Andy Weir is one of those authors that seems to have burst onto the scene and become a big name in sci-fi spaces but somehow rarely gets mentioned in my corners of the SFF Internet. Maybe that’s because I’ve been primarily a fantasy reader, or maybe that’s because I prefer slower and more character-driven books to made-for-cinema thrillers. Whatever the cause, while I’ve seen the movie version of The Martian, I hadn’t picked up a Weir novel until my curiosity got the best of me with Project Hail Mary.
If you’ve read or seen The Martian, the setup to Project Hail Mary won’t be anything new. It’s a sci-fi thriller with science problems replacing the battle scenes: one scientist, alone in space, must use his brain and limited resources to avert impending doom. This time it’s an alien microorganism threatening to burn out the sun instead of an accident on Mars, but the structure is there. If you enjoy races against the clock to solve science problems, you’ll probably enjoy this.
The main character of Project Hail Mary opens the book with serious amnesia, and Weir tells the story by interspersing flashbacks explaining the background to the problem with the lead’s present-day attempts to solve it. As the narrative progresses, the backstory sections grow fewer and the present-day narrative dominates. Which is good news, because the quality of backstory pales in comparison to that of the present-day narrative. The flashback scenes do a reasonable job of introducing the main character and communicating how it is that he got to be alone on a spaceship doing research to save the world. But the secondary characters tend to be exclusively jokey nerds without an ounce of depth, and it makes the flashback sections increasingly frustrating as the book progresses.
Fortunately, the present-day story is more than enough to compensate. There are certainly plenty of science problems where failing to find a solution could be disastrous, but we also see a fairly nuanced portrait of our lead—a jokey science nerd, no doubt, but one with a complicated stew of cares and fears and general personality bubbling below the surface. He may be the only human character with any depth, but he’s pretty well-drawn. And the present-day story doesn’t leave him alone, but introduces a (not entirely unexpected, as studying alien life is the entire premise of the novel) first contact storyline, with an absolutely delightful mix of scientific and interpersonal obstacles to communicating and building relationships across species and cultures.
The plot, as one might expect going in, offers plenty of thrilling “solve this problem before the clock runs out, or die” scenarios, and they’re genuinely well-worked and entertaining. But it’s the interpersonal, communicating across cultures storyline that makes Project Hail Mary stand out from the crowd of science thrillers as a genuine pleasure to read.
Recommended if you like: science thrillers, jokey nerds, first contact.
Can I use it for Bingo? If you like this sort of thing, it’s likely a Comfort Read. It’s also hard mode for First Contact, regular mode for Found Family, and is a 2021 Publication.
Overall rating: 15 of Tar Vol’s 20. Four stars on Goodreads.