(2021) Andy Weir, Del Rey, £20.99, hrdbk, 483pp, ISBN 978-1 529-10061-7
The Martian (2013/4) was arguably one of the top five mundane SF novels of the early 21st century, that spawned an equally cracking film. The SF² Concatenation team's start-of-year annual poll cited it as Best SF films of 2015 and it went on to garner a Hugo Award later that year. A couple of years later, the author gave us the Lunar-based thriller Artemis (2017) which was again firmly rooted in mundane SF.
And now we have Project Hail Mary.
With Project Hail Mary, Andy Weir has his first foray away from mundane SF into slightly more SFnal territory with an apocalyptic, space opera concerning humanity's first interstellar mission.
There is a lot packed into Project Hail Mary but, fear not, I will not give away anything plot-relevant beyond page 47 so as not to spoil 90% of the novel for you: I am acutely aware of the difference between a book review and a critique. So no spoilers.
A man awakes on a table with no knowledge of who he is and how he got there with a computer asking him what is two plus two, and for him to give his name…
The man duly remembers that he is a school science teacher and that he left science research following the poor response his theoretical paper that water need not be the universal biological solvent: that an exobiological species might exist without it.
He also remembers a recent discovery that the Sun is cooling, and cooling way beyond Solar cycle variations. Other nearby stars are also cooling and this suggest that the Earth is heading for a deep glacial that will, in just a few decades, literally kill billions.
There is also a mysterious, astronomical, thin line connecting Venus with the Sun and a probe is sent to sample it. The probe's onboard microscope camera reveals that the sample contains moving dots; could these be microbes?
Being the author of a discredited paper about waterless exobiological life, our science teacher remembers being drafted by a mysterious woman, the seemingly all-powerful Eva Stratt. She is charged by the World's leaders with preventing an extinction event by any means possible. Stratt wants our science teacher to examine the sample when it has been returned to Earth.
With his memory very slowly returning, the teacher recalls that he is on a mission to a nearby star: the only one that has not been dimming. It also transpires that he is the only surviving member of a three-person crew that had been in a medically-induced coma for the duration of the interstellar journey. With an addled mind, can he complete his mission…?
What Andy Weir has given us is a flawed (he is a failed academic) Mark Watney (The Martian) type protagonist who uses science to solve problem after problem in order to provide Earth with a solution to the cooling Sun. And it is a proverbial page-turner that, with three novels now under his belt, affirms that the author is no one-trick wonder.
Leaving aside the exobiology (the science fictional conceit leads, of all things, to a star drive) the rest of the science is on fairly solid ground. So the novel will appeal to scientist readers who are into SF, not to mention SF readers who are also into popular science.
As with the Martian there are a couple of science slips. Ooops. (Well, it's fun to spot them.)
p243. Methane breaks down in the atmosphere after ten years… And if Hail Mary finds a solution, we just have to wait ten years and the methane goes away. You can't do that with carbon dioxide.
Well, not quite. Methane does breakdown in the atmosphere: it gets oxidised into water and carbon dioxide. So you still get longer-lasting carbon dioxide even if it is a weaker greenhouse gas than methane. Just saying.
OK, science fun aside, Project Hail Mary is neatly structured even if, at nearly 500 pages, perhaps a little long compared to the author's previous works. Indeed, it does get a little wearing in the final chapters: oh no, not yet another problem... Having said that the structure of flashing between the mission and memories, as our flawed astronaut's mind heals, really does work well. One plot thread is the mission and the other the lead up to it. Both threads have twists (including some nasty reveals) right up to the end: this is a rollercoaster all the way.
With three to four years between novels, we can probably expect Andy Weir's next one in 2024/5. There will be much anticipation.
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