Book Review: Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

Book Review: Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

While I generally prefer fantasy, I still enjoy science fiction quite a bit. In fact, one of my all-time favorite books is Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card, the sequel to Ender’s Game. I just find it so fascinating to read a story that have more fantastical elements (like portals, laser swords, etc.) while feeling like they could be real, or that they fit into our understanding of science. To me, a great sci-fi story requires a healthy mix of both science and imagination, which I think Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir nails expertly.

To give you a little taste of what the book is about, Project Hail Mary centers on a former high school teacher named Ryland Grace. He wakes up in a spaceship, having been in a coma for some times, and finds that he can’t remember anything about who he is nor why is there. But as he starts to remember his past, he realizes that he is the only one who can save humanity from an unknown threat that is causing the Sun to dim at an alarming rate. Grace uses all his scientific knowledge and courage to unravel the mystery and try to make a solution.

In short, I fully recommend Project Hail Mary to anyone looking for sci-fi mystery with heaps of personality. If you enjoyed The Martian, then you’ll have plenty to love in this book too. It’s classified as hard science fiction, meaning that it primarily concerned about scientific accuracy and procedure rather than leaning into futuristic politics or sociology (think more Andromeda Strain rather than something like The Expanse series)1, which could be either a big positive or major negative, depending on your tastes. But even though the plot involves a lot of scientific-y things and terminology, I felt as though they were described in an approachable and understandable way, meaning that if you are normally put off by such things you might still like this book. After all, Dr. Grace is an enjoyable character with his dad/school teacher sense of humor and his personality is fun to follow, even if you aren’t a big fan of science.

From here on out though, I will be dipping into spoilers to discuss what I particularly enjoyed about the story. So, if you’re trying to avoid spoilers, get out now! 

I found the main “antagonist” of the story to be incredibly interesting, not just in how it poses as a threat but how it helps as well. You see, the Sun’s dimming is caused by a micro-organism called the “astrophage” since it consumes the Sun’s energy to fuel its reproductive cycle. And without a predator, it grows uncontrollably until it takes up all the Sun’s light. Rather than some super-advanced alien race interfering with humanity, it’s just a little bacterium, albeit a miraculous one. It’s not just a threat too; it offers humans the ability for near-light speed travel which is used to get to the astrophage’s original system. It represents not only a global threat but also a technological leap forward for humanity.

I loved this, since it plays nicely into Project Hail Mary’s theme of the merits of science. If the problem had been caused by an intelligent species, then the solution involve politics or the military, or some combination of the two, which would obviously change the tone of the story drastically. Instead, we get to watch as a scientist tackles the problem using the scientific method. Sure, it’s not as action packed as Starship Troopers, but it’s more hopeful and optimistic too, as Grace proves that one armed with science can accomplish anything they set their mind to. This also sets it apart from the more generic sci-fi action stories and offers something new.

Granted, the idea of a bacteria growing on or very close to the surface of the Sun is definitely science fiction, but Andy Weir approaches in a realistic way that makes you believe in the story. He gives it enough detail about how it moves, its life cycle, and how it’s used in the spacecraft to make you feel like it could be real, despite it being practically impossible. It helps also that Grace and other scientists are amazed by the astrophage as well, which is a great way of lampshading the issue.

The biggest issue that I take with the story however comes with one of its twists. We found out near the end of the book that Grace didn’t actually want to be sent on the mission at all, even when the fate of the world depended on him going. He threatened to let everyone on Earth die just in trying to get out of it, which lead to the project lead Strauss having to drug him and give him amnesia so he would do his job. 

But while the book treats this like a major reveal, it doesn’t seem to impact the story very much when it’s revealed to Grace. He doesn’t question everything he’s done up to that point, and he doesn’t reconsider what he’s about to do. Instead, he thinks what amounts to “that’s crazy, huh” and continues on. I think that this reveal would have had more weight if a little more time was given to show Grace’s reaction. What does this mean for his own personality? Does he regret saying that? Did he even mean it when he said it? I don’t think you would even need to explore it a lot, just enough to get a sense that it really affected him. And while this isn’t a major issue (I still loved the book) it does represent an opportunity for an emotional moment and a good lesson for Grace about himself.

All in all, a great book and I look forward to whatever else Andy Weir comes up with!

Thanks for reading!

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