Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir


"What I do is me: for that I came."
Feb 14, 2020
Project Hail Mary is a popcorn "hard" sci-fi novel, the newest effort by Andy Weir. It opens with the main character waking up in an unfamiliar location with amnesia, and the opening intrigue is driven by uncovering who he is, where he is, and why.

The first one hundred-or-so pages were the most enjoyable, and for that reason I will try my hardest not to spoil even the slightest parts of the plot. The first third of the novel is a cascading set of reveals that build upon each other in a fairly satisfying way, and suffice it to say that the most fun I had with this novel was slowly discovering each piece of the puzzle. Unfortunately, once all the puzzle pieces (save perhaps one or two) were fitted into place the novel lost much of its luster for me.

Project Hail Mary slots fairly neatly into the "lone astronaut struggles for survival in space" box that also contains Weir's The Martian. Those who read The Martian will likely be familiar with the plot cycle of "thing breaks, guy does science to fix it, another thing breaks and requires more science." This is also a good summation of the plot of Project Hail Mary, save for one crucial bit: Unlike astronaut Mark Watney, the main character of Project Hail Mary does not have his own demise hanging over him. There is no sense of "If you screw this up, you're toast." If the protagonist fails to use science to solve a problem (which is itself a distressingly small occurrence for a novel that supposedly wants to create tension), he has a number of safety nets that will leap (sometimes literally) to his rescue. "Convenient Science" is the twenty-first century deus ex machina, and Project Hail Mary has it in spades.

Interwoven among the "present day" narrator (told in first-person present tense) are sections of first-person past tense flashbacks that serve to provide many of the clues to the initial mystery. The timing of these flashbacks is handled very clunkily, as they interject whenever the main character needs to "remember" something and play out in their entirety even if most of what happens in the flashback is inconsequential. The main character will not "remember" things until the flashback plays but will only react to what he "learned" after the flashback scene ends, and so they start to feel like videogame cutscenes that exist solely to give the reader vital (and conveniently timely) information. Perhaps adding to the "flashback problem" is that none of the characters are very interesting as none of them are portrayed like real people.

My biggest problem with Project Hail Mary was the prose, specifically the present-tense narration. Usually, it can be read as the protagonist's stream of consciousness, except there are numerous times when he goes off on rants about the science of a particular thing. These paragraphs (yes, they are paragraphs) interject so frequently that they grind the plot to a halt, but are dumbed down so much that I can't imagine a fan of hard science fiction finding them enjoyable. I increasingly began to draw comparisons to the film The Core, which is another science fiction property that excessively enjoys having characters over-explain the simplest scientific concepts because it fears losing even the least-invested audience members. However, the science mumbo jumbo isn't even my main issue with the narration, which is that he's clearly addressing these rants to someone (and uses the metaphorical "you" many times) even though they take place entirely within his head. There were times I had to stop myself from shouting, "Who are you talking to?" However, what I thought was the worst offender of "Andy clearly doesn't know how to do stream of consciousness narration" happens near the end, so I will drop it in a spoiler and you shouldn't read it unless you don't mind having the entire novel spoiled for you:
Ryland has to choose between continuing his own course or diverting to save his friend. As he is wrestling with his decision, we get: a page break. Then we jump back in to see Ryland "apologizing" to his friend, there's a paragraph of description of space or something, then Ryland continues his "apology" with some lame nonsense because he's chosen to divert and save the friend. My academic displeasure with this misuse of perspective can only be expressed with the phrase: "THIS IS ABSOLUTE BULLSH**."

Project Hail Mary (**) is a hard science fiction novel that was clearly written to appeal to a mass audience. The simple prose generally works to that end, and the initial mystery is a worthy driver of the plot for the first third of the novel. After that, much of the tension falls away as the protagonist rarely faces a threat that he cannot defeat posthaste with a sufficiently "science-y" solution (and any remaining tension is sucked out by the overly-long "middle-school teacher" explanations of said science). None of the characters in the flashbacks stand out as they are all flat, superficial tropes who exist mainly as set dressing, and the protagonist's self-satisfied narrative voice wears out its welcome. If you don't mind being talked down to and have a few hours to read (or skim) simplistic descriptions of science, Project Hail Mary could be the novel for you.