I just finished a pretty good book…
I’ve been following Andy Weir since his first book, The Martian, which got made into a big and pretty okay Matt Damon flick which I have on DVD. But the book is much less Matt Damon Acting and much more good geeky fun. Andy Weir’s signature protagonist is an intrepid science/engineering geek who gets stranded in some absolutely, inescapably deadly situation and has to science and engineer his way out of it. I’ve now read all three of Weir’s books and have to say in all honesty that The Martian is still his best novel. I don’t even remember much about Artemis, his second one.
That would make the new Project Hail Mary his second-best novel, in my opinion. Structurally it has its problems but it’s still a pretty damned gripping read. Humanity finds itself in big trouble when the theory of panspermia gets proven in the worst of all possible ways: microscopic organisms dubbed Astrophage are discovered in a circuit between the sun and Venus – organisms that literally feed on solar energy and that reproduce in such numbers that they’re noticeably dimming the sun. This is very bad: Al Gore bad. And what’s worse: armed with this new knowledge, astronomers start replaying their data on neighborhood stars and find that it’s a plague. Almost all nearby stars are similarly afflicted.
All except one: For some reason Tau Ceti, in the midst of the local cluster under study, isn’t dimming. Everybody would really like to go learn why that is, but nobody has an interstellar spacecraft drive lying around.
Driven by necessity, and learning that Astrophage themselves store amazing amounts of energy, the combined space agencies of the major powers turn them into a form of fuel and devise a drive that can use it. Getting a crew to Tau Ceti and useful information back in time to do any good will require an awful lot of not-very-safe work done very fast, but safety is no longer an option in any case.
So the story has already piled up quite a heap of unlikelihoods by the time our hero arrives at Tau Ceti – alone, because one of those not-very-safe things kills the other two members of the crew in transit – but upon his arrival the story really gets crazy. Turns out that humanity isn’t the only intelligent species that’s under threat and has questions they hope Tau Ceti can answer.
The story kind of comes to a halt for a while as the protagonist learns to communicate with a whistling spider from 40 Eridani. The friendly and extremely resourceful spider, also its expedition’s sole survivor for reasons that are really very interesting and plausible, provides the story’s first (of several) deus ex machina in the form of an implausibly magical material made from solidified xenon – which being theoretically impossible can do any Star Trekian thing Weir needs it to do at any point in the story.
Woven through all this, the protagonist experiences flashbacks that worm their way through a personal mystery: He can’t recall why he, not exactly a lantern-jawed astronaut, was even chosen for this expedition. He woke from his in-transit induced coma with no memories at all: At first he doesn’t even recall that there is an expedition or that it has an objective, and (putting on my literary critic’s hat for a moment) his flashbacks are extremely convenient to the story over and over. But throughout most of the book he just naturally assumes that the reason he’s there is that he’s a hell of a heroic guy, committing virtual suicide for the good of his species. The truth turns out to be quite a lot darker than that all around, and the reveal of that part of the mystery is quite well handled.
Our hero(s) science and engineer their way through disaster, big disaster, and near-final disaster in typical Andy Weir style and with constant resort to “xenonite,” the magical material that can do the impossible right away.
And I don’t want to give away the ending but the story could have ended satisfyingly in any of three or four ways and the ending Weir picked was kind of the sappiest one possible. But it doesn’t spoil what is, for all my nitpickery, a very engaging story I read all the way through with only the most grudging puppy-related interruptions. You might enjoy it too.