The only complaint I have about Andy Weir’s new book Project Hail Mary is that I finished too quickly. But I had a big smile on my face most of the time. Weir’s book has upset some physicists and astronomers because they say Andy Weir doesn’t always get the science right. I am not a physicist or an astronomer, although I like to read articles about both areas so, for me, this book offered enough math to make it seem authentic, without getting too esoteric. The main character, Ryland Grace, is, after all, just an eighth grade science teacher and the math seems just about right for that level. Acceleration in different gravities, temperature ranges that support life, an alien culture that uses base 6 rather than base 10, spectrographic analysis and control screens that can offer up any missing information or do the math—all of these elements are intended for readers who are not physicists or even biologists.
I don’t usually read reviews before I write about books but The Washington Post kept dangling one in front of me so I finally opened it but I tried to just lightly skim it. Another thing the reviewer found annoying was the use of coma amnesia by the author as a device to prevent information overload. We learn everything in flashback mode. If our reluctant astronaut only remembers info as needed we learn about technicalities as he relearns them or remembers them. He wakes from his coma alone and has lost the team of true experts that were supposed to keep the mission on track. This device did not bother me, it seemed useful, but it might bother some readers.
Earth has a pressing problem. For some reason the sun’s energy is being diminished and it looks like the culprit is Venus. With a probe scientists are able to collect samples from the place where the ‘Petrovian’ line heads from the sun and hits the atmosphere of Venus. We learn that the true culprit is a tiny organism called an ‘Astrophage’ and that it goes to Venus to breed because it needs carbon dioxide to reproduce, which cannot be found in the sun. It then returns to the sun to collect more energy for a return trip. Each trip increases the Astrophage population. So, as if climate change were not enough, now our own sun will get so dim that we will starve to death.
When Grace (corny name or perfect?) finds himself alone in space he hears a Tap, Tap, Tap and finds he has a neighbor, an alien spaceship is nearby. He makes a leap of faith and allows his neighbor to connect the two ships with a tunnel. “Rocky” and Grace cannot share the same spaces or they will die. Rocky requires an atmosphere heavy on ammonia and he lives in extreme heat. Thank goodness for xenonite. Rocky’s planet is also being attacked by Astrophage, but Tau Ceti, the sun they are both visiting is infected with Astrophage and yet it is not losing energy. Why? Grace and Rocky find ingenious ways to figure it all out.
When my friend’s daughter was four she saw a movie over and over, as children love to do. The movie was called The Land Before Time. There was a character in the movie, Ducky, who would always say “yup, yup yup” or “nope, nope nope,” three times. It was so catchy and we all heard it so many times that summer that it has stayed with me all these years, although I never even watched the movie. Rocky and Grace also talk in threes after they learn enough of each other’s language. “Bad, bad, bad” they intone, or “good, good, good.” Rocky is a really lovable little alien engineer with a can-do attitude and a pretty even disposition. Does he make the book childish? I don’t know. That WaPo critic claims that the book is written like a movie script rather than a novel. Maybe. But Ducky prepared me well for a space engineer that looked like a turtle on top and a spider underneath, who had the lovable habit of saying things three times.
What is relevant about the book is not an imminent Astrophage attack on our sun, but the way humans come together to solve the problem quickly and efficiently. It is reminiscent of the way The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson tackles climate deniers by just finding ways to develop strategies that bypass them, right down to the leader of the Ministry, Mary Murphy, a strong woman who doesn’t take no for an answer. Dr. Eva Stratt is just such a strong woman and she leads the group of scientists from all of earth’s nations in getting a mission ready to travel to Tau Ceti as soon they see that earth will die if they don’t figure out why that other sun is not losing energy.
Mary Murphy had a male counterpart who used the most aggressive and unethical approaches. Dr. Stratt plays both roles. She does not mind getting down and dirty. But this idea that humans, even humans and aliens, can let go of jealousy and animosity when the survival of their species is at risk is present in both books. It is cooperation, even enforced cooperation, that solves existential problems. We end up with the question of whether our problems are existential enough to get us to work together towards a common goal, which just so happens to also be related to carbon dioxide. What do I have to say about Project Hail Mary? It was good, good, good!