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What would you do if you were sent on a suicide mission in space? I know for most of us, we’d probably go insane. But if it’s for the greater good of everyone on Earth, would that lessen the pain? Thankfully, we have someone like Andy Weir, self-proclaimed space nerd and author of The Martian (also a major motion picture), Artemis, and The Egg to create a world where aliens and humans can work together for the greater good in Project Hail Mary.
Earth is in trouble. Well, we kinda already knew that, but this time it’s even more serious. The Sun’s output is slowly dimming because of Astrophage, i.e. “star eater”, a microbe that causes immeasurable damage. At the same time, the Petrova Line, an arc of infrared radiation that extends from the sun’s North Pole to Venus, is getting brighter, which means an ice age, crop failures, and mass starvation.
Scientists discover that Tau Ceti, a star 13 light-years from Earth, is still maintaining its luminosity. The world sends its top scientists to investigate why this is happening but time is short. According to their calculations, Earth only has 30 years left.
Ryland Grace wakes up in a sleeping chamber, disoriented and a bit of amnesia. His body is in top physical condition, due to the robotic arms that feed and turn him. He discovers the corpses of two other people, still locked in their sleeping chambers. He’s the only one left. As Grace stumbles around trying to make sense of why he’s experiencing amnesia and where he is, he finally realizes where he’s not: Earth’s solar system. Over time, his memory slowly leaks back in and he realizes why he’s on the spaceship in the first place — to save his home planet.
As Grace reorients himself, he remembers he’s a junior high school science teacher who spends the majority of his days breaking up fights among kids and teaching them the scientific wonders of the world around them. How does this make him qualified to be on a spaceship? Junior high school science teachers might know about the topic, but that doesn’t necessarily qualify them to be astronauts, right? I guess if it worked in the movie Armageddon, it should work here.
Apparently, Grace is the exception. He has a doctorate in molecular biology, and wrote a scathing analysis about water-based assumptions and how it can’t be applied to all forms of life, calling out dozens of eminent scientists by name. It catches the attention of Eva Stratt, a no-bs, brilliant, multilingual Dutch scientist who’s in charge of the Petrova Taskforce and has the authority to bring on anyone who can help save Earth. And Grace fits the bill.
The more Grace recovers his memory, he realizes something shocking: he’s on a suicide mission to save Earth. For the time it takes to get to Tau Ceti and back, the population on earth would have died out. Learning that kind of information while floating through space could make anyone crazy. But Grace perseveres, knowing he has to do something to help those back home. As he makes his way to Tau Ceti, he discovers another ship, an alien ship heading towards him. After sending messages via mini models, Grace finally meets the alien which he calls Rocky due to its rocky exterior.
But the alien doesn’t fit in with the usual type of beings we’ve seen in movies before. Rocky is shaped like a spider with five legs extending from its carapace. No eyes or face. And it speaks in music (I loved this detail) – much like how the aliens did in The Close Encounters of the Third Kind. They soon realize they’re both on the same mission: to save their planets from total catastrophe. And they’re both the sole survivors on their respective ships. The two quickly learn to communicate and over time, try to analyze why Tau Ceti isn’t affected in the same way their planets are.
Weir does a good job of explaining the science behind the story to a layperson. Granted, these are all theories, but I’m placing my trust in him and the scientists he consulted because I have zero experience in space travel. The details he incorporates about space (he truly is a space nerd), the alien Rocky, and the roller coaster of emotions Grace has to go through as the sole survivor is reminiscent of The Martian. The only criticism I have is at times it feels convenient that Grace, a molecular biologist and junior high school science teacher, figures out all the solutions.
Project Hail Mary is a fun read, especially if you love astronomy and space in general. Of course, at times it felt like Weir was explaining these concepts to a child, with quippy and sardonic bits from Grace, to help me to fully grasp the situation. Weir immerses you fully into the frightening possibility of the Sun dimming, threatening life on Earth. Who knows? This scenario may actually play out and we’ll have to see if we can find a way to destroy the Astrophage. If that happens, we may just meet a friendly alien lifeform that’ll help us achieve that goal.