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Review: Project Hail Mary

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Project Hail Mary: A Novel
by Andy Weir
Ballantine, 2021
hardcover, 496 pp.
ISBN 978-0-593-13520-4

When The Martian hit bookshelves in 2014 (see “Review: The Martian”, The Space Review, February 17, 2014), it became not just a bestselling novel but also a book embraced by the space exploration community. Andy Weir told a story of a stranded astronaut on Mars that was both thrilling and mostly accurate from science and engineering standpoints. By the time the film version hit theaters in the fall of 2015, even NASA hopped on the bandwagon, cooperating with the film’s production and using it to promote its own human Mars exploration plans (see The Martian and real Martians”, The Space Review, October 5, 2015.)

Weir became something of a celebrity from The Martian, speaking at conferences and even testifying before Congress on Mars exploration. Some saw Weir as a modern-day Clarke or Heinlein, who primed the pump for the early Space Age with their stories of near-future spaceflight that hewed far closer to reality than fantasy. However, his second book wasn’t a sequel to The Martian but instead Artemis, a book about a lunar city that was, in some respects, a cautionary tale of space commercialization (see “Review: Artemis”, The Space Review, December 18, 2017). While NASA has since called its lunar exploration program Artemis, its vision of activities on the Moon are far different than those depicted in the book.

The bad news for Mars aficionados is that Weir does not return to the universe of The Martian in his latest book, Project Hail Mary. The good news, for fans of hard science fiction, is that he tells a story that is interesting and is rooted in science and engineering.

Grace is a lot like The Martian’s Mark Watney, using intelligence, ingenuity, and determination to figure out where he is and how he can carry out his mission.

The book opens with a man awakening in a facility of some kind, tended to by robots. He initially has no memory of where he is or why he is there or even who he is. Gradually, his memory returns: he is Ryland Grace, an astrobiologist who left academia to become a junior high school science teacher, only to be pulled into the project of the book’s title after scientists discover organisms dubbed “astrophages” in interplanetary space, feeding off sunlight and growing at an exponential rate. Their growth threatens to lower the Sun’s luminosity and thus life on Earth.

Grace discovers he is on a spaceship sent to a nearby star, the only one in the stellar neighborhood not exhibiting dimming caused by astrophages, to try and find a solution: a “Hail Mary” bid. He also discovers, though, that the other two members of the crew did not survive the induced coma they were put in for the long journey. There is no one for Grace to turn to for help—well, no other humans, at least.

Grace is a lot like The Martian’s Mark Watney, using intelligence, ingenuity, and determination to figure out where he is and how he can carry out his mission. In the early pages of the book, for example, he uses a stopwatch and a makeshift pendulum to conclude he is in space, accelerating at 1.5g. He is also, like Watney, more than a little sarcastic, something that comes through both while in space and in flashbacks to his time on Earth before the mission. (The only problem with those flashbacks is that they cause the book’s narrative to go back and forth between the present and the past, a zigzagging that can get tiring.)

If you’re looking for a realistic account of humanity’s future in space, Project Hail Mary isn’t the book for you: hopefully we won’t have to deal with astrophages stealing the Sun’s luminosity. However, if you liked the drama of The Martian, one of human versus nature and grounded in science, then Project Hail Mary is an entertaining book. Weir may not be the inspiration for Mars exploration that space advocates once thought, but as a fiction writer that’s not his job. It’s up for those advocates to make the case for sending real astronauts to Mars.

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