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One hundred light-years of solitude – ‘Project Hail Mary’

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Space has always been scary. There’s this unsettling blend of known and unknown when it comes to space – we can see a lot, sure, but there’s so much more that we can’t. It’s a vast mystery whose extreme inhospitality and infinite size make a battle out of every new discovery.

It is this place of wonder and fear that so fascinates Andy Weir. The engineer-turned-author returns to those harsh environs with his new book “Project Hail Mary” (Ballantine, $28.99), venturing deeper into space than in his previous offerings (“The Martian” and “Artemis”) while still maintaining the distinctive wonkiness that renders his work so idiosyncratically enjoyable.

This is a story about one man’s fight to survive in the face of overwhelming odds, bringing to bear every bit of cleverness and intuition in an effort to solve a huge problem. It’s a story of isolation, friendship and the looming specter of incomprehensible loss – all refracted through a prism of well-researched and joyful nerdery. And of course, the science is sound (and in more ways than one).

A man wakes up in a bed, groggy and disoriented. He’s got various tubes going into and coming out of him. And he doesn’t know where or even who he is. There’s a computer voice making demands of him and robot arms deployed everywhere. As he attempts to gather himself, he realizes that there are two other people in the room with him – both seemingly long dead.

Slowly but surely, the man begins to piece together who he is and what is happening through flashes of memory. His name is Ryland Grace, he is in outer space … and it is up to him to save the world.

Grace – a former molecular biologist turned middle school science teacher – was recruited by mysterious government entities of unclear authority to tackle a problem for which his previous research into hypothetical extraterrestrial biology is uniquely suited. There’s a mysterious microorganism that is disrupting our sun. Dimming it. That dimming spells catastrophe on an apocalyptic scale if nothing is done.

When it is discovered that a (relatively) nearby star could hold the key to saving Earth, mankind comes together and undertakes to put together a research mission to find out just what is so special about Tau Ceti.

Gradually, Grace continues putting the pieces together, both about the mission at hand and how he wound up as part of it. Memories bubble up to the surface periodically, even as he furiously works on the problem at hand. He does all that he can manage by himself, but he wasn’t supposed be flying solo. He wasn’t supposed to be alone.

And perhaps … he isn’t?

“Project Hail Mary” is a great example of what Andy Weir does best. Ryland Grace – much like Mark Watney before him – is a nerded-up version of a classic sci-fi heroic trope. He’s a goofball hybrid of sturdy capability and unwavering dorkiness, a blend of the two-fisted spacefarers of the pulp era and the more cerebral champions of more contemporary times. Call him a “competent nerd” – a man left with nothing more than his wits to face off against a seemingly insurmountable obstacle; these are not problems that can be punched away. Instead of utilizing physical gifts, he must save the day with nothing but brainpower and the scientific method.

As per usual, Weir’s done his homework and then some. He’s obviously passionate about the technical minutiae, but where he excels is in his ability to translate that passion to the page. He finds ways to go on at length about this idea or that one while still framing it within the context of the story. One could argue that he perhaps gets into the weeds a bit, but that’s the thing – that’s where he wants to be. He gets there not by accident, but with intent.

“Project Hail Mary” unfolds as two stories in parallel – one in the present, the other through flashback. While the trials and tribulations of isolation in deep space give us the more adventuresome aspects of the story, the context provided by the memories of the Earthbound development of the mission is vital. We can learn who Ryland Grace was without interfering with the narrative flow of the problem-solving half of the story.

It’s also a very funny book. In particular, one significant narrative pivot (that I won’t be spoiling, even though it is early on and I’ve noted other reviewers doing so) opens things up to allow for some hilarity. Some poignancy too, as far as that goes. But yeah – there’s a wonderful embrace of dad-jokiness in this one. Weir’s willingness to have a sense of humor serves as a nice counterbalance to the existential stakes that anchor it all.

But for all the technical geekery and the groanworthy jokes, “Project Hail Mary” is ultimately a story about the human will. At its very large heart, this book is about the power of human ingenuity on scales both large and small, with a reluctant hero whose reluctance becomes ever clearer as the tale is told. It’s evocative of classic hard sci-fi adherents like Isaac Asimov or Larry Niven, only with more optimistic levity – Heinlein with a far dorkier sense of humor.

“Project Hail Mary” is a ton of fun, a deep space adventure with room for technical specs and plenty of tension, with a self-deprecatingly sarcastic-yet-capable hero thrown into the mix (as well as some buddy comedy vibes from a most unexpected source along the way). All of it driven by that same delicious blend of curiosity and fear that keeps us looking to the skies in the first place. If you’ve liked what Andy Weir has given you in the past, you’ll love this one.

Last modified on Wednesday, 05 May 2021 07:51

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