One Small Step For Man, One Giant Leap For Erid-kind
Project Hail Mary is a compelling page-turner with a few niggling issues that are hard to look past. The third book from Andy Weir, this talented sci-fi author shot to fame after the release of The Martian. This, as you may know, went on to become a box office smash hit.
Following up from that was always going to be difficult and Artemis released to mixed reviews. Project Hail Mary then is the third title in Weir’s sci-fi repertoire, returning to the roots of what made The Martian so compelling.
It’s difficult to talk about Hail Mary’s story without diving into spoilers but for the purposes of this review, we’ll be as vague as possible. Much like The Martian, Hail Mary follows the journey of a lone astronaut but instead of relying on the survival of one man, astronaut Ryland Grace has the fate of the whole planet on his shoulders.
Working as a school teacher, Grace finds his world turned upside down when he learns an impossible truth. The sun is dying, slowly being eaten alive by strange microbes known as astrophage. It’s a global catastrophe and this doomsday clock could spell the end of life as we know it. Extreme weather, famine and another ice age all stand in line, greedily waiting to gobble up Earth’s prospects of survival.
With the best brilliant minds on the planet working together, Grace is one of three astronauts tasked with trying to stop this threat. When Grace wakes up aboard the Hail Mary, the most sophisticated rocket ship ever created, he does so with a fractured mind. He can’t remember who he is or what he’s doing aboard this ship.
His crewmates are gone, his ship seems to be off-course and something stirs in the recesses of deep space. Can Grace work to save the day? Or is Earth doomed to its fate?
This essentially serves as the crux of drama here, with a ticking clock hanging over the book’s plot and maintaining that aura of an urgent page-turner. With a little shy of 500 pages, Hail Mary certainly takes its sweet time. Unlike something like Stephen King’s 11.22.63 though, the narrative here is split between flashbacks and the present day narrative.
Early on, this actually works quite well and keeps a sense of mystery hanging over each chapter. What happened to Grace in the past? Why is he aboard this ship? And what on earth is the significance of The Beatles?
Unfortunately, these flashbacks drag on for far too long and bog down the later parts of the novel. There’s a big twist here too and to be honest it completely flatlines. Had this revelation come 10 chapters earlier then it could have had a much more significant impact on the story. Instead, it sort of just shrugs its way into indifference, allowing the plot to continue rocketing forward without giving it a second thought.
Having said that, the main narrative zips along at a relatively decent pace, with lots of scientific rationale and theories thrown in to explain certain aspects of space travel and astrophage biology. All of this is done with an involving first person perspective.
While these long winded explanations are enjoyable and oftentimes convoluted to the point of fascinating, some of the later descriptions stand out like a sore thumb. One such example: “I’m going to mad science a solution” feels like a lazy line of dialogue after so much careful scientific crafting.
The characters back on Earth are largely archetypal too, although Grace is certainly a charismatic protagonist. His little quips and observations are both amusing and help to give a sense of urgency toward the plot. However, the real stand-out here is a character we meet midway through the story called Rocky. No spoilers here of course but he’s by far the best part of this story.
It helps too that the ambiguous ending is one of the best parts of this story. The final chapter wraps everything up in a satisfying manner, with the final couple of lines for the novel bringing everything around full circle and delivering a satisfying narrative journey for our protagonist.
Given the length of this book though, one can’t help but feel Hail Mary is overlong. Some of the flashbacks outstay their welcome and reveal very little once the mystery is shattered around who Grace is and where he is. There’ are a couple of “last gasp” dramatic spikes too that don’t work and the overall narrative takes a little too long to get to the point.
Despite those gripes though, Hail Mary is a really enjoyable thriller and manages to grab that same aura that made The Martian so good. It’s certainly not perfect but the satisfying ending, intriguing premise and a stand-out character in Rocky makes this an easy one to recommend.