kind of a riff on (actually heroic) Christa McAuliffe—we want to believe that this cool teacher is a renegade scientist who makes a huge sacrifice. Instead, Grace is a promising academic who fled his field rather than challenge himself. He’s a cool teacher, but he throws his kids under the bus and claims he needs to stay on Earth to teach them how to survive an apocalypse, which is absurd. He knows for months that he’s coma resistant, but never discusses it with Stratt or offers to go. He jeopardizes the whole mission with his refusal to join, even though it will, at best, only buy him about a decade of increasingly shitty life on an unstable planet.

All of this is great. My one issue with it is that I think, again, Weir should have let Grace, and us, sit with that discovery for a while longer. I’m personally pretty unsure of my own capacity for heroism, but I know that if I’d spent a few months thinking I was a hero, while piecing my whole life together after amnesia, and then found out I was actually a coward who almost doomed my planet? I’d be catatonic for a while.

But having said that, how great is it when Grace realizes exactly what he and Rocky did wrong, and how, even if he makes it back, Rocky’s doomed after all? The whole fantastic rollercoaster of Grace thinking he’s a dead man walking, discovering he can go home after all, realizing that he was a coward but that now he gets to go home to a hero’s welcome—only to realize that he has to actually make the heroic sacrifice to save Rocky and the Eridians?

Project Hail Mary is available from Ballantine Books

Leah Schnelbach might be coming around on the whole “going to space” idea. Come talk to them about interstellar travel on Twitter!

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