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Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir — earth in peril

Cover of Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir, a science fiction novel that sees the future of our planet rest in the hands of one man - and his unusual friend

Project Hail Mary takes a common science fiction plot device and spins it into an adventure story that’s sometimes bonkers and sometimes endearing.

The idea is that Earth is under threat from an alien life form that can move through space like a virus, slowly smothering each star it encounters. “Astrophage” has been detected near Earth’s Sun where it is absorbing its energy, causing it (and subsequently, the Earth) to cool rapidly.

Unless this growth is halted, 50% of life on Earth will be extinct within 19 years.

A World United

Governments from around the world throw everything at this problem. Under the umbrella of a United Nations task force they pool resources, deploy their best scientific minds and share hitherto closely guarded secret experiments. Even Russia and China open up their labs and reveal details of space programmes.

Project Hail Mary is the result: a manned space mission to a star called Tau Ceti which seems to be the source of Astrophage, Three astronauts are selected for the mission to work out how to kill off the virus and send the data back to Earth. It could take up to 26 years and all everyone can hope is that Earth doesn’t enter a new ice age in the meantime. The crew however won’t be around to find out if their work has the desired result for this is a suicide mission.

When the book opens, one of the crew members Ryland Grace wakes from a medically induced coma on board the Hail Mary space ship. His two crew members never survived the 13-year journey. So it’s down to Grace to save Planet Earth.

The story follows two storylines, each told chronologically. One takes place on board the spacecraft ; the other is told in flashbacks detailing how Ryland Grace — a molecular biologist turned school teacher — ends up as an astronaut en route to a different star system.

Now Comes The Science Stuff

It will come as no surprise that saving Earth involves science, a lot of it in fact. We’re treated to material science, physics, astronomy, relativity, the space-time continuum, human and non human physiology. Oh and a lot of maths.

How much of it is accurate or feasible I have no idea — it was way over my head. But there seem to be an awful lot of people who do understand this stuff and super enthusiastic about testing Grace’s calculations. Take a look at this post on the science meets fiction blog for an example of some serious discussion on the viability of Weir’s science.

I just had to accept that Grace is not talking out of his rear end when he says:

Light is a funny thing. Its wavelength defines what it can and can’t interact with. Anything smaller than the wavelength is functionally nonexistent to that photon. That’s why there’s a mesh over the window of a microwave. The holes in the mesh are too small for microwaves to pass through. But visible light, with a much shorter wavelength, can go through freely. So you get to watch your food cook without melting your face off.

or

… nothing affects gravity. You can’t increase or decrease it. Earth’s gravity is 9.8 meters per second per second. Period.

it turns out that my inability to understand even a tiny part of what Grace theorises or explores, didn’t matter at all.  Project Hail Mary is in essence an adventure story that takes a lot of inspiration from that genre.

So we get the usual adventure tropes of an unusual location; a heroic figure whose cleverness and quick thinking saves him from risky situations and of course oodles of action and danger.

It’s all good fun. But then a quarter of the way into the story Weir introduces a twist that turns his novel from pure adventure into a more thoughtful narrative about the power of friendship and one man’s journey to discover himself.

Who’s There?

I’m not going to describe that twist. It would ruin the surprise for anyone who hasn’t yet read this book. I’ll just give one hint — Ryland Grace is not alone nor is he the only one searching for a solution to the Astrophage problem.

That part of the story does get implausible and a bit bonkers. Rather like in Frankenstein where we’re expected to believe the monster could learn to speak by listening to conversations through a hole in a wall. And that’s as close as I can get to hinting at Weir’s surprise plot development without spoiling it for other readers.

Don’t read this expecting high literary values. The narrative treatment reminded me at times of the adventure comics from my childhood. Ryland Grace is very prone to exclamatory reactions and holding his head in his hands in despair when experiments fail. He also does a lot of fist bumping in glee. I wouldn’t have been surprised to find KAPOW and HOWZAT featured in the margins of my edition.

But if you’re in the mood for a fun diversion from all the gloomy news about this planet, then an adventure tale in another universe could be the perfect antidote.

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