Project Hail Mary, by Andy Weir (Del Rey, 2021)
Andy Weir’s first two novels, The Martian and Artemis, established a distinct style: a loner who resolves their way out of one big crisis and a series of lesser ones armed with nothing but science and a sense of humour. His third novel starts almost in self-parody but goes on to have the most moving, redemptive and emotionally satisfying ending so far.
An amnesiac man wakes up in a well-stocked medical centre. Within a few pages, using only the equipment available to hand, he has deduced he is on a spaceship under constant 1.5g thrust. A series of flashbacks in lieu of recovered memory tell us that the ship is Hail Mary; the man is disillusioned academic Dr Ryland Grace (not your first choice for an astronaut); and that a kind of space algae, dubbed Astrophage, is slowly consuming Earth’s sun. In fact, all our neighbourhood stars show signs of infestation, except for Tau Ceti. Hail Mary’s mission is to get to Tau Ceti, work out what makes that star different, and find a solution.
Hail Mary’s design, the mission, the crises that arise, and their solutions are all of course managed with rigorous logic and attention to detail. Yet, for all the science, this is Weir’s first really speculative novel, given that it has aliens. For the first time Weir is making things up from scratch, though again with ruthless trademark logic, from the lifecycle of Astrophage to an intelligent race whose sole sensory inputs are touch and hearing. Yes, Epsilon Eridani is also infested, and the beings there have also sent a ship to Tau Ceti.
Provided you don’t stop to ask whether real life is really that cut and dried, the international co-operation behind Hail Mary is the one false-sounding note. We see and can believe that the environmental effects of building it in the first place, and the measures taken to let humanity survive the minimum 2.6 decades until a solution to Astrophage is found, make it a cure almost worse than the disease. What seems less real is the quiet global acceptance that the problem exists in the first place. Recent events have shown that politicians, let alone whole populations, do not always see the scientifically clear and evident way out of a crisis.
The stakes are much higher here than in previous books – we are talking the survival of all of humanity. Paradoxically, this feels the most relaxed of Weir’s works. Earth is 12 light years away from the action. Grace and his new alien friend quickly work out their respective takes on biochemistry, mathematics and other matters all by a few simple observations, but it’s still not as edge-of-your-seat as watching a man work out how not to starve on Mars, or a woman evade the clutches of the Lunar Mob.
Still, I wasn’t counting the number of subcrises they face together, but the count is at least as high as with the previous books and more than makes up for this. Then along come the last few pages and we learn Weir has been keeping the real zingers up his sleeve, ready to play at exactly the right moment. A bit of friendly chat between our heroes, cleverly not phrased as an evolution 101 lesson, serves as a conversational Chekov’s Pistol as they speculate about how two life forms from different worlds can evolve to hear the same frequency range and think at the same speed – and be prepared to die for each other.
The one question not answered is why the spaceship built by a massive international effort is named after a prayer exclusive to one denomination of one of Earth’s many religions. Maybe it’s a statement of faith – like prayer, irrational but the last thing you can fix your hopes on. And Hail Mary is, of course, full of Grace.