I’ve just finished listening the Audible version of Andy Weir’s new novel, Project Hail Mary, which weighs in at just over sixteen hours in length. Pretty long. Ray Porter turns in an exemplary voiceover—he doesn’t just read, he lives in the roles of our two intrepid characters. Hats off to him for an excellent performance.
Not being a football fan myself, I feel compelled to define the title in the context of the novel. A football “Hail Mary” is a very long, very desperate pass which ostensibly has little or no hope of being completed. I hear it used a lot and always seem to have a bit of trouble understanding it in context.
I figured I’d mention it so you are aware that it’s the motivation for Ryland Grace’s space mission: to save the earth from total devastation because the Sun Light and Power Company seems to be experiencing the equivalent of a brownout.
Weir’s novel is based on a theme common to our current crop of comic Marvel and DC comic books in which some amped-up super-hero of one sort or another is tasked with one of them there Hail Mary situations. The main difference is that Ryland is a high school science teacher with no expertise beyond his college degree in physics—like as an astronaut or even possessing any spaceship-maintenance skills. IMO, the only thing that makes him qualified for the mission is that he’s a total, utter, geek.
That’s the main plot, but there is also a sub-plot: first contact, which you would certainly approve of to accompany the mission-to-save-the-earth main plot (both done equally well in The Wandering Earth and The Three-Body Problem, both by Cixin Liu). These plotlines, which are both sci-fi novel and movie chestnuts, have been thoroughly exploited by dozens, if not hundreds, of science-fiction authors over the past century.
Quite often, I learn as I share with you. Today I learned that Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley is credited with writing the first science-fiction novel, The Last Man, in 1826. Curiously, in her novel—written almost two hundred years ago—the end of the human race is brought on by a pandemic. Go figure. Not the first and not the last, to be sure.
But I digress. I read Andy Weir’s The Martian and thought it was fantastic. I listened to Artemis and was delighted by Rosario Dawson’s narration. But did I conclude that Project Hail Mary was fantastic or delightful? The third and best Andy Weir novel? Not so much.
First off, it’s waaaay too long. The print version is 496 pages. Weir gets bogged down in so much unnecessary detail, at least for me, but maybe not if you’re an engineer or a scientist. I really found doing math in a novel over the top. Everything was detailed and described as if we were examining it with a microscope. Yo! Where’s the editor?
Second, the story itself is pretty dull, for reasons already mentioned: big problem, go into space and fix it, try like hell to get home. What made that distinctively interesting was the alien.
Third, I was disappointed with the treacly, contrived happy ending. Like a great proportion on the book (see waaaay to long, above), the red herring (sic) that provided the sustenance Ryland needed to return to Earth was, well, too much to swallow.
I know a lot of people who’ve read the book are gonna say “picky, picky, Jack” and I will reply, “That’s my job.” Andy Weir is a Big Deal now and he can’t be writing books as if he was writing code. Or maybe he should be?? Every book ought to be a quantum leap forward, not just a slot-filler. Of course, each author’s oeuvre is, by virtue of the author itself, limited in output. When the tank runs dry, it’s dry. But that doesn’t mean you have to be content with a first down instead of a touchdown. Nope. This time, Andy Weir has thrown a Hail Mary.