Reviewed in the United States on May 10, 2021
I consider The Martian my favorite fictional novel of the last 15-20 years. The movie was incredible in that they actually followed the book closer than 99% of other films based on books. It remains my favorite movie of the last 15 years or so as well. I don't know anyone (personally) that loves either of them as much as I do.
With that said, I was REALLY looking forward to Artemis. It was good...but, it was certainly not in the same caliber as The Martian was (at least not for me). I enjoyed it a lot, however and appreciated how author Andy Weir chose to go in a completely different direction and not just rehash another similar story, which I am certain would have been great as well.
As a result, I was cautious regarding Project Hail Mary. It sounded a little too close to The Martian, but yet, also different in that the circumstances simply could not be more opposite and the stakes so much higher. I'm trying to figure out the best way to summarize without giving too much away from this utterly compelling novel. As I read several reviews, I noticed a recurring theme: SCIENCE. Lots and LOTS of science. Holy cow, they were right. Many years ago I read Apollo 13 and Jim Lovell and his co-writer, try as they might, simply could not dumb down Orbital Mechanics anywhere near enough for me to have even a minor clue as to what they were attempting to say...I just skipped 90% of it and hoped that the sentences written afterwards, would help to make sense of what I had just skimmed over. I'm a lot of things, but a math wizard is definitely not one of them. Michael Crichton (Jurassic Park) had an amazing talent for dumbing-down the science of what he was trying to explain in ways that genuinely made sense (most of the time). Not everyone has this talent, and I would say Andy Weir falls squarely in between. He's certainly better than Jim Lovell, but not quite as good as Crichton. But then again, outside of a science textbook, I haven't really read anything with quite as MUCH science as Project Hail Mary. So maybe he's just as good, but he just puts more science into his books than Crichton, maybe that's it...? Either way, be prepared for a lot of astonishingly interesting science within the pages of this novel...and I DO mean a LOT. I don't say this to make you wary or steer you away...on the contrary, Andy Weir has a special talent for making hard science truly entertaining.
The book opens with an absolutely amazing and frightening premise: an astronaut awakes from an induced coma to find the only other two people on board have died at some point along their journey...but it gets worse. He has no idea who he is, or why he's on the ship, and oh yeah, they look to be a long way from home. A really, REALLY long way from home. In fact, the sun he sees isn't actually OUR sun at all. He's managed to leave our solar system entirely. And he has no idea why.
((Minor Spoilers)) The book goes through some clever flash-backs, which set the stage for why the mission happens, and slowly, carefully explains how they managed to get so far away from earth in such a short amount of time. Basically, earth's sun seems to be dying. At the rate of decay, we have maybe 19 years left before the gradual cooling has catastrophic consequences resulting in the death of billions (best guess). Why the sun is dimming is quite the conundrum in the first place. Turns out it really isn't dying, it's being killed by an outside source...which turns out to be easily the greatest find in history. It's alien life, and they are using the sun for food, essentially. It's alien life, but not intelligent life. But still, wow! ALIENS, right???
After this monumental discovery, and some tremendous research done by the most improbable scientist, the investigation into what is happening and why and what to do about it expands exponentially to other nations in order to pool all the resources possible to hopefully save the sun, and by extension, the human race as well. They learn. A LOT. A plan is put together, and with the help of the newly discovered microscopic alien life, which can also double as a power source (along with a few other nifty surprises), they begin to create one last, Hail Mary that could very well be the last chance we might have to save earth. It's audacious. It's dangerous, and it is absolutely critical that it succeed.
As our astronaut's memory slowly unravels, so does his identity: Ryland Grace. He's a teacher on earth. Just a science teacher. Not even a college professor. He's amazingly smart, though. But he's no astronaut...and certainly not one who would volunteer to go on a one-way mission to another solar system to "try" and save humanity. Yet here he is. Alone. light years from earth, trying to solve the biggest riddle in all of human history. Ryland accepts his situation, such as it is, with relative indifference (for the most part). It doesn't matter HOW he got here. He's here now and he may as well use that time to be as productive as possible, right? Along the way, he unravels even more information regarding the microscopic alien life which is slowly dimming our sun during some additional flashbacks. The aliens, dubbed, "Astrophage" are quite the galactic plague as it turns out. Stars all over the galaxy are also losing their light, all due to the little buggers. All that is, except one particular star named, Tau Ceti. Now why would that one star be unaffected by Astrophage, when every single star around it has been affected to some degree. The plan is to go there and figure it out and send the information back, hopefully in time to save the sun before the damage to earth is beyond repair.
There is an incredible amount of stuff going on. The story switches from Tau Ceti to flashbacks of how the whole mission was planned and implemented (which is VERY entertaining, especially Director Stratt, who may actually be my favorite character in the entire novel). Weir is becoming quite adept at building tension, and abruptly switching the story from Tau Ceti back to earth and building more of the backstory then switching back to Tau Ceti. Keeping it all in check and most importantly, interesting all while mixing in a healthy dose of science, which I am to understand is pretty much all genuine, is quite the juggling act. I have long known science can be astronomically entertaining (see what I did there?) when done right...but unfortunately very few people in a position to teach science actually know the best way to create that interest in others. I can say without reservation, Andy Weir definitely knows how to do it...at least in written form.
There is so much I want to say more regarding this truly phenomenal story, but I simply cannot without ruining a lot of the fun and surprises revealed along the way...and it is killing me to keep it locked in. Though I labeled a spoiler warning earlier, I don't think it gave away any more than what the author himself has revealed in interviews he has done regarding the book, and what you can glean from reading the summary here and just a couple other reviews. Tying all of that science together is truly astonishing to me. The creativity to put it into a novel that is remarkably exciting to read is nothing more than incredible talent. Kudo's to Andy Weir for not just hitting a home run, Project Hail Mary is a Grand Slam all the way. I truly did not want this story to end. By the way, I enjoyed the ending quite a bit. I don't know if everyone will. But it was fine for me. I think the ending screams "sequel" at some point too. A lot was left open-ended (IMO) and I wouldn't mind reading a follow-up to this. It doesn't HAVE to happen, but there are a lot of ways where the story could go if Andy chose to do it. Just sayin'.
Just run out and buy this book.