Andy Weir's Project Hail Mary


This review has some very light spoilers, but I don't give away anything serious.

I don't usually read science fiction, so it can only be serendipity that I saw it a copy of Andy Weir's latest novel in a Little Free Library in my neighborhood. Weir's Project Hail Mary is a heartwarming book on the power of science and human will. And although it has some minor flaws, I enjoyed my time with it and recommend it to anyone who wants a bit more optimism and energy for life's problems.

PHM follows the same story structure as Weir's earlier The Martian: a man in a devastating situation races the clock and overcomes impossible odds through the power of science, engineering, teamwork, and a plucky can-do attitude. But a few twists on this basic structure make PHM feel like a fresh addition to what I hope will become its own subgenre.

The first of these twists is part of PHM's hook: its protagonist wakes up with almost total memory loss, so the reader uncovers the story as the protagonist does. It's a cute setup that mixes Weir's light comic touch with the existential horror of its protagonist's mission.

And by "existential" I mean existential. Where The Martian's Mark Watney is fighting for his own survival, PHM's Ryland Grace soon realizes if he fails, humankind itself is doomed.

I'd like to say more, but I don't want to give anything away. So I'll turn to some other aspects of the book instead.

Weir's prose does enough to manage the tone and keep the plot going. It especially shines in his comic dialog, particularly as it involves the quite lovable Ryland Grace. But a few pieces of dialog ring false to me, including an awkward and tonally bizarre conversation about sex that I felt added nothing to the story. I think Weir was going for awkward humor here, but it didn't land for me and I had some (thankfully unjustified) second thoughts about what kind of book I was reading.

Still, the real draw of a Weir story is that we see our protagonist meticulously problem-solve his way out of tense situations with science and engineering, and PHM delivers here (at least, according to what I remember from my high school and undergraduate science classes). Weir gives the feeling that although these events are unlikely, they are plausible, and that's enough to give the story credibility.

Structurally there are three false notes to me. The first is that humankind's response to its existential threat is mature, competent, fast, and nearly totally entrusted to the hyper-capable Eva Stratt. There are obvious storytelling advantages to centralizing this power in a single character, but I don't think any of this is realistic. For the second, all that I'll say is that I disagree with how Weir treats language. And the third is that Ryland Grace should have died many times over for some of his sloppy thinking. But perhaps that's more a criticism of Grace than of Weir.

Despite the flaws I've mentioned above, I think Project Hail Mary is a wonderful book for anyone who wants a bit more optimism, science, and problem-solving vigor in their lives.

For further reading

  • Mary Robinette Kowal's spoiler-filled review in the Washington Post. I think all of these are fair criticisms, and many of them occurred to me as well, but they all get further into spoiler territory.