Project Hail Mary – No Saving Grace

Folks, I know I promised to lay off the sauce. It didn’t work out so well. A man’s constitution is only so strong. A little bit of poison helps the world go down. Unfortunately, I’ve become like Mithridates, and no amount of poison will kill me. Not even the more than lethal amount found within the pages of Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir. What’s that? It was a darling of the 2021 science fiction book scene? Bah, humbug. Now, I figured I would be tepid on Hail Mary, finding some of it enjoyable, while walking away from the experience with mixed feelings bordering on neutral. However, I found myself on a warpath by the end of the book with dog eared pages marking my numerous casus belli.

Ryland Grace is humanity’s last and best hope for survival. Waking up with very little memory, Grace discovers he’s on a spaceship in another solar system with a mission to complete. Back in our solar system, a form of space algae, named “astrophage” by Grace himself, is dimming our sun’s light. While it’s projected to dim it a mere ten percent, it would cause the global temperatures on earth to drop at least fifteen degrees celsius, ending civilization as we know it. While the rest of the crew died on the journey, Grace is left alone to discover the solution to astrophage on a suicide mission. Luckily for him, he encounters an unlikely ally in the system. Will Grace figure out the secrets of the astrophage before it’s too late for Earth?

I haven’t read Weir’s work since The Martian, and while I remember enjoying it, it has lost some of its sheen over time. I still look back on the story fondly, but I rarely ever recommend it to folks. Project Hail Mary’s hype, especially after the tepid reception of Artemis, made me steer clear of diving into the story on my own. It wasn’t until I received the book as a Christmas gift that I was dragged into its orbit kicking and screaming. And just so we’re clear, with my skeletons on full display, I generally have a problem with first person narratives involving the “competent man.” They feel contrived and rarely satisfy curiosities, be they ones that are instilled by the narrative or pre-packaged from my own life. So if you want an overly long diatribe that dives down into the nitty gritty, with spoilers (near the end), then grab your rations and strap in. It’s going to be a long one.

Let’s begin by digging into who the reader spends all of their time with, Ryland Grace. Is he just Mark Watney (the protagonist from The Martian) as a school teacher? Sort of, but I think that shrugs off the lack of character behind this one man show. His entire personality revolves around the fact that he is a high school science teacher. He was only brought into the fold because he was shunned for authoring a paper that suggested alien life would not require water. This is unhelped by the fact that Grace wakes up in a spaceship, with no memory as to why he might be there. It forces him into problem solving mode immediately as training takes over and he dives into the work left to him by those who ordained this mission, and that’s the majority of his character. He is essentially a machine that is fed problems, and then he spits out solutions. Often these solutions have quips that highlight how he in particular is perfectly suited for this task, and that other specialized forms of scientist would be at an impasse. These passages are marked with various renditions of the innocuous phrase “isn’t it great being a science teacher?” Despite not being charmed by this narration, I did find it silly and harmless in the beginning. But by the fifth or sixth time, it was wearing thin, and I still had three quarters of the books left. It does not stop.

Now normally, a lackluster main character could be rounded out by a strong supporting cast. A cast that challenges his preconceived notions, allowing them sharpen their toolset when it comes to affecting the plot. The flashbacks following Grace’s journey to the Hail Mary (the ship) were in theory, a great chance to hone and define who Grace was prior to the amnesia. Unfortunately, they functioned like the cardboard cutouts placed at sporting events during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, idly cheering on Grace’s competency while being the most stereotypical versions of their country of origin or their occupation. Oh there is a competent but fun Russian woman who drinks Vodka? Don’t tell me, his boss is a hardass given a legal carte blanche to kidnap scientists whose only response to a problem is “get it done.” The other scientists Grace encounters are just as one dimensional, serving two functions: comedic relief or imprinting scientific theories into your brain. Grace gets to ask them questions, they get to answer them and their necessity is “debated.” I use quotes because a lot of the time, these scenarios are a cudgel to remind the reader “shit is bad, but just follow the science, individual qualms be damned.” I would have been more forgiving of this setup had the stakes been less high, but it just feels tired and worn out when paired with a competent and reliable narrator.

That leaves the one possible saving grace with the unlikely ally and secondary protagonist, Rocky. Rocky is an alien who hails from a system that is undergoing a very similar fate to that of Earth. He’s a cute spider rock being that basically exists to engineer and make real Grace’s big science brain ideas. Since Grace is the narrator, Rocky is often portrayed as a child, despite his advanced age. Since he can’t speak English, and his “voice” is predominantly a string of musical notes, he swings his arms around, repeats questions, and has trouble with certain ideas. Granted, some of this can be explained by the evolutionary history of Rocky’s people and their lack of eyes, but it comes off as condescending sometimes. It’s also a platform for Weir to deliver one of the most annoying forms of pop-cultural references, the “I did the alien better, because my character is smarter” trope. The way Grace solves the communication problem is through an excel sheet documenting the musical notes Rocky sings, while referencing Arrival’s “Abbot and Costello,” I kid you not. I would have forgiven it as just a reference had it not been handled with the smarm and efficiency it was given.

Not only was this a character issue, but it was a good representation of the way “science” and “problem solving” are handled through the book. I had a hard time buying the cavalcade of problems and solutions. Not because they were ludicrous (though some are), but because each problem started to follow a similar formula. I felt like I was trapped in Weir’s sandbox and he had all the toys. I got to watch him play with all of these ideas in front of me without me feeling engaged in the struggle. I wasn’t disinterested in how some of these problems would be solved, but the solutions came so quickly it was hard to really enjoy the spectacle. They came at such a pace and speed, all scrambling for your attention that they lost their uniqueness by the time they were solved. It felt like the classic Simpson’s disease door diagnoses in book form. Sure Weir takes a little time to engage with the implications and consequences of the some actions, but usually only enough for him to say “that’s enough, time for my next trick!”

The tone of the book was a weird juggling act. Grace’s quippy narration clashed with the moments of profound despair. Grace’s delivery is remarkably clean, eschewing The Martian’s darker tones about his predicament for a sunny can-do attitude. His demeanor acted like a sugar coating on a pill titled “the ends justify the means” so many times I became nauseated. It left me feeling tired and swept some of the darker aspects of the book under the rug, aspects that implicate the deaths of billions of people. This could have been an interesting dig into Grace’s character and his underlying tendencies to just focus on solving problems, consequences be damned, but it’s just not there. It’s too light, too fluffy and too disconnected from the problems on Earth, while constantly reminding you that he is a high school science teacher who just loves science so much. The flashbacks themselves don’t paint a dire picture either, focusing on the hilarious ways his boss snaps up the pre-eminent minds of saving the world. There are no perspectives on how anyone else is dealing with the impending doom that awaits them. There are no reports of the world spinning out of control as governments try to exude peace and calm. Grace himself barely even registers concern for the future, despite knowing the full extent of what the coming decades will look like.

I think what bothers me so much about the narrative is that science itself is seen as a series of steps one takes to get to a desired outcome. It’s an equation that you can stuff into the right square holes enough times to get a favorable solution. Sure, the actual scientists, engineers and decision makers who press the “nuke Antarctica” button can feel bad about it, but if the math says “press the button,” you press the goddamn button. Yes, that is an actual thing that happens within the book, but don’t worry, you as the reader are not there for it, and neither is Ryland Grace, he only gets to do the fun science in outer space. I’m not saying that you can fight the math, it’s just that there was no real investigation into the more egregious and dire choices. The conversations, especially around the larger impact scenarios, just tried to sweep side effects under the rug, providing even more math, but no real estimations on the consequences beyond “things will change.” It’s detached as hell, and it would have been interesting if the follow through was there for so many of these insane ideas that were there to “protect humanity” or in the words of everyone’s favorite tech villain “spread the light of consciousness.”

Before I wrap this up, I want to stare once more into the abyss that is Ryland Grace, and heads up, there are spoilers from here on out. The flashbacks were the one place Weir gave himself to dive into who Grace was before his memory was muddled in cryosleep, and in my opinion he fails to provide a reason for the amnesia plotline. It doesn’t give Grace anything more to do, other than be an on ramp into wild ideas about solving the problem. He is the solution machine both past and present, with no attachment to the world. Sure, he’s spirited away from his classroom, but the only real conversations he has about his students are just “the children” as a concept. He has no personal connections he misses, no colleagues, no neighbors. The single classroom scene in the entire book feels lifted out of a distorted memory of School of Rock. Even his dealings with the other scientists are made distant by his close association with his crime committing lady boss. He is detached from humanity, alienated from the consequences. Ultimately, Grace remembers that he did not volunteer for this mission, and was kidnapped and shoved into the shuttle as key members of the team that would have flown the mission died in an experiment. He realizes he was a coward, and fought to stay on Earth to avoid the suicidal foray into space. But it reveals absolutely nothing about him, it doesn’t change who he is, or who he was. He still is just a high school science teacher who loves science, and loves teaching it to kids.

I could go on about other details that frustrated me, but it’s the same stuff over and over with different flavors. The ending comes across as a total cop out, not because of saving the day, but it rewards Grace’s cowardice and detachment from humanity. It allows him to make one last computation, spitting out one last answer to one more question before he can return to a life of being a science teacher, teaching someone else’s children. He does not return to Earth, but returns with Rocky. Rocky’s people carve out a space for him in their incredibly inhospitable environment and give him a hero’s treatment. A treatment he specifically wished to avoid had he chosen to return to Earth instead. He gazes up at the sky, wondering how humanity is getting on and enjoys human meat burgers, cloned from his own cells, everyday. And he loves it.

The fact that this is all presented as some grand adventure into the wonders of science and the ability to save humanitytm worries me a bit. It has the veneer of teaching you “science” and “problem solving,” but so much of it is made up. Yes there are strings of logic, followed by intense calculations but it all serves a narrative purpose. The Martian felt less egregious because it’s one man, trying to save one man. Project Hail Mary is one man, fostered by a team of cardboard cutouts, out to save billions of people, with no oversight. Sure there is a line about how his boss will probably be sent to the Hague for crimes against humanity, but the audience doesn’t see it. It’s an errant thought that comes off as a joke. Grace, and by nature of the story, the reader does not have to witness the scared and panicked death throes of a humanity that did not get to reckon with its fate.

In the end, despite trying to loop you into the science, Project Hail Mary seems to say, science isn’t for you. It’s for them, the decision makers, the problem solvers, the ones who know what needs doing and have the gumption to do it. Only those without attachment to individual loved ones have the capacity to do what is right. Love would get in the way. The math works for them, but not for you. They’re here to save humanitytm, not humans. It all sort of stinks of a particular scene from Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers. In strides Neil Patrick Harris, decked out in an  officer’s uniform that is stitch for stitch recalling that of the Nazi S.S. In this scene, it is made apparent that the grunts, the ground folk, do not matter as his character snaps “We’re in this for the species boys and girls. It’s simple numbers.”

Rating: Project Hail Mary – You Do The Math/10

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