A few years ago, Andy Weir hit the headlines with The Martian, a story about an astronaut stranded on the planet Mars, trying first to survive and then to make his way back to Earth. The book did very well initially and did even better after a film starring Matt Damon was made based on it (with a few changes, though). Weir released another book, Artemis, a few years ago which had a rather different premise, and well, did not get the same level of attention (no films on it, yet). Now, Weir has returned to the “one man lost in space” formula with his new book, Project Hail Mary.
The story outline is broadly this – a man wakes up, in a strange place, and has no idea of where he is, or indeed, who he is. A number of robotic arms are attending to him, there is a computer speaking to him, and oh, there are two other people next to him, both of whom are dead. Now, if this were Robert Ludlum, the man would discover that he is a master assassin who has survived a liquidation attempt and would pick up weapons and head back to the world to exact satisfying and sadistic vengeance.
But this is Andy Weir, and so the person discovers that he is actually Ryland Grice, a former scholar and current middle school teacher. And that he is on a ship in outer space. Of course, it takes him a while to figure out why he is there. As the pages turn, and his memories return, thanks to a number of flashbacks, he discovers that he is actually part of a special mission that was sent from Earth to stop the sun from being infected by a strange material called astrophage, which is actually sucking the heat out of the sun. Now, that might be “cool” for the sun (literally) but it could end life on Earth as we know it.
Of course, he was part of a team but his teammates are dead. And he is not very clear about what the mission was, or even how the ship works. The ship incidentally is called Hail Mary, after which the project and the book itself, get their titles. Now he has to remember his mission, survive, and save mankind. All on his own. Sounds a lot like The Martian, right? Well, this time Weir throws in a few spins. There is an extra-terrestrial element as well, and there are a few twists and turns in the plot, some of them typical Weir (make the situation even worse for the poor hero by adding a new element by making something break down) and some really surprising ones. And the narration is typical Weir – self effacing with glints of humour even in the toughest spots, and a back and forth between the present and the past, as Grice keeps remembering what got him into his current predicament.
All of which makes Project Hail Mary quite an interesting read. There is a slight problem, though – there is just way too much science here. At close to 500 pages, this is a significantly longer book than The Martian. And while the scientific explanations might make sense to the science loving brigade, general readers like me started to simply turn the pages to get to the next big surprise or event. It also results in the book being seemingly stuck at times – there are pages and pages of Grice trying to figure out an extraterrestrial language. Great for geeks, but tedious for more normal readers. Perhaps this could have been a much shorter and more taut book, but then that’s just us nitpicking – hardcore science fans will adore it..
It misses out on the tension of The Martian, but Project Hail Mary is a very good read if you love science fiction of the “outer space”-y sort, and a great read if you really love science and linguistics. It is a decent enough read if you do not like either, but just liked The Martian!