Close Encounters of the Nerd Kind: a Review of Andy Weir’s Project Hail Mary

Andy Weir’s Project Hail Mary is about a man who wakes up to find himself on life support while being cared for by a not-very-bright AI. He has retrograde amnesia—he does not know where he is or how he got there. He does not even remember his name. What he does remember is a lot of science sloshing about in his slightly mushy brain. In neuroscientific terms, he is experiencing a complete devastation of his episodic memory but his semantic and procedural memories are running on all cylinders. This is as far as I can discuss this book without involving spoilers, and as you can see, it isn’t very fruitful to talk about this book without them so I am not going to be performing that stunt today.

From now until the end of this review, I will hold absolutely nothing back.

Stupid humanity. Getting in the way of my hobbies.

The sun is being eaten by space-faring single-celled animalcules called astrophage (literally “star-eater”) that has the ability to convert the sun’s heat energy to mass and Earth is facing a near future with a dimming sun, crop failure, and mass starvation. They found that neighbouring stars are facing the same dimming except one: Tau Ceti. Why? That’s a good question that all the people in Project Hail Mary want answered as well. So, the entire globe banded together and figured a way to send a spacecraft to Tau Ceti to investigate why.

I predicted the solution to the mystery the moment I read that Tau Ceti is the only outlier. It’s not that I am smart but this is a very logical book and the answer the book ultimately gives is a very logical one. Tau Ceti is right in the middle of their infected cluster of stars, so it’s probably where the astrophage came from. Why isn’t the star dimming? Something is probably keeping the population of astrophages there in check. It’s high school ecology. Astrophage multiplies out of control outside of Tau Ceti because it is an invasive species elsewhere, free of its natural predators. This, I feel, is probably the least interesting aspect of the novel and the amount of breadcrumbs Mr Weir sprinkled for us on this can feed entire villages for a year.

Another reason why I wasn’t especially thrilled by this aspect of the story is because of all the sciences, biology is probably my strongest (since it relates so intimately to my day job). There was not a single biologist Mr Weir thanked in his acknowledgment page, which is telling because anyone with a halfway decent understanding of cell biology would flip a table when the book concludes that astrophage seeded life on Earth (and elsewhere) in a panspermia event. How does that even work, man? Astrophage is described like an eukaryotic cell with mitochondria, so if this is the ancestor of all life on Earth, where did prokaryotes like bacteria and archaea (that don’t have mitochondria) come from? Prokaryotes had been happily living on ancient Earth for 1 to 1.5 billion years before eukaryotes even came on the scene. Not to mention this contradicts endosymbiosis—the well-supported theory that at some point, an ancestor of eukaryotes swallowed some prokaryotes and they began living symbiotically. This is why organelles like mitochondria and chloroplasts have their own separate genome and possess structures that resemble prokaryote cells. In fact, we can even tell which prokaryote lineages they came from (mitochondria are related to alphaproteobacteria while chloroplasts evolved from primitive photosynthetic cyanobacteria). Mr Weir had been candid in multiple interviews that there are aspects of the astrophage biology he made up like the concept of “super cross-sectionality” to explain some of its unique properties but I have yet to read or listen to him indicate any awareness that his account of how life arose on Earth in Project Hail Mary simply does not make a lick of sense (which is frustrating for a book that I enjoy precisely because the rest of it makes a lot of sense to me).

Then again, maybe there are huge honking conceptual errors in the other scientific fields depicted in Project Hail Mary but I simply lack the knowledge to detect them. I do have a layperson’s interest in most of the concepts that the book features like exoplanets, neutrinos, quantum tunneling, propulsion technology, and metamaterials which are regular topics of discussion on the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe podcast—a show that I’ve been listening to for a decade now. To see things that humanity are actively working on being featured in a sci-fi novel really warms my nerd heart.

“Ms. Stratt. How far is carrier from closest land?” Dimitri asked.
“About three hundred kilometers,” she said.
“This is good.”
“Wait, why?” I said. “Why is that good?”
Dimitri pursed his lips. “It is…good. Time for science!”

Like The Martian and Artemis before it, Project Hail Mary is about a smart person who faces a sequence of challenges which they tackle using science. Mr Weir had indicated in interviews that he intends for the book’s protagonist—Ryland Grace—to be different from Watney and Jazz. I don’t think he quite succeeded. I have criticised Jazz from Artemis to be essentially Watney in drag and Grace feels like an alternate reality Watney in which he is a microbiologist instead of an astronaut, and instead of going on a mission to Mars, he quit academia to teach science to junior high school kids. I will say that Grace is a more complicated person than Watney is, but we only learn how near the end of the story. For most of this book, he acts, talks, and jokes like how I imagine Watney would in the same situation. I actually pictured Matt Damon as Grace as I was reading this book (though I understand that I should adjust that mental image to Ryan Gosling since he is now attached to play Grace in the film adaptation).

That’s not a knock against the book though. I have a lot of affection for Grace precisely because he shares that effervescent spark of love for science that Watney shows. However, my love for Grace is utterly eclipsed by my love for Rocky.

Diagram of the Hail Mary ship from Project Hail Mary (2021) by Andy Weir

This is where the book transcended all of Weir’s previous works for me. Because beyond all the nerdy science bits, Rocky represents everything I adore in this book. I know (and appreciate) that Mr Weir tried hard to depict a truly alien extraterrestrial being, literally building up Rocky’s entire species from the environment he envisioned for it on one of the exoplanets orbiting 40 Eridani. Of course, Rocky cannot be too alien that Grace can make no meaningful connection with him. To borrow a term from Orson Scott Card: Rocky is not varelse. And speaking of pronouns, it annoyed me a little when Grace only chose between “he” and “it” when Rocky’s people are hermaphrodites and the gender-less singular “they” is right there. Anyway, I really like that Mr Weir had actually thought about why Rocky (and his species) would have personalities that are not completely unfathomable to us because in order to achieve the capability to go to space, individuals of a species must necessarily be social to work together and have some form of language to facilitate that. Any being that is social can be befriended, and any being that has language can be understood. I love that Rocky and Grace would naturally start to collaborate on their shared science problem because even on Earth, civilian scientists would happily fraternise even when their nations of origin are hostile to one another because being nerdy about a shared interest is a glue that can bind all of us.

Rocky slumps. “You not know where you ship parts are, question?!”
“The computer has all that information! I can’t remember all that!”
Human brain useless!”
“Oh, shut up!”

In a way, this is a direct rebuke to the sort of cosmic sociology that Liu Cixin envisioned in his Three-Body Problem trilogy where all sentient, technologically-advanced life in the universe are maximally hostile to one another because any civilisation that doesn’t hide itself or destroy any competing civilisation they uncover would be selected against. Of course, there are plenty of examples in our history when the discovery of new civilisations resulted in aggression, exploitation, subjugation, and conquest but y’know what? I am still going to be optimistic about this. I would like to think that if we uncover another civilisation in our trek through space, if we put our best science foot forward instead of a military boot, our first contact with extraterrestrial intelligence would not end in an interstellar war. And I don’t really buy the pop culture idea of aliens wanting to abduct and dissect us—or vice versa—just to study what makes us tick (especially when the study subject is equipped with human-like intelligence). We’d do what Grace and Rocky did: observe one another, ask questions. And if we must, we have means of studying the anatomy and physiology of living things that do not require killing the specimen like imaging, tissue sampling, and scoping. Okay, as per that last item, I guess we might still do a bit of light probing. But with consent! Promise!

“Eridians need water, too, you know.”
“We keep inside. Closed system. Some inefficiencies inside, but we get all water we need from food. Humans leak! Gross.”
I laugh as I float into the lab where Rocky is waiting. “On Earth, we have a scary, deadly creature called a spider. You look like one of those. Just so you know.”
“Good. Proud. I am scary space monster. You are leaky space blob.”

But back to Rocky. He is an absolute triumph of a character. Mr Weir really scored with Rocky’s personality and speech pattern, and there is a point in the book when I realise that I love and care for him as much as Grace does, even though he looks like a dog-sized spider. It’s when we first find out that Grace had accidentally bred the ability to worm through xenonite into the Taumoebas, followed by the realisation that this would doom Rocky. It would doom Rocky’s entire species too but that’s not why my heart sank into my sock. No, it sank for Rocky. The thought of Rocky drifting in space alone with the knowledge that only he has the key to his species’ survival but he is unable to bring it home to his people. The thought of him missing his spouse and Grace, as his supplies dwindles.

For years. Decades even.

It’s wrenching as hell.

This is where Grace’s story arc peaks as well. It’s when he voluntarily choose death in order to perform a selfless act for another, and he is finally the person he believed he is at the start of the story. I know some had criticised the clichéd amnesia plot and the handy recollections that Grace experiences throughout the book, but I think it worked well to conceal the true antagonist of the story: Grace himself. He is who he has to overcome at the proverbial and literal moment of truth. I just wish Grace’s flaw plays a larger role throughout the narrative, instead of conveniently showing up when it’s cued.

However, what really sold Grace’s act for me is the pure joy Rocky experiences when he finds out that Grace had turned back for him. I may not have the same set of glands as Eridians’ but I believe the surge of emotions I felt at that moment is the same as his.

“You are here, question?!” his voice is so high-pitched I can barely understand him. But I understand Eridian pretty well now.
“Yes! I’m here!”
“You are…” he squeaks. “You…” he squeaks again. “You are here!”

Man, I am starting to leak again just thinking about it.

The only other major character of this book is Eva Stratt who proves that absolute power invested in the hands of a single person can be hilarious as hell as she gets up to terraforming hijinks like nuking Antarctica and paving over a quarter of the Sahara. It makes me wonder what she would do as a Wallfacer in Liu Cixin’s The Dark Forest, which is another instance where individuals are given carte blanche to do whatever’s necessary for the survival of humanity. It’s interesting to see what a well-meaning person might do if they are allowed to bypass most ethical and legal concerns. I am not sure about the magic French amnesia drug, but I like in spite of doing what she did to Grace and Grace threatening to sabotage the mission, Stratt is quite certain that Grace would still do the right thing. Even though she is talking to Grace, it felt like she is making a statement about scientists in general. This book, as in all of Weirs book, simply oozes goodwill towards the scientific community, which is great because I don’t very much enjoy narratives where science is treated with suspicion and scientists are presented as villains playing God. I believe those stories have contributed to the mistrust of science and expertise in a way that is hobbling us as a civilisation, particularly recently with the fight against COVID-19 as the efforts of health officials all around the globe are being stymied by anti-vaxxers and pandemic deniers.

Project Hail Mary is my kind of science fiction. It portrays a very recognisable, tangible sort of science—science which we are all capable of learning and doing if we just get ourselves excited enough about it. It features Mr Weir’s brand of quippy humour. It introduces us to yet another one of his competent science nerds who gleefully solves problems in space with panache and aplomb. He’s given us his winning formula again, with improvements to the original flavour. I know that Project Hail Mary cannibalised a lot of elements from his abandoned “epic science fiction saga” called Zhek but if he never stops writing variations of The Martian for the rest of his career, I’d be fine with that.

P.S. Ray Porter, who narrates the audiobook, is amazing. I don’t know if I am going to be able to accept Ryan Gosling as Ryland Grace after this.

P.P.S. Tau Ceti, where astrophage and taumoeba came from, is also where Ursula K. Le Guin set The Dispossessed. But instead of prey and predator, her Cetians are anarcho-syndicalists and capitalists.

Rating: 4.75/5 Naga Pearls

Published by A Naga of the Nusantara

A Naga is a divine dragon from Eastern Hindu-Buddhist tradition. The Nusantara is made up of nusa (island) and antara (between) and describes the Southeast Asian archipelago that includes Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Papua New Guinea. This particular Naga is Malaysian, born and bred. He loves reading and hoarding books, and enjoys bothering humans with what he thinks of them.

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