Mixing his own excrement with soil on Mars, Mark Watney, the protagonist of Andy Weir’s debut novel “The Martian,” builds a potato farm on the red planet and harvests the tubers to stay alive.
Weir’s characters, like Watney, are famous for jury-rigging solutions to complex problems and “sciencing the shit out of things,” so it should come as no surprise his latest novel, Project Hail Mary, is built from an assortment of ideas Weir had been bouncing around in his head for some time, including an abandoned, 75,000-word story called “Zhek.”
“That book just wasn’t working out,” Weir says. “The characters were boring and the plots were too convoluted.”
His latest novel, Project Hail Mary, is neither of those things. It shares DNA with The Martian and Weir’s second novel, Artemis, about a smuggler named Jazz who lives and works in the first city on the moon. But it’s a lot more ambitious with its setting and ideas and overcomes (or sidesteps) many of the problems found in Artemis.
The novel centers on Ryland Grace, who wakes up, confused and alone, a few light-years from our solar system. Slowly recovering from his amnesia, Grace learns Earth is in big trouble: A newly-discovered alien microbe is consuming heat from the sun. In a few decades, the planet will be plunged into an ice age that wipes out half of humanity.
Grace remembers, through flashbacks, that he was once a scientist but left academic to be a high school science teacher and his mission is a fairly simple one: Save the Earth from becoming a snowball.
Grace, like Watney and Jazz before him, is a fixer. Weir places his characters in life-or-death situations and tasks them with overcoming challenge after challenge. His novels have been widely celebrated for how strictly they adhere to real scientific principles and real physics. Guiding readers through spectroscopy and studying infrared light could quickly turn dour, but Weir rarely lets the details bog down the pace.
Particularly in Project Hail Mary, scientific explanations never get in the way of the story’s rhythm. It bounces from one problem to the next with verve, interspersing each completed challenge with pieces of Grace’s life back on Earth. Despite his success, Weir doesn’t consider himself a good writer and the backstory helps to address one of Weir’s self-confessed weaknesses: characters.
“Mark Watney had no depth at all,” he says. “He was likeable, but when you’re done with the book you don’t know anything about him other than he’s a guy who didn’t want to die.”
Weir says he tried to “step it up” for Ryland Grace. As the character’s backstory is filled in, his reasons for being on the ship become clear. Later in the book, he’s joined by a crew mate — an alien engineering expert from a distant planet. (When asked if he thinks it’s likely we’d find friendly aliens, Weir quips “we don’t have any resources to fight over so I can’t see any source of conflict.”)
The first contact sections of Project Hail Mary are a delight and a departure from the hard science, giving Weir the room to develop Grace and highlight the spirit of collaboration space science is all about: scientists and engineers working together to push the boundaries of exploration. The resulting relationship has a satisfying pay off that Weir hasn’t been able to achieve between characters in his two previous novels.
Of Weir’s three hard sci-fi stories, Project Hail Mary is the one that operates in the most fantastical universe. While the science of interstellar spaceships and alien life stacks up, Weir’s built a world more untethered from our own than The Martian or Artemis. Mars and the moon are tangible places that instantly evoke images in the mind, but Project Hail Mary takes Grace far beyond those worlds — to about 12 light-years from Earth. And yet, it feels the closest to home.
Perhaps that’s because in 2021 it’s hard to look at Grace, isolated from all of human life, and not think about the pandemic. Most of us are slowly coming out of an extended period of isolation, having confronted and (almost) overcome a world-changing threat, predominantly through science and international collaboration.
The links, Weir has stated in a number of interviews, are merely coincidental — the book was complete long before we were wrestling with coronavirus. “All things being equal, I’d rather the pandemic hadn’t happened at all,” he notes. Although the book is ultimately hopeful, Grace’s quips about being alone and what that does to the brain land a little heavier than they might have pre-pandemic.
And there’s another existential threat lurking within the pages of Project Hail Mary. The bugs in the novel, dubbed “Astrophage,” are feeding on sunlight and dimming the star which, scientists in the book predict, will cause a global collapse of food chains. It’s climate change, ratcheted up to 11, on timescales even Grace’s students can comprehend.
In one flashback segment, Grace discusses climate change with his pupils when one quips “my dad says that’s not real.” Grace shoots back, matter-of-factly, “well it is.” Weir insists there’s no moral, deeper meaning or message.
“I just want to entertain the reader,” he says.