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Project Hail Mary - Andy Weir *****

‘Pretty much the perfect science fiction novel’ – that’s how I described Andy Weir’s first book, The Martian, when I reviewed it on this site a few years ago. But now that I’ve read this latest offering from him, I’ll have to revise my definition of perfection. Weir has simply excelled himself in every way. Project Hail Mary is even stronger on ‘real’ science than The Martian was, and its high-stakes plot is even more exciting and cleverly constructed.

The book does, however, pose something of a problem for the reviewer. The way the story unfolds makes it extremely difficult to write a meaningful review that’s totally spoiler-free. Strictly speaking, I can’t even tell you its setting or the protagonist’s name, or the rationale behind the ‘project’ of the novel’s title, because they only emerge as the story progresses. But even the publisher gives these things away in their publicity material, so I will too. Rest assured there are plenty of twists and surprises that I won’t even hint at.

The whole novel is narrated in the first person by a schoolteacher, and former astrobiology researcher, named Ryland Grace. He’s on a spaceship heading for another star system, although he doesn’t know that at first. He’s suffering from amnesia, and his memory only comes back bit by bit in the form of sudden flashbacks – which, of course, are just as useful to the reader as they are to him. It turns out he’s on a do-or-die mission to single-handedly save humanity from certain extinction. If that sounds like a terrible cliché, Weir redeems it through elegant plotting and robustly thought-through science. Everything – the nature of the threat to Earth and the potential solution to it, the space drive that powers the ship almost to the speed of light, even Grace’s own memory loss – gets tied together with impeccable logic.

Making the protagonist a schoolteacher is a stroke of brilliance. The ‘boring’ high-school physics of force, mass, acceleration and momentum rarely gets a mention in sci-fi, but it’s critically important to almost everything that happens in space. Weir knows this, and he illustrates it repeatedly throughout the book. More importantly, he shows how an understanding of such things, and an ability to do rough mental calculations around them, can solve real-world practical problems. From time dilation and the conservation of angular momentum to Fourier analysis and the relationship of wavelength to temperature, the science in this book is real, and Weir’s protagonist uses it in exactly the way a real scientist – or science teacher – would.

In my review of The Martian, I mentioned that it had ‘an engaging cast of characters’. Project Hail Mary isn’t quite the same. Many of the characters appearing in the flashback scenes have a distinctly one-dimensional, almost cartoony feel. But that’s not bad writing, it’s clever writing. Remember that we’re seeing everyone filtered through Ryland Grace’s perceptions. I suspect that, in stressful work situations, we really do tend to see our colleagues and bosses in exaggerated cartoony terms. On the other hand, Grace himself is an incredibly well-drawn personality (and the novel has one other great character too, but that really would be a spoiler).

I loved this book for largely personal reasons, because of its realistic portrayal of science and the way scientists think and work, which are peculiar passions of mine. So I was always going to give it five stars. But when I logged into Goodreads I discovered I wasn’t the only one – it currently has an average of 4.52 stars from almost 260,000 user ratings. It took an awful lot of 5-star reviews to push the average that high, so it looks like you don’t have to be a science nerd to enjoy Project Hail Mary after all.

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Review by Andrew May


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