Friday, 13 May 2022

The enduring appeal of the last ditch attempt

It feels like Project Hail Mary fell out of a time travel portal from the year 1986.

Much like many of the best-selling and award-winning science fiction novels of that time, Andy Weir’s third novel is an engineering-forward big adventure in space. And much like many of the best-selling and award-winning science fiction novels of that time, the book largely ignores pesky questions of race, class and gender.
Project Hail Mary's cover was
designed by Hugo-finalist
Will Staehle
(Image via Goodreads)

While many of us in the book club are often drawn to SFF that incorporates social justice commentary, some of us were happy to add a more escapist work like Project Hail Mary to our reading lists.

Much like Weir’s first (and most famous) novel The Martian, this is a book about a lone human protagonist in an unfamiliar environment using logic, math, and science to solve problems. The protagonist Ryland Grace wakes up from suspended animation in a spaceship with little memory of why he’s there, and must figure out both his mission and how to survive.

The broad strokes of the narrative — life on Earth is imperiled by a cosmic catastrophe, and it’s up to science to save humanity — will be a familiar one to many readers. In fact, the plot could be paralleled to those found in recent Hugo finalists such as Mary Robinette Kowal’s Lady Astronaut of Mars books and Neil Stephenson’s Seveneves.

With Project Hail Mary, this cosmic catastrophe comes in the form of solar dimming that will plunge the Earth into a fimbulwinter. It is quickly determined that the problem is caused by a microorganism — dubbed “astrophage” — that’s infected the sun and several other nearby stars. The titular project is subsequently launched to investigate the one local star that astronomers believe is immune to the astrophage.

Grace’s amnesia is a bit contrived at times, and provides ample opportunity for the sort of trigonometry fetishism that is a hallmark of Weir’s writing. Readers who get frustrated at the pedantic demonstrations of high-school physics will probably not enjoy this book.

Flashbacks to the inception, creation, and launch of the spaceship provide much-needed context to what’s going on, both on Earth and in space, but unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few decades, can feel somewhat naive. Weir paints a picture of humanity coming together to solve a global problem that threatens the survival of the species, which seems unlikely. Negative consequences of decisions made by protagonists are waved away. As an example of this myopia, we’d suggest looking at the side plot about an enormous solar project built in Africa, which Weir offhandedly notes will “lift the continent out of poverty”. Anyone who has taken even a cursory examination of development economics or the history of infrastructure projects built in Africa by for-profit behemoths will know that these ventures never end up enriching local populations. At times, this can feel hopelessly Pollyannaish and even knock an especially jaded reader out of the book. Even those of us who enjoyed the book noted Weir’s tendency to avoid talking about challenging political ideas, which can be seen as an embrace of the status quo.

At the risk of spoiling some plot arcs within the novel, what elevates Project Hail Mary above Weir’s previous two books is the communication, cooperation, and eventual friendship between Ryland Grace and a non-human sentient being named Rocky. This heavy-metal arachnid might be Weir’s most memorable character to date, and this empathetic relationship provides the novel with much-needed heart. The habitrail-like system of tubes that Rocky builds himself within Grace’s spaceship also provides an amusing visual. As an aside, many of the visual descriptions seem purposefully written for the screen and, surprise, a movie is in the works. However, as pointed out on the Narrated Podcast, even the character of Rocky is affected by the author's penchant for taking the path of least critical engagement with culture; Rocky is referred to by male pronouns, even though it is made textually clear that they/them pronouns would be more accurate. 
A three-page copyright court scene could almost stand
alone as flash fiction, and provides observant commentary
about the broken nature of this regime. It’s oddly believable
that it would take an international coalition with legal
immunity and the backing of a large military to ensure
that copyright public policy serves the public good.
(Image via

Andy Weir’s approach to science fiction is a classically nerdy approach, and can probably be best paralleled to that of Hal Clement or to Fred Hoyle. Like Clement, Weir sets up an improbable — but vaguely scientifically plausible — scenario and then follows that premise to as logical a conclusion as he can manage. And like Clement, his work has attracted a lot of ardent fans among engineers and scientists. (It might be noted that Clement also had to wait until he was nearly 50 years old to receive his first-and-only Hugo nomination in 1971 for the novel Star Light.)

Triumphalist visions of accelerated NASA, rocket ships to nearby stars, friendly sentient aliens, and survival stories in space are well-worn ideas in science fiction. But Project Hail Mary shows that there can be value in old ideas done well.

The novel is elevated by an emotionally satisfying ending that managed to simultaneously be unexpected, and to fit within the context of the story.

Hard science fiction has rarely been front-and-centre with the Hugo Awards, but over the past two decades, it has seemed that this type of work has fallen even further out of fashion. Despite some flaws, Project Hail Mary is a good example of the subgenre, and one we’re glad to see on the Hugo ballot this year.

1 comment:

  1. Channeling my inner George Carlin, perhaps these authors who don't address those pesky questions of race, class, and gender is because they know their limits. Anyone and their dog can have an opinion, but answers... that's a whole nother matter.

    Sometimes it is best to say nothing and be thought a fool than to open ones mouth and be proven one. Just saying.