I am about to admit something that is probably pretty taboo for a science fiction reader: I didn’t love Andy Weir’s The Martian. I didn’t dislike it—I just wasn’t Matt Damon-movie-level taken in by the story or its characters.
So when a friend recommended his latest novel, Project Hail Mary, I was a bit skeptical. I wasn’t sure I was ready to slog through a somewhat lonely, desolate, and math-heavy text (I majored in Creative Writing for a reason!) again.
But I am more than willing to be proven wrong, and in my assessment of Andy Weir as a storyteller, I certainly was. Project Hail Mary was breathtaking, tear-jerking, captivating, hilarious, and heartwarming. I cannot recommend it more highly.
(However, I would like to disclaim that this review will include some spoilers—mostly because when readers begin the book, both the reader and narrator know absolutely nothing about what’s going on. It’s pretty hard to avoid spoilers when discussing this novel, but I will try to keep details as vague as possible. If a paragraph starts with an asterisk, know that it may contain a mild spoiler).
Here are three reasons you should try Andy Weir's Project Hail Mary.
1. Project Hail Mary will make you feel good.
One of the core reasons Project Hail Mary is such a masterpiece is because it exemplifies the concept of “feel-good science fiction.” A lot of science fiction hinges around end-of-the-world themes or scary creatures, murderous aliens, death, destruction, and progress gone awry.
Project Hail Mary has death, world-ending threats, and aliens—but not in the way readers might expect. Weir expertly subverts the stereotypes of this genre by creating characters so compelling and sympathetic—even characters from another world—that it’s impossible for his readers to miss themselves in the depictions. Yes, it’s an otherworldly story—a good part of the book takes place VERY far out in outer space. But readers will never find themselves disconnected from the very real emotions of life on Earth. Protagonists Dr. Grace and Rocky experience love, loss, fear, accomplishment, and friendship against the backdrop of culture shock, hangry attitudes, sleep deprivation, sarcasm, and one particularly delightful vodka-filled celebration.
Readers won’t feel a second of disconnection from our main characters. They are real, compelling forces on the page. Andy Weir banishes the archetype of the science fiction hero, or even the unlikely hero. Dr. Grace and Rocky persevere throughout the novel not because they are better than everyone around them, or even because they think they are, but because they have to. That alone makes them likable enough that you will want to root for them. It’s not just because Weir tells us they’re our protagonists—it’s because you believe it, every second of every page.
2. Andy Weir will challenge you.
Another reason readers will leave Project Hail Mary and immediately recommend it to all of their closest friends is because it plays with the concepts of what’s possible.
A lot of times, at least when I try to write science fiction, I find myself too closely bound to science fact. I (and I think many writers) can fall into the trap of assuming that a story is more compelling with more grains of truth. And certainly for some genres this is true. But Project Hail Mary reminded me that science fiction is still, at root, fiction. And as such, it doesn’t have to follow what we think we know.
For example—aliens? They don’t have to be green glowing beings with huge eyes and spindly fingers.
*What if, Weir asks, we imagined aliens as eight-hundred pound rock spiders? Or what if we took a material that humans have only ever known in gaseous form and made it an incredibly strong, thick metal? Or what if the inhabitants of another planet had a totally different culture than us? What if, for some aliens, sleeping was a social activity, and eating was completely solitary?
When writing outside the bounds of our world, authors should never feel confined to any artificial ideas about what makes sense or what is just fantasy enough to be interesting without making readers reevaluate their own sense of what is normal. But too often, we do. It’s refreshing to be reminded by Andy Weir that pushing the boundaries of the possible, the imaginable, is part of what makes science fiction so much fun to read.
3. You won’t ever be bored.
I have to give kudos to Weir for navigating the very challenging flashback structural trope with seamless grace. I am always a bit wary of books that spend most of their pages jumping from past to present, or to a nebulous future. But this is one place where Andy Weir uses his strong scientific knowledge to his advantage.
*Our main character is experiencing some memory loss. As his recollections of what led him to be part of Project Hail Mary come back to him, Weir delivers the past with a gentle narrative touch.
Dr. Grace transitions into his past memories the way an actual human suffering from temporary amnesia would. His memories are not triggered by dramatic “aha!” moments, but rather the mundane and ordinary experiences of his everyday life. When he’s completing an equation he’s solved a hundred times before, or when he is faced with some complicated biology or chemistry and doesn’t know what tests he should run. When he sees a solitary item, or a nametag on a spacesuit, or tastes a certain food. In this way, Weir makes readers feel like they are seamlessly transitioning from past to present with Dr. Grace’s brain, not with a micromanaging narrator who feels like he has to hold our hands.
As you’re looking for your next read, I hope you’ll strongly consider picking up Project Hail Mary. It is a science fiction story about alien encounters, the possible end of the world, and a high-stakes space mission. But it is so much more than that. It’s a story about friendship, sacrifice (both willing and unwilling), the complexities of human relationships and cultures, and the reality that most of the time, our heroes are just like us—scared, lonely, hungry, tired, foolish, and a little bit socially awkward. With those realizations comes the reality that all of their shortcomings make them even more heroic.