Project Hail Mary

by Andy Weir

‘I think my job is to solve the Petrova problem . . . . in a small lab, wearing a bedsheet toga, with no idea who I am, and no help other than a mindless computer and two mummified roommates.’

In Project Hail Mary, Dr Ryland Grace is a thirty-something high school teacher who finds himself on a mission to save humanity from an alien organism, the Astrophage, which is sucking energy from the sun. Only, at first, he doesn’t know it!

When he wakes from a coma, he is on a spaceship approaching the solar system of the star Tau Ceti. He has no idea how he got there; he doesn’t even remember his own name. The other two members of the crew are dead. Gradually, memory of events leading to his predicament return; he recalls his forced recruitment to the project, something about his fellow astronauts and that, though present in the Tau Ceti system, Astrophage are having no effect on the star’s output.

On a seemingly one-way suicide trip, and despairing of ever finding a solution to a impossible problem, he discovers he is not alone. A few metres away from the Hail Mary is a second ship, crewed by an intelligent alien from the star system 40 Eridani, on a similar voyage to save his/her planet. Rocky, as Grace decides to name him, breathes ammonia and has mercury as ‘blood’, and his species live at a temperature and pressure which would mean instant death for Grace, were they to meet in person. Is communication, never mind co-operation even possible?

‘I take a moment to let this all sink in. This is amazing stuff. I have an alien buddy here, and we’re chatting!’

There are no universal translators here, nevertheless, separated by a material barrier engineered by Rocky, the two begin learning one another’s language and discover ingenious ways in which they can work together to save their species. Project Hail Mary is the kind of novel where, to say more might be a spoiler for other readers. So I will record here only that the story moves smoothly through a string of successes and setbacks to a brilliantly devised ending.

You don’t have to be a scientist, or science hobbyist, and a sci-fi nerd to enjoy Project Hail Mary, though it definitely helps. The greatest writers of science fiction have a way of combining real science with invention, speculation – and often fantasy – in such a way that the reader cannot easily detect the seam. Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein were three who managed it in the late 20th century. Andy Weir, with The Martian, Artemis, and now Project Hail Mary, has proved he belongs in their company.

Brimming with a plethora of relativistic physics, extra-terrestrial biology, metallurgical engineering and zany but plausible ideas, this book has everything the fan of the genre can want. There are moments of high drama, quite a lot of humour, and occasional tears. There are two resourceful but imperfect heroes.

The inertia dampers are off-line, the transporters are non functional and the replicators haven’t been invented in this brilliant multi-light-year trek into the future. But who needs these devices to go boldly where no one has gone before?

“Crazy. Humans are crazy.”

*****

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