This review contains spoilers for all of ‘Project Hail Mary’ by Andy Weir. Now’s the time to look away if you plan to read it but haven’t yet!
If you’re familiar with Andy Weir’s past work, Project Hail Mary shouldn’t appear surprising.
It’s a science fiction read about a do-gooder, eccentric science nerd who finds himself stranded in deep space and needs to use his ingenuity to make his way out. Here, it’s about Ryland Grace, a high school science teacher-turned-astronaut, who’s part of a mission to figure out how to solve a crisis caused by the mysterious ‘Astrophage’ sucking up the sun’s energy.
There’s no shortage of hard sci-fi–in this case, mostly biochemistry and a bit of rocket science–for hardcore fans of the genre to sink their teeth into. Still, it’s also well-balanced by the narrator’s easygoing style and the generally light-hearted tone.
It’d be hard to blame you, then, if you thought that, after his rather forgettable outing with Artemis, Weir had decided to go back to the basics and publish a heavy-handed reskin of The Martian. It shares many of the same elements–most of the above paragraph would apply just as well to his hit-turned-blockbuster debut novel as it does to Hail Mary. And some parts of it seem to be responses to criticisms of Weir’s other works–Mission Director Stratt’s steel-faced character, for example, was surely created as a result of the criticisms of the excessive feminisation of Jazz Bashara in Artemis.
But you’d be wrong.
Unlike Weir’s other works, fundamentally, Hail Mary isn’t so much a story about a singular protagonist as it is about what it means to be human. And it does this by challenging the expectations of its readership and genre rather than attempting to satisfy–or, as the Martian did in many ways, define–them.
And how does Weir establish his narrative about humans? Aliens!
Three books is probably a lot longer than you’d expect the average science fiction author to get to writing their first alien plot. But it’s good that Weir waited because it’s clear he wants to challenge the conventional tropes associated with the arrival of species from another planet.
Instead of being humanoid, significantly superior invaders, aliens in Weir’s novel are rock-shaped (I kid you not!) scientific equals with the same goal as humanity–to study and stop Astrophage. Their unusual form challenges the arbitrary nature of many human behaviours and societal attitudes, offering a contrast not to a perfect ‘other’, but to a complex, equally flawed species.
Weir, then, consistently sets up situations that create expectations for a particular set of outcomes that’d be typical of the genre and his body of work but subverts them. You expect the amnesiac protagonist to have volunteered on the quest as a selfless saviour of humanity, risking life and limb–as does he while he’s still an amnesiac–but it turns out he’s just along for the ride because he was forced to. His selection was predicated upon the hope that he’d eventually be a good enough person to follow through on his mission, even after he recovered his memory.
And, most unusually, the protagonist doesn’t make his way back to Earth at the end, despite his new status as a hero–instead choosing to become a teacher on his alien friend’s planet. It’s hard to describe just how much of a twist that is. Stories like these never end with the human protagonist, with no particular hostility for the human race, choosing not to return to earth. That’s like Mark Watney deciding to stay on Mars at the end of The Martian.
It’s these choices by Weir’s fundamentally flawed, yet ultimately noble, protagonist which reveal the point of the story. Weir doesn’t want you to think anything but that Ryland Grace is a perfectly normal person, a suitable representative of the entire human race to the aliens of 40-Eridani–and one who symbolises what humans are ultimately capable of. Sure, they may not be perfect, but they’re still capable of selfless acts of bravery, ingenuity and collaboration.
And fundamentally, they’re worth saving.
Andy Weir’s Project Hail Mary doesn’t transform its genre, but it doesn’t try to. It’s not The Martian, but it does capture the spirit that made it special. And it won’t change the world–but it might change the way you see the humans who live in it.