Disclaimer: Spoilers, but only for the first few chapters. Not really spoilers honestly.
The other week (reading week) I was meeting up with friends to go visit our old high school again (now that we were allowed in) and to have some nice chow afterwards. As I was waiting for everyone to show up at the restaurant (we split up for a bit after the visit), I wandered into the book shop next door just for a gander. Even though it’s not often I read books nowadays, I can’t really resist my old habits and, well, suffice it to say I saw a couple books I recognized and walked out of there 90 bucks poorer and 3 sci-fi novels richer. Among those was the newly released Project Hail Mary by software-engineer-turned-writer Andy Weir.
I didn’t know too much about the guy, except for a few things: firstly, that he’s actually quite popular online. Some people don’t dig his writing style, but no one could deny that The Martian made for a pretty successful movie. Secondly, people use him as an example that it’s never too late to start something new. This dude worked as a software engineer for 2 decades before deciding “nah, I’ll just be a full-time writer”. And lastly, he wrote the short story “The Egg” – which I discovered randomly by browsing Wikipedia pages and which has since become my favourite short story of all time, greatly shaping my life philosophy.
Here’s a little plot synopsis with a bit of spoiling but only for the first couple chapters:
Guy wakes up from a coma in a weird room with a computer system in it, and he has a bad case of episodic amnesia. He doesn’t know what happened in the past (forever) and doesn’t even remember his own identity. But through random flashbacks and his ability to do science-y calculations he starts to remember that he’s an astronaut on a spaceship with a mission to do. Said mission is in response to a pretty dire situation on Earth… dire to the point that they threw humanity’s hopes into a single Hail Mary.
I picked up and finished Project Hail Mary in 2 days. To summarize what I liked (which I’ll mention later), it’s a book with an extremely high enjoyment factor at least when you are reading it. It brings in a massive plethora of scientific concepts and theories, is wildly imaginative and speculative about the future of Earth, space travel, and extraterrestrial life, yet still, for the most part, is written lightheartedly and humorously to keep the reader entertained.
It’s not without its flaws, though. I went through Reddit afterwards to see what other people might have loved or hated about the book. And of course, there were some haters, and many of the reasons I later thought about and found to be quite valid. Let’s flip the regular review structure around and talk about those criticisms first.
One of the most common grievances was that many of the supporting characters (i.e. those who weren’t the two main characters) were often extremely bland, one dimensional, and based on some stupid stereotypes. You know, haha, Russians chug vodka by the gallon, ruthless caffeine-addicted dictator lady, those kinds of science-people clichés. It’s one of quite a few things that make the book seem a little too Hollywood, which kind of tarnished the immersion whenever those scenes showed up. As much as this is a valid criticism, Weir has gone on record saying that he didn’t really put as much time and effort into making those characters compelling… it’s an excuse, but excuses don’t make the flaws disappear.
While the macrostructure of the book was absolutely splendid, each individual chapter followed a similar mold of big problem –> science and big brainery –> making it through. When it comes to narrative structure, I do understand that story arcs are necessary to make a plot coherent at all, but the problem with chapters is that they’re so equally quantized and thus predictable. That’s the main difference that actually made the macrostructure so interesting, as many of the larger arcs were of varied length went in totally unexpected directions, but within each chapter you’d easily know how the next pages would probably be distributed and just want to see the next major development.
Despite trying to learn from a similar mistake in The Martian, there was still very much the sense that our main character was a little bit too smart and likeable. I mean, sure, there is kind of an obvious justification (astronaut training and former academia), but the dude was still just a middle school science teacher in his 30s. Yeah yeah, you can say that he knows the rotation speed of the Sun, but damn, my 6th grade science teacher didn’t even know how to pronounce “integer” correctly. Mr. Grace and the other main characters just can’t know any wrong.
Funnily enough, many of these weaknesses in writing are also things that I tend to struggle with in writing, which kind of makes sense as to why I still relate to Weir so much. Somehow, that’s inspiring to me more than anything else, honestly; good writing can have weaknesses.
Now, onto what I enjoyed. As can be inferred from the weaknesses, this book is no literary masterpiece, but it doesn’t take intricate literary devices to simply make you love science. Weir emanates pure “cool teacher” energy (much like the main character); writing about an existential threat and vital mission with sarcastic and lighthearted humour almost throughout the entire book. It’s got a unique sense of tension to it; on one hand, if anything goes off the rails, everyone on Earth is done for. But on the other hand you’ve got slapstick comedy and stupid commentary thrown in there to the point where you just forget that any of this is actually important. It’s undoubtedly self-aware, which is probably the aspect that made that one teacher you had so “cool” in the first place.
For any science nerd, this book is an absolute joy. There are so many instances of scientific principles being used to their fullest potential in problem solving throughout the whole book, and the nonchalant and fluid way that the main character walks through everything is, if nothing else, ego-boosting. Even just two chapters in, the guy who woke up from a four-year coma successfully calculates the gravity in his ship just by dropping an object from a table and timing it. For all us non-astronauts, it makes us think “damn, I know that!” I’ve had so many eureka moments, from the usage of absorption spectra to antibiotic resistance to stellar cycles. What you learn in class is never useless.
Not only that, but the book also does raise some very relevant questions about the unknown path of humanity and what’s out there in the great unknown. How does Earth end? Are there aliens out there? How will interstellar travel happen if we get there? The book gives its own hypotheses, but those are far from definitive. Maybe it’ll be like this, but what do you think?
But that’s not to say it won’t be appealing for people who haven’t taken astronomy or whatever other classes. The setting and action are set up perfectly for interpretation for anyone with even a shred of imagination. Even for someone who doesn’t understand centripetal force, a giant space-pod spinning like a wheel is still an image to behold. And just wait until about 10 chapters in, when probably the most distinctive praised characteristic of the book finally begins to show up. I am NOT spoiling this.
To conclude, it would be naive to talk about this book like it’s a masterpiece for the ages. It’s not something that really digs down to the core of the human heart and its emotions. It’s just a feel-good book that lets science nerds escape into their own preferred realm. But you know what? In real life, we do need to think about rocket science. We do need to ponder if extraterrestrial life requires water, or what happens when our sun goes supernova. Science fiction is no fantasy; it exists in reality. And I don’t care if our spaceman here is some sort of genius. Maybe if we all aspired to be like Ryland Grace, we too could, y’know, not just fall over and die when some existential threat comes our way.