Project Hail Mary, the third book by Andy Weir, finds the author going back to what made him famous in the first place. Weir rose to fame with The Martian, a book (and eventually a movie) about a man stranded on Mars who uses complicated, compelling science to get himself home. While Weir’s second book, Artemis, deviated from that formula, his latest harkens back to The Martian’s formula, just with bigger stakes and one major addition.
It’s the story of a man named Ryland Grace who wakes up with temporary amnesia—he doesn’t know where he is, when it is, or even who he is. Eventually, he figures out he’s on a deep space mission to save Earth from a dangerous, molecular-sized alien that’s cooling off the sun. If something isn’t done soon, Earth will freeze and everyone there will die and his mission is our planet’s last chance. Truly a hail mary. Upping the stakes is the fact that even though Ryland is one of three people on the journey, when he wakes up, the other two people are dead, leaving the full responsibility of humanity’s survival on his shoulders.
So you’ve got one man, on a spaceship, who has to save an entire planet—in terms of stakes, they don’t get much bigger than that. And as you’d expect, Weir puts Ryland in increasingly difficult situations as things on the mission go wrong, need to be fixed, adapted, and more, all with the ticking clock of mass extinction in our minds. That alone would make for an intriguing story, albeit one that’s almost too similar to The Martian—which is why Weir puts in a twist. One that’s not a huge spoiler (it’s revealed about 170 pages into a 470-page novel) but a big enough reveal that if you’re interested in reading the book, you should leave here. Long story short, Project Hail Mary is nerdy as hell and a wild page-turner if you love weird science stuff.
The biggest thing that differentiates Project Hail Mary from The Martian is that Earth isn’t the only planet that’s being threatened by these microscopic alien energy suckers. Ryland makes this discovery when another spaceship docks with his in deep space, near a star that Earth believes could hold an answer. And so Weir’s unique brand of writing about science problem solving now includes him trying to work out the problems of first contact and a single human trying to communicate with an alien intelligence. Ryland eventually names the alien Rocky, because he’s described as kind of a giant rock spider, and he and Ryland become friends after many, many months of using science and technology to figure each other out.
There’s a lot of back and forth about the differences between our planets, species, how to communicate, physically interact, and more. So the book is broadly split into four sections: before Rocky, meeting Rocky, and being friends with Rocky, all of which are interspersed with flashbacks to how Earth discovered the microscopic aliens and hatched the plan to send three people into space to solve it. Weir uses Ryland’s initial amnesia to great effect here, telling the main story of him in space, meeting Rocky, and trying to save humanity while occasionally having Ryland remember something back on Earth, like how he got involved with the project, who the other scientists were, etc. Each flashback reveals more about Ryland’s character and gives additional, helpful context to his budding friendship with the alien. All of these pieces of the story feature tons of Weir’s signature, highly readable and wildly detailed science jargon which is absolutely fascinating even if you can’t make heads or tails of it. The way he writes about something so utterly complex in a way that you understand just enough, and are both interested and engaged with it, is a true talent. When that’s applied to the obviously very interesting idea of first contact with an alien species, it gets exponentially better.
Project Hail Mary feels like it’s stuck in place for long, long stretches of time but that’s OK because the joy in discovering truths about different alien species, and conversely the fun in aliens discovering things about humans, are endlessly captivating. Rocky and Ryland eventually develop a strong bond that adds even more dramatic stakes to their last-ditch attempts to save both their planets, and make no mistake, Weir throws every possible problem imaginable at the unlikely pair. We won’t say what happens either way but the ending was not what I was expecting, in an honest, appropriate way.
Project Hail Mary may just be Andy Weir doing The Martian again with bigger stakes and an alien but it’s very hard to put down. I devoured it in days with each twist and turn, both in the past and present, providing new things to discover and think about, all while being delightfully excruciating almost as if you’re in space with the characters. Fans of aliens, science, and space travel will almost certainly enjoy it.
Project Hail Mary is now available in bookstores everywhere. A movie version, reportedly starring Ryan Gosling, directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, and with a screenplay by Drew Goddard, is also in the works.
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