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Project Hail Mary by Andy WeirUK edition4.5 stars
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Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsHard science fiction has never exactly been a genre known for its accessibility to a mass audience. Indeed, many of the authors who are best known for hard SF haven’t shown much interest in crafting their books to be that accessible. Of course, there have been outliers. Arthur C. Clarke, with more than 100 million copies of his books sold worldwide (more than fantasy giants George R.R. Martin and Robert Jordan), is the most popular author to specialize in hard SF, and Chinese superstar Liu Cixin has sold 8 million copies worldwide of The Three-Body Problem, a book that includes Barack Obama among its most devoted fans. But for the most part, hard SF has appealed to hard SF junkies, who are happy — and maybe even a little smug — in their position as a niche fandom.

Andy Weir upturned a lot of preconceptions about hard SF with his breakout novel The Martian, which married hard science fiction’s strong sense of fidelity to scientific accuracy with relatable characters and plenty of smartass humor. It was a hard SF novel your non-SF-reading mom could enjoy, depending on her tolerance for F-bombs. But Weir’s long-awaited follow-up, 2017’s Artemis, was a letdown in every way, with a weaker, duller story overall and a misguided attempt at diversifying his characters. (I mean, there’s little point in trying to write from the POV of a young Muslim woman if you’re just going to make her talk, act, and snark exactly like Mark Watney from The Martian.)

In Project Hail Mary, Andy Weir has retreated to his comfort zone. This would be a liability for most authors, and indeed it will become one for him if he ends up never really being able to break out of it. But for now, he understands what he’s good at, and Project Hail Mary plays to every one of his strengths. The book takes the premise of The Martian and remixes everything about it, broadening the scope and raising the stakes as high as they can go. Once again, we have a solo astronaut who seems to be at the mercy of fate, but this time, instead of the world rallying to save him, it’s up to him to save the world. And instead of confining the action to our neighbor in the sky, this novel sends us into deep space in a wildly entertaining race-against-time thriller that, scientifically, does quite a lot of work, incorporating a first-contact scenario and speculating on ontological origin-of-life questions. With a masterful command of pacing and tension, Project Hail Mary is a better book than The Martian on every front. And though it remains to be seen if there’s any other kind of story Andy Weir might ever be good at, he proves beyond doubt that he’s damn good at this kind.

The premise here is a doozy: there’s a pandemic affecting the sun. A microorganism of unknown origin that consumes heat and that has somehow migrated through space, affecting not only our own sun but many neighboring stars, is a potential extinction event for life on Earth if the sun’s luminescence dips below a very narrow threshold. It sounds crazy, but Weir expertly sets it all down so that it’s always completely plausible.

Ryland Grace had a once-promising career as a molecular biologist that was torpedoed when he published a widely derided scientific paper suggesting it could be possible for life to emerge without liquid water. Now teaching junior high school science, Grace finds himself conscripted into an international team of researchers pushing the clock to find a solution to what Grace calls the Astrophage, a microorganism that is consuming nuclear heat from the sun, while, for some reason, traveling back and forth between the sun and Venus.

The crisis is dire. If left unchecked, it will be the accelerated opposite of global warming, causing an instant ice age resulting in mass wildlife extinctions and the loss of half the human race within 19 years. Astronomers have discovered that every star within a few short light years of Earth is also dimming, with one curious exception: Tau Ceti. A space mission to that star is fast-tracked in what amounts to a very real Hail Mary pass, the longshot hope that the secret to controlling and reversing the effect of Astrophage might be found somewhere in the Tau Ceti system.

From the opening page we know that Grace has been chosen to board Hail Mary as one of its three mission astronauts. We meet him as he’s awakening from his induced coma with memory loss, only to make the shocking discovery that his two other crewmates didn’t survive the voyage and that he’s no longer in our solar system. As Grace recovers and tries to get a handle on his situation, Weir employs what is almost always a bad storytelling idea, but one he manages against all reason to make work to his advantage: a flashback structure. By spacing all of the pre-mission scenes set on Earth to match Grace’s slowly recovering memory, Weir manages to establish everything he needs to in his narrative while simultaneously drawing us into Grace’s survival scenario and growing realization of what he now has to accomplish all alone.

Or will he? I suppose I don’t need to worry that revealing the book’s big second-act surprise will be any kind of spoiler, since every other review you’ve seen of it by now has almost certainly just spelled it out. But I like to play fair with my audience. Suffice it to say that while much of Project Hail Mary’s story is propelled by the kind of “science the shit out of it” action that drove The Martian, with our hapless hero desperately McGyvering solutions to seemingly insurmountable technical catastrophes, the heart of the story lies in a surprise friendship that Weir effortlessly makes funny and thrilling and moving in equal measure. Even in this, Weir is eager to go the opposite direction of every overworked SF trope, such as the very Arthur C. Clarke idea that any extraterrestrials we encounter will be so unfathomably advanced that to us, they’ll be as unto gods.

It’s a testament to how well Project Hail Mary comes together that my biggest complaints amount to nitpicks. The story would have been better if Weir had fixed them, but they don’t really amount to serious plot flaws either. For instance, in the Earth scenes, I wish Weir had done more with the issue of science denialism. In order to get the story moving quickly, Weir asks us to accept, a bit too uncritically, the idea that the world would have immediately set aside its political differences and come together to combat an existential threat to human survival. But we’ve already seen the world not doing that in its fractured response to things like climate change and COVID-19. When we have an entire political party in this country who took it as a policy position that COVID was a hoax and that social distancing and mask-wearing were tyranny, imagine how the anti-science crowd would react to being told that a space virus was eating the sun!

I understand that Weir probably didn’t want such a plot element to end up dominating the story, which it easily could have done. But not to mention it as an issue at all robs the narrative of some of its realism. There’s one scene in which Stratt, the hardass administrator of the Hail Mary project, with nearly autocratic power to command the resources of entire nations, has to deal with a group of IP lawyers who don’t like that copyrighted scientific papers are being loaded into the ship’s computers without proper rights clearances. It’s a gratuitous scene that could have easily been replaced by one where Stratt is facing down some irascible pandering senator intent on blocking funding, or something like that.

But on a better note, Weir does have Stratt remind us that even if Hail Mary is a complete success, there will be nothing like a Hollywood happy ending for the Earth. The worst effects of Astrophage will impact the planet before the ship has time to get its findings back home, and there will be food shortages, leading to famine and war and untold misery. It’s a bleak situation, but like any good hard science storyteller, Andy Weir is aware that truth can’t be whitewashed or wished away because it’s not what we want to hear.