Andy Weir rightly came to prominence with his breakout novel The Martian, the science-filled story of one man’s fight, despite the odds, to get himself off Mars. He followed this up with the less successful Artemis, more of a caper novel set on the Moon. Both of these novels, and Weir’s style generally, were anchored by quippy main characters with a deep devotion to science, whether it is how to grow potatoes on Mars to how you might pour coffee on the Moon. One thing Weir did cop a bit of blowback for in both of these novels was the amount of swearing. It seems Weir took all of the feedback and criticism to heart when constructing his latest space survival epic Project Hail Mary in which he goes back to the a similar format to The Martian but ups the stakes – one man has to save the Earth and all of humanity – while keeping in the quips and the science and (gosh darn it) toning down the swearing.
Project Hail Mary starts with one of the oldest tropes in the business. A man wakes up from a deep sleep (in this case a lengthy induced coma to cope with interstellar flight), with no memory of who he is, why his crewmates are dead and why he is on a spaceship in, as it turns out quickly, another solar system. Luckily for him, and readers, his memories come back sequentially in such a way that he obtains information just as he needs it, or as it is needed to explain some other discovery that he has made.
It turns out that an alien lifeform, called an astrophage, has turned up in our solar system and is draining the sun’s energy as it multiplies. The rate of cooling is such that the Earth will freeze in under a century. Only one nearby solar system, Tau Ceti, seems to be immune from this stellar infestation and so mankind gears up a massive do or die mission (hence ‘Hail Mary’) to find out why that is the case in the hope of saving Earth. Ryland Grace, a scientist involved in the initial discovery of the astrophage, is the last survivor of this one-way mission. He must discover the secrets of the astrophage and send his findings back to Earth if mankind has any hope. Luckily, without providing too many spoilers, it turns out he is not quite as alone as he first thought.
Although there is not a huge body of work to draw from, Ryland Grace can only be described as a classic Weir type – an overly optimistic, endlessly inventive, never say die, science nerd. Grace is a researcher turned high school science teacher (which apparently gives him licence to explain every scientific concept as if he is talking to a group of teenagers) turned super-expert turned astronaut. Mark Watney (The Martian) was more of an engineer, but aside from the swearing, they are essentially the same character. Weir solves the problem of Grace’s lack of engineering skills ingeniously and in doing so also provides the heart of the novel – his relationship with an alien who, despite all of their alienness, also turns out to be good at engineering, sarcastic quips and science.
While the first half of Project Hail Mary is a little overladen with exposition, it does set up a second half which accelerates to a page turning, disaster-filled race against time, anchored by its human/alien double act. Andy Weir cannot be accused of not giving the people what they want and fans of his work will not be disappointed by Project Hail Mary.