Andy Weir's "Project Hail Mary" is a bestseller with some problems

Ballantine, 496 pages, $28.

It’s no surprise: Project Hail Mary, Andy Weir’s latest science fiction space adventure, is a bestseller. Like The Martian and Artemis, the book has a propulsive story line and is filled with the cool science and witty banter you expect from Weir, a software engineer who turned his love of aerospace and the hard sciences into a cottage industry. In his latest outing, Weir uses a common sci-fi trope — a protagonist who must discover who he is and what’s going on and, oh, also save humanity. It’s a fun idea, and Weir knows how to ratchet up the excitement, but the novel seems written to be a movie (and in fact is being made into one, starring Ryan Gosling). Perhaps just wait for that?

A friend of mine, who teaches scriptwriting, talks about “refrigerator logic” — elements that don’t bother you until after a movie is over, and you go to the refrigerator and say, “hey ... wait a minute.” Refrigerator logic is even worse in a novel. You have a lot more time to sit with the book in real time and scratch your head about the plot points and characterizations that don’t quite make sense, even in speculative fiction.

There’s lots of “refrigerator logic” in Project Hail Mary. Let’s start with the opening. The main character, Ryland Grace, wakes up in a white room with no idea of why he is there or even what his name is. Even if the amnesia is a bit of a cliché, it’s still fun to watch Grace figure everything out, and he’s clever, too. But his cleverness is also the weakness of this novel, because there are so many parts of the narrative that seem to exist only to show off that quality.

Let me start with a simple example. Ryland is on a space mission in which they put people into a coma, knowing their brains might be mush when they wake up. That’s an interesting premise and carries an inherent tension. But there’s an essential element missing: When the astronauts are sent out, there are no checklists. If you know anything about NASA, or flying, or the military, or hospitals, then you know that checklists are essential and baked into the culture. Checklists are there to ensure that every aspect of a complicated aerospace feat can go off safely. Without them, something is likely to go wrong, and guess what happens in Project Hail Mary? It may seem like a small thing, but the lack of checklists is what sets everything in motion.

Weir has built his career on accuracy, so this is a strange oversight. This isn’t about insider knowledge like “walking in a 260 lb. Orlan suit in 1.4 g is implausible at best.” People can do extreme things in a moment of crisis. Characters can be exceptional. But leaving out checklists is building an entire space mission to be stupid so that you can have your main character be clever. The only checklist that appears in the novel is in a flashback to a test on Earth.

Grace has to be clever about things that he absolutely should not need to be clever about. Here’s another example: The ship is designed to supply gravity through constant thrust or through centrifugal force. Without one of those two things, you get zero-g. There’s a countdown timer to when that engine cutoff will occur, which gives him close to six days of warning before it happens. Somehow, this very clever character is fretting about zero-g and yet also doesn’t fasten his seat belt. He panics. He vomits. All of the gear he’d pulled out and catalogued is now floating haphazardly around the ship. “Dummy,” I say to myself. I really should have seen that coming.

Yes. Yes, you should have. This feels like a manufactured crisis to show the character cleverly solving something that doesn’t need to be solved. (At another point, Grace does this long experiment to figure out how heavy something is and then realizes that he didn’t need to because it was labeled.) Elsewhere, he needs to work the “Spin Drive” for the first time, and we get to watch Grace figure out what the Spin Drive is and how to work it. Again, there’s an appalling lack of checklists. The computer AI appears to have less capability than the average smartphone. Grace has to figure out what the thing is and how it works, which he cleverly does. Disguising exposition through action is a standard sc-fi technique, but these scenes have little emotional weight and slow down the pace of the story. Deeper into the book, where no checklists could possibly have prepped him for what happens, the novel picks up pace and the challenges get significantly more interesting.

And yet weird plot holes abound, like: Grace wasn’t originally supposed to go on the mission, so why do they have his name on the mission patch? Why is he comfortable spacewalking? (Every astronaut I’ve spoken to says that the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory is absolutely not like being in space. It’s just the best thing we have.) Since the mission has a hull robot, why isn’t it deployed instead of having Grace do a spacewalk in 1.4 gs? Why do the living quarters have so much empty space?

Another problem involves a bit of a spoiler, but I can’t think of a way to discuss it without this reveal, and I think it needs to be discussed.

Grace encounters an alien species that’s also spacefaring and sapient. Upon meeting the beings, he observes, “No one ever talks about the really hard part of first contact with intelligent alien life: pronouns. I’m going to go with ‘he’ for now, because it just seems rude to call a thinking being ‘it.’”

Let’s unpack that a moment. The only two pronouns that occur to Grace are “he” and “it.” He is a molecular biologist-turned-middle-school-science-teacher in the 21st century. He should know better. He couldn’t think “she” or “they?” (In fact the species are hermaphrodites and don’t gender themselves.)

Then there’s this passage with the only major female character, Eva Stratt, a Dutch scientist who oversees the program behind the spacecraft Hail Mary that Grace will board with two other scientists to determine if a star might have the answers to saving life on Earth.

“My guidelines were that all candidates must be heterosexual men,” Stratt says.

“Why not all heterosexual women?” Grace asks.

Stratt: “The vast majority of scientists and trained astronaut candidates are men. It’s the world we live in. Don’t like it? Encourage your female students to get into STEM. I’m not here to enact social equality. I’m here to do whatever’s necessary to save

humanity.”

There is no reason for this to be in the book. The author chose to put those words in the mouth of the only major female character. I’ll grant that Grace says that it seems sexist, but having the head of a multinational task force raise the argument gives it the veneer of validity. These authorial choices are so frustrating because they aren’t necessary and just reinforce this idea of space exploration being for men — and straight men, at that.

There are plenty of things to love about this book. Grace’s enthusiasm for science is infectious. Watching him get excited about an idea and chase it down is a delight. Rocky, when you meet him, is a beautifully constructed alien.

But the book could have been so much better. Its central tension — will Grace figure things out? — should have been based on a real problem, instead of a series of incidents that could have been solved with checklists and simple common sense. That said, you’ll probably enjoy it anyway, at least until you reach the refrigerator. 

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