Hugo 2022 Novel: Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

I’m currently reading A Master of Djinn, by P. Djèlí Clark and I’ve finished reading She Who Became the Sun, by Shelley Parker-Chan and Light From Uncommon Stars, by Ryka Aoki as well. So I’m getting through the novels at a good pace.

I’ll kick off my book-by-book reviews with Project Hail Mary. I enjoyed this immensely but I would imagine that enjoyment of the book is very dependent on whether you find the central character (a chatty science teacher with a science-facts pop-quiz attitude to science-fictional dilemmas) engaging or annoying. Teachers don’t often get to be heroes or if they do (e.g. in the recent Amazon Chris Pratt film The Tomorrow War) it’s mainly as a generic backstory or as a contrast to the exciting adventure where they get to be the real them. Ryland Grace is an enthusiastic teacher and it is central to his character and how he deals with events.

I’ll stop there for a moment because that’s one minor spoiler. The story begins with Grace on the spaceship Hail Mary (…full of grace, geddit?) waking up from hibernation with his memory severely impaired. This plot device forces him to work out what is going on in his surroundings but also is used to reveal the history of the project as his memories return in episodic chunks. As there are some twists and turns and the gradual revelation is part of the intended style of the book, I’ll put a spoiler warning from this point on.

If you read and enjoyed The Martian, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed by Weir’s latest. It has that same sensibility of putting practical science at the front of the stage, as our hero works out who and where he is and what the hell is going on with gravity. Where Project Hail Mary goes beyond The Martian is multifold.

Weir creates a wild situation in which thermodynamically improbable microorganisms are consuming enough of the Sun’s energy to have a potentially catastrophic impact on the climate of Earth. Ryland Grace is a former University academic turned high-school science teacher whose theories about potential life outside of the “goldilocks” zone of liquid water pulls him into an emergency mission to understand the tiny creatures nicknamed “astrophages”.

For reasons that are not revealed until late in the book (and which are a surprise to Grace because of his amnesia), he ends up as the only surviving crew member of a last-ditch visit to the star Tau-Ceti, the nearest star to our solar system that is unaffected by the astrophage plague.

In a further twist, he finds himself making contact with an alien visitor (nicknamed “Rocky”) who is in a similar predicament: the last survivor of a first attempt at interstellar travel intended to discover how Tau-Ceti is immune to the astrophage plague. Rocky is a creature with a semi-inorganic body from a Venus-like world of high temperatures and hot gases which makes physical contact close to impossible.

The addition of a relatable but utterly alien character extends the story beyond just being The Martian 2. Grace’s problems aren’t just engineering ones but also how to communicate and work with a being from a different world. Even so, spreadsheets are involved in that process and Rocky is an alien engineer with fundamentally the same mission. The common ground between the two is maths, physics and how to design controlled experiments.

It’s retro-scifi in many ways, although the even 1950’s scifi was not typically quite so sciency. I’m not claiming that Weir has dotted every i and checked every figure, but there’s enough aesthetic attention to detail to give the impression (correct or not) that he has. As the story requires humanity to develop interstellar travel in next to no time at all, there’s a necessary degree of handwaving, although Weir is careful to introduce only one science element of this-is-impossible-but-just-go-along-with-it which is the astrophages themselves.

Aside from Grace and Rocky, characterisation is thin elsewhere. In the flashback chapters, Eva Stratt is the indomitable leader of the multinational task force attempting to save the world. Here Weir struggle with implausibility — not with physics but with the degree of international cooperation and willingness of national governments to throw money at saving the world. Stratt may as well have magical powers and be a wizard, a Gandalf to Grace’s Frodo.

Weir piles on the ideas and by mixing in low-tech science with interstellar travel, relativity and alien contact, Project Hail Mary creates an exciting and human story about somebody just trying to get by in extreme circumstances. We have this stereotype of what science-fiction was that is not wholly divorced from reality (there certainly were heroic engineer types) but which is easy to overstate. Weir has taken that stereotype, took the idea seriously and extrapolated it into a modern novel that offers a fantasy that is worth believing in: that with imagination and cooperation we can solve substantial problems together. Although the story boils things down to just two characters saving their respective worlds, it is the antithesis of heroic individualism (Grace, as we learn, is not conventionally brave).

OK but is it a Hugo winner? What I want to see from Hugo Finalists is that they firstly stand out from their adjacent contenders and I think this book really does that. In the context of the other finalists, it adds very well to that spread this year of books that say “this is what the science-fiction/fantasy genres can be”. I wouldn’t be surprised if it wins and it fits the criteria of what I like to see in a Hugo winner as a credible ambassador for the state of the genre to the rest of the world. If it had a stronger set of characters and a broader emotional element to it, then it would be standing out from the rest of the finalists. As always, “should it win the Hugo” is (as it should be) a tougher question than “is this a great book”. I might yet put it 1 on my ballot but it hasn’t locked in my vote yet and at least three others stand a chance.

It will be a tough category to vote on this year, in a good way.


12 responses to “Hugo 2022 Novel: Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir”

  1. I really didn’t like this one. As you pointed out, yeah I didn’t love the protagonist who felt very much like a repeat of The Martian’s protagonist, and OH MY GOD THE FLASHBACK SCENES GOT SO ANNOYING.

    Part of that is me being a lawyer and finding the 2 page courtroom scene there one of the dumbest thing imaginable – it makes absolutely no sense and just exists to show off Stratt as this super badass world leader, except again none of it makes any sense and the scene serves no real purpose. And really that’s the truth about pretty much all of the flashbacks – none of them make ANY difference on the plot. Even the final reveal of them, that the protagonist was an unwilling traveler on this journey, doesn’t have any impact – it doesn’t change anything Grace does or would do at all. If the reveal came earlier, it might’ve had an effect on Grace’s willingness to help but at the point it comes, it’s just like “Well Grace has come this far and this sucks, but there’s no way he’s changing course or giving up after all this”.

    The interaction between Grace and Rocky is fun and popcorny. But really that’s about all there is here for me, and fun and popcorny is not Hugo Worthy unless it’s really good, which this isn’t. This will be below no award for me, and it’s not really close.

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  2. I got through this but enjoyed The Martian SO MUCH more. It had more characters and a real sense of peril.

    I agree with Garik16 that the flashbacks really didn’t add anything. I usually love an amnesia plot because it’s an interesting way of infodumping the back story plus having the audience find out things at the same time as the characters, but without any interaction with others during the amnesia phase, the whole power and usefulness of the trope was lost. Weir could have done a delayed reveal of the information without the amnesia plot at all by having the viewpoint character slowly reveal the info to the reader. My favorite bits were with Rocky.

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  3. I have to admit, I’m a bit lukewarm about this one. I didn’t really like Grace very much as a character, and the flashbacks-to-recovered-memory thing felt obtrusively gimmicky after a while.

    Also, as a linguistician (albeit lapsed), I feel I have to give a small yelp of protest about the ease of communication. Weir seems to think that all you need is a vocabulary, and syntax will just sort itself out. Good. Luck. With. That.

    – Though implausibly easy translation is just one of those hand-wave things you have to have… otherwise, every SF TV show would be like “Episode 169: the whole mission is imperilled when Picard finds out a verb he’s been using frequently actually has an irregular aorist tense. Meanwhile, Worf gets in a series of amusing misunderstandings while asking his way to the gym.”

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    • Practically speaking, I’d expect them to work out a sort of pidgen. However, I think the readers might get tired of stuff like “Astrophage bad. Kill kill. Lifesupport trouble. Fix fix.” 🙂

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  4. I thought the flashbacks were doing something different. Amnesiac Grace had a picture of himself as someone who would do the brave, sacrificial thing. I mean, clearly he had done that! And the flashbacks eventually showed that in fact, when given the opportunity, he funked it. And then he had to sit with that, but he got a second chance — he had an opportunity with Rocky, and this time he made the hard call, not for his own planet, but for the planet of his friend. That was the “full of grace” bit.

    So the flashbacks are there to give Grace time to build the idea of himself as someone who would make the sacrifice place, and then to decide if that’s what he wants to be.

    Is Hail Mary a sporting term in Australia? A Hail Mary play is a last minute gambit that could save the day but is a real long shot — an attack on goal from a huge distance, an impossible pass (I know it mostly from American football), something like that.

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  5. I am told there is a glaring science error in the denouement, though can’t reproduce the details; something to do with nitrogen (again)?

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    • Yeah – I was read it via audiobook, so it is harder to check the details but there was definitely a wait-hold-on-but-wouldn’t-that-have-etc moment on the issue of the nitrogen atomsphere. I put it down to me missing something in the explanation but it could well have been a mistake on the author’s part

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