‘Hail Mary’ in Space

Andy Weir scores again with another thrilling sci-fi survival novel

We’re barely a few paragraphs into Andy Weir’s new novel Project Hail Mary when the protagonist tells us how, trying to escape from a robot doctor, he has just painfully ripped a tube out from his urethra, causing his penis to bleed.

Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.

This opening might surprise anyone roughly acquainted with Weir’s best-selling novel The Martian, or its associated Hollywood movie. After all, it’s difficult to imagine Matt Damon rolling around naked in the opening sequence of a Project Hail Mary adaptation, blood dripping from his man part. 

So it will come as little surprise that this is only a minor plot detail and his genitalia barely appears again in the following 500 pages. That’s a spoiler, I guess, but given that the protagonist at this point doesn’t even know his own name, location or mission, almost anything I’d write would be a spoiler. 

Project Hail Mary

Suffice to say there’s plenty at stake. Our hero (his name, it turns out, is “Grace”—appropriately for a title invoking Mary) is humanity’s last best chance of avoiding a sixth extinction event. Our survival depends on him remembering who he is, what he needs to do, and working out how to effectively execute his mission.

If Randall Monroe, author of “What If…” and the webcomic xkcd were to write novels, they would be like Weir’s. That’s because Weir has developed a fascinating narrative style in which the plot’s energy comes from answering the question of “what if this emergency happened?” 

All science fiction does this to some extent, but unlike, say, Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves in which the moon explodes, leaving humanity to save itself, Project Hail Mary (like The Martian) is only secondarily a human disaster. Primarily it’s a fascinating middle school project about a series of emerging, high-stakes science and engineering problems that our hero needs to explain, address, and solve in real time.

That technical focus comes because Weir’s characters barely exist beyond their actions. Yes, the first-person narrator tells the story in the present tense and yes, characters indulge in conversations, but neither convinces nor compels. The dialogue mostly serves as  exposition; though we root for the narrator, the plot evinces little personality beyond what he simply states. Indeed, the things Grace names after The Beatles and characters from Rocky films sometimes feel as though they have as much personality as actual characters. As Grace remembers his past, we discover a back story including people (he loves kids, but in a surprising and lovable way!) imbued with the stereotypical qualities that they continue to exhibit. Yes, that’s a criticism, but, like the bleeding dick, it’s really incidental.

The entire fate of humanity, not to mention his own survival, rests on everything that Grace does. Actually, even more than just the continuation of the human race depends on him. It is, after all, a space story. Grace develops an unlikely friend who becomes both a partner in many experiments and adventures as well as, fortunately for us, an interlocutor to whom Grace can explain his insights and actions for the reader’s benefit.

I’ll leave to you to find out whether or not Grace saves the day. It doesn’t feel like the fate of humanity is resting on it, but if you liked The Martian or Randall Monroe or if you just wanted to hang out with the super-engaging middle school science teacher you never had, Project Hail Mary is a great summer read.

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Dan Friedman

Dan Friedman is the former executive editor of the Forward and the author of an ebook about Tears for Fears, the 80s rock band. He has a PhD from Yale and writes about books, whisky and the dangers of online hate. Subscribe to his newsletter.

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