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Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir (2021) (read in 2022)

Published by marco on

Standard disclaimer[1]

Andy Weir manages to comes up with consistently interesting science-fiction ideas and entertaining yarns (even if it’s rather obvious in some places where he’s almost writing a screenplay). I really wish he would find a co-author to help him smooth out some of the more YA aspects of his writing. Still, this was a fun book to read—after the first third.

As with The Martian, it took me about that long to either get used to the writing style or for Weir to settle in and write more reasonably. I do feel that the overuse of inner monologue when Grace first woke up at the beginning of the book was something I didn’t imagine. It was quite jarring and seemed a very forced way of introducing the character and background for the rest of the story. It got the job done, but I nearly gave up[2], which would have been a shame—because there are some intriguing concepts and ideas in the rest of the book.

This is not the hardest of hardcore science-fiction. There’s a lot of science in it, and a lot of engineering as well (Weir mentions all of the people he consulted), but he also elides a bunch of stuff in the “squishy sciences” to get to where he wants to go. That’s OK! Focus on what you’re interested in and make a rollicking tale! Still, it doesn’t matter. It’s a story. Lay back and enjoy the ride. I don’t think it’s in the same class as The Expanse, but neither does it get over-wordy like that series. It moves relatively quickly.

So, on to the plot. Ryland Grace wakes up in a hospital bed. He spends a bunch of time not remembering that he’s been shot into space on a suicide mission to find out why something that’s killing our sun isn’t killing Tau Ceti, a sun 13 light-years (LY) away. He’s to figure that out, send back information on little drones—another 13LY journey—and then die of starvation—or whatever—knowing that he’d helped possibly save mankind.

There are two interwoven threads of narration. Instead of just switching back and forth, though, the conceit is that Grace is slowly regaining his memories after having been in a medically-induced coma for nearly four years on the flight out to Tau Ceti. One thread is him, alone in a spaceship, in the Tau Ceti system. The other is the thread in the past that details how he came to be there and why.

It all starts when the sun dims, at an alarming rate. Ryland Grace is a somewhat-disgraced exobiologist who’s moved on from a promising career that he torpedoed. He now teaches junior-high science to a roomful of adoring children (of course they’re adoring). He’s corralled into a top-secret project by a woman named Stratt, who has near-God-like powers granted by an unanimous vote of the U.N. As I wrote in my notes below: this is the most laughably unbelievable part of the book.

Grace investigates the contents of a probe that had been sent into the anomaly near Venus (the “Petrova Line”, named after the Russian scientist who’d discovered it)—all on his own—and discovers that the dimming is caused by microscopic alien creatures that can absorb a tremendous amount of radiation. They are, in effect, eating the output of the sun. Grace names them “Astrophage”.

The collect and store power and then ambulate by emitting photons. Because they have such a tremendous ability to store power and can emit it in a harvestable form, they are automatically the most powerful batteries mankind has ever known. Grace and Stratt’s crew go about learning how to get them to replicate. They store completely inertly, luckily enough.

Mankind discovers that there are many other systems in the immediate vicinity that are suffering from the same dimming. Except for Tau Ceti. Something else is going on there. We have to find out what if we have any chance of saving Earth. That’s the Project Hail Mary mission: send three super-capable astronauts in comas at a significant fraction of the speed of light to Tau Ceti to figure it out, send back the results, and die as heroes.

The world bends its efforts to making this happen. Astrophage can also be harnessed as rocket engines. Now Earth just needs enough energy to breed them. They pave the Sahara to get the energy they need. Meanwhile, the planet is cooling too quickly, so climate scientists need to do a 180º turnaround and start dropping Antarctica into the ocean to heat the planet back up. They’re releasing methane, so hopefully the effects can be reversed in a decade after the planet is saved.

At the last moment before launch, both the primary and secondary scientist for the mission are blown to smithereens and Grace is the next best choice. He remembers demurring, being kidnapped, and then … waking up at Tau Ceti. He’s not a hero. He’s a coward who was afraid to go.

OK. Tau Ceti system. Grace discovers that he’s along because Yáo and Ilyukhina (Илюхина) both died en route. They didn’t survive their comas. Grace gets acquainted with the automated support system on his ship and with his surroundings as he slowly regains strength and figure out where he is and what he’s doing there.

Before Grace can really look around, he discovers a large spaceship right next to his, just a couple of hundred meters away. It’s piloted by Rocky. They become fast friends and quickly learn to communicate. Rocky’s been there for much longer. He is the only surviving crew member of 23. The others all died of radiation poisoning. They didn’t know about cosmic rays. Neither do they know about relativity. They are from 40 Eridani, another nearby star. They were there for the same reason as Grace: to find out what’s killing their star.

The Eridanians are different: they are about the size of a dog, with five legs, like a spider. They are highly efficient. No eyes, only ears. They communicate in tones. They are incredible engineers, but have no computers. Their atmosphere is nearly pure ammonia at 29x the pressure of Earth. They make nearly everything out of Xenonite.

Rocky moves in to the Project Hail Mary and Rocky and Grace travel to the planet to which the Petrova Line in this system connects, a CO2-rich planet they call “Adrian” (because Rocky named it after his partner, back at Eridani 40). They scoop up a piece of the atmosphere and discover “Taumoeba”, which eats Astrophage, keeping it under control in this system.

The Taumoeba escapes into Project Hail Mary, eating all of its astrophage and crippling it. They figure out how to get back to Rocky’s ship. Rocky tells Grace that he has more than enough fuel to give him to make the return journey instead of continuing his suicide mission. (The Eridians didn’t know about relativity, remember, so they planned for a much longer journey.)

Once they have Taumoeba and isolate it, they begin to breed it so that it can survive in the target atmospheres of the planets in their respective systems (e.g. Venus in the Solar System). This is all very science-y and pleasing and moves along at a bit more of an appropriate pace than the first half of the book.

They tearfully part ways and begin their respective hero’s journeys. Grace discovers that the Taumoeba has escaped again: this time, it not only evolutionally developed a resistance to Nitrogen, but also learned how to squeeze out through Xenonite. He solves the problem with plastic, but then realizes that Rocky must be dead in the water, as well. Grace gives up returning to Earth himself, sending his four drones with data and samples instead. He uses a sweep and search to find Rocky and rescues him.

Rocky moves back in and they navigate the Hail Mary back to Eridani 40, where they save the day and are welcomed as heroes. Grace lives on the high-gravity planet until the end of his days. He learns at one point that the Sun has resumed its original luminosity so that the drones he’d sent must have worked. At this point, as an older man made even more frail by the high gravity, he declines to make a mission back to Earth.


[1] Disclaimer: these are notes I took while reading this book. They include citations I found interesting or enlightening or particularly well-written. In some cases, I’ve pointed out which of these applies to which citation; in others, I have not. Any benefit you gain from reading these notes is purely incidental to the purpose they serve of reminding me of what I once read. Please see Wikipedia for a summary if I’ve failed to provide one sufficient for your purposes. If my notes serve to trigger an interest in this book, then I’m happy for you.
[2] See the “Citations” section below for my reading notes, wherein I complain in more detail about what exactly bugged me about the style.

Citations

“I take a deep breath and speak slowly. “Two times e to the two-i-pi.” “Incorrect. What’s the cube root of eight?” But I wasn’t incorrect. I just wanted to see how smart the computer was. Answer: not very.”
Page 5

Jesus. That is just … bad.

“The infrared glow is very faint. I was only able to detect it at all because I was using extremely sensitive detection equipment while searching for IR emissions from nebulae.”
Page 10

From where? The Earth’s surface? Or private time on James Webb?

“But to be certain, I called in a favor from the Atacama observatory in Chile—in my opinion the best IR observatory in the world. They confirmed my findings.”
Page 10

“They’ve given me a certain amount of authority to get things done.”

““They? Who’s they?”

““Every member nation of the UN.”

““Wait, what? How did—”

““Unanimous secret vote. It’s complicated. I’d like to talk to you about a scientific paper you wrote.””

Page 37

Funny that this is the most outlandish part of the whole book.

“[…] adjusted the focus and tried various intensities of backlighting.

““Samples are opaque…I can’t see inside, even at the highest available light setting….”

““Are they alive?” Stratt asked. I glared at her.

““I can’t just tell that at a glance. What do you expect to happen here?”

““I want you to find out if they’re alive. And if so, find out how they work.”

““That’s a tall order.”

““Why? Biologists worked out how bacteria works. Just do the same thing they did.”

““That took thousands of scientists two centuries to work out!”

““Well…do it faster than that.””

Page 48

Just a taste of the joke-y spell-it-all-out flavor of the book. This is one of the better “jokes”. It feels like reading a Jack Reacher book.

““Yes, I know that much, thank you.” She looked to the ceiling. “People always assumed our first contact with alien life—if any existed—would be little green men in UFOs. We never considered the idea of a simple, unintelligent species.”

““Yeah,” I said. “This isn’t Vulcans dropping by to say hi. This is…space algae.”

““An invasive species. Like cane toads in Australia.”

““Good analogy.” I nodded. “And the population is growing. Fast. The more of them there are, the more solar energy gets consumed.””

Page 51

“She looked away for a moment, then back through the window at me. “Astrophage is an alien microbe. What if it can infect humans? What if it’s deadly? What if hazmat suits and neoprene gloves aren’t enough protection?”

“I gasped. “Wait a minute! Am I a guinea pig? I’m a guinea pig!”

““No, it’s not like that,” she said. I stared at her. She stared at me. I stared at her.

““Okay, it’s exactly like that,” she said.

““Dang it!” I said. “That’s just not cool!””

Page 58

Another example. I am.not making this up. YA-level writing.

“Still, the needle was tiny compared to the hulking 10-micron Astrophage—only about one two-thousandth the width.”
Page 60

Two-thousandth? Did you just give up on writing that? “Ah, they’ll know what I mean.”

“So why am I the one out here? All I did was prove that my lifelong belief was wrong. I guess I’ll remember that part later. For now, I want to know what star that is. And why we built a ship to bring people here.”
Page 62

This gimmick for interleaving flashbacks, as well as the penetrating internal dialogue.

““Uh…open aperture to supply room.”

““Unsealing supply room,” says the computer.”

Page 62

It’s called Storage on the diagram. I have a hard time believing this computer would get past that synonym hassle-free. It failed to do so in many other cases. (It would later be noted that it wasn’t an AI in the traditional sense, but more of an expert system.)

“I couldn’t see it when the panel was closed, things were that tight. I’m glad I didn’t try to pry it open. It would have been a pain in the butt.”
Page 63

Really? Why the hell does he write like this? Are we shooting for a particular reading level here?

“I jiggle it a bit before figuring out I have to rotate it. Once I rotate it 90 degrees it detaches and I set it aside. I poke my head into the room below and see a bunch of soft-sided white cubes. I guess that makes sense. Packing stuff in soft containers lets you cram more things into the room.”
Page 63

Hates comma but loves loggorhea. We don’t need this level of detail for opening a hatch. That’s how you get to a 400-page book, but it’s unnecessary and distracting. E.g. “The hatch opens, revealing a crawlspace filled wall-to-wall with soft-sided white cubes.

“Commander Yáo. He was our leader. I can see his face now. Young and striking, eyes full of determination. He understood the severity of the mission and the weight on his shoulders. He was ready for the task. He was stern but reasonable. And you knew—you just knew—he would give up his life in a second for the mission or his crew.”
Page 63

Eye roll. This really works as character-description, I guess. But…c’mon. This feels much more like the description of a character in a screenplay. All this for a character who would only feature in one or two minor flashbacks 250 pages later.

“Olesya Ilyukhina. She was hilarious. She could have you laughing your butt off within thirty seconds of meeting you. She just had one of those infectious and jovial personalities. As serious as Yáo was, Ilyukhina was casual. They butted heads about it from time to time, but even Yáo couldn’t resist her charms. I remember when he finally broke down and laughed at one of her jokes. You can’t be a hundred percent serious forever.”
Page 64

C’MON! You’re really killing me here, Andy.

“The container holds multiple outfits for each crewmember. I eventually find the ones for me. They are exactly as I assumed they would be. Hail Mary mission patch with a U.S. flag underneath, a NASA logo on the right shoulder, and a name tag that says GRACE.”
Page 64

This is the end of about two pages of this bullshit about unpacking a box. This is obvious filler. He’d already unpacked two other uniforms and described them in exactly the same way. The three paragraphs differed only in the logo and the name tag.

“I should have shared all my findings with the rest of the science community, but I wanted to be sure. Peer review may have fallen by the wayside, but at least I could self-review. Better than nothing.”
Page 82

Ah there it is. The libertarian Randian bullshit about the lone genius/hero/all-rounder gittin’ ‘er done.

“I went to a photography store downtown (San Francisco has a lot of photography enthusiasts) […]”
Page 85

I wasn’t going to question that. What is wrong with him? What is the point of mentioning this? I’m reminded of my reading of Dan Brown’s “The Lost Symbol”, which I gave up on.

“A navy man came forward and gestured for me to follow him. I don’t think anyone spoke English, but I got the general idea.”
Page 88

This is pretty ignorant. Many Chinese of the latest adult generation speak at least some English. A good number are perfectly fluent. It’s hard to believe that they wouldn’t have been put on this boat filled with foreigners.

“Several had translators whispering in their ear during the process.”
Page 89

That is not even conceivably realistic for a gathering of scientists. They all understand English perfectly.

“I felt something weird on my forehead when I woke up. I reached up and it was a Post-it note. Someone put a Post-it on my head while I slept. I pulled it off and read it: Clean clothes and toiletries in the duffel under your bunk. Show this note to any sailor when you’ve cleaned up: 请带我去甲板7的官员会议室 —Stratt “She is such a pain in my butt…” I mumbled.”
Page 92

Not gonna lie. This part I liked. It felt more natural than the “tell, don’t show” style he’d used before.

““We have figured this out, yes,” said Dimitri. “With lasers. It was very illuminating experiment.”

““Was that a pun?”

““It was!”

““Good one!”

“We both laughed. Stratt glared at us.”

Page 97

Also not terrible. I remember this from The Martian: the first third of that was painful too.

“This time it changes to “Petrovascope.” Beyond that, there’s just a black screen with an error message: PETROVASCOPE CANNOT BE USED WHILE SPIN DRIVE IS ACTIVE.”
Page 103

This kind of feels like the plotting of a puzzle-based video game. It makes sense, but you can almost see the video-game levels writing themselves.

“No meetings. No distractions. Just experimentation and engineering. I’d forgotten how much fun it was to get immersed in a task.”
Page 107

But wasn’t that literally what he’d been doing, just days before? He had one meeting so far. Also he hasn’t mentioned his students at all.

“but scientific papers were my forte for a long time.”
Page 110

Had been. C’mon.

“After a few halting attempts, I manage to turn it on. It immediately spots the other ship and sounds an alarm. The shrill noise hurts my ears. “Whoa, whoa, whoa!” I say. I frantically scan the panel until I see a button labeled “Mute Proximity Alert.” I press it and the noise stops.”
Page 122

This kind of stuff is so pedestrian. You really don’t need to go into this level of detail.

“The computer models for the Astrophage breeder weren’t lining up with the real-world performance”
Page 136

He’s not only an exobiologist, but also a power-systems engineer. He’s also a teacher. This is Tony Stark/John Gault syndrome.

“No, this is a no-brainer. I’ve got to at least have a conversation with them. If they have any information about Astrophage at all, no matter how minor, I have to talk to them. It’s a risk, yes, but this whole mission is a risk.”
Page 154

Obviously! Weir is so obsessed with the one-man-show genius that he’s unsure whether to even have his character talk to what is clearly an advanced race.

On the other hand, Weir gives little thought to how long it would take to communicate complex concepts. They got lucky that they’re even remotely compatible.

This ain’t Charles Yu, that’s for sure. If it’s not basic physics, then Weir doesn’t cover it in detail. That’s fine! Of course! But the contract to the level of detail Weir spends on the process with which Grace takes out a tool out of a drawer is jarring.

“But I don’t know what the human ship’s material is made of.”
Page 155

Why not? No spectrometer?

“Their move is taking a long time and I’m getting bored.”
Page 157

He’s literally making the other side do all of the work of building the tunnel.

“They don’t even know what my atmospheric pressure is.”
Page 165

Yes they do. You sent back a sample. In the box. You didn’t decompress it, did you? Well, then the alien has a sample of your atmosphere.

“And notably, the sounds were in my range of hearing. Some of the notes were low, some of them high. But definitely audible. That alone is amazing when I think about it. He’s from a different planet, and totally different evolutionary line, but we ended up with compatible sound ranges.”
Page 176

Maybe. Or maybe you’re missing hypersonics.

“It’s been two days since I slept. There’s just always been something monumental going on. I can’t just stay up forever. I need to sleep.”
Page 179

What, no meth in the future?

““Hold on, Ms. Stratt,” said Justice Spencer. “This is still a court of law, and you will remain for the duration of these proceedings!”

““No, I won’t,” said Stratt. The bailiff walked forward. “Ma’am. I’ll have to restrain you if you don’t comply.”

““You and what army?” Stratt asked. Five armed men in military fatigues entered the courtroom and took up station around her.

““Because I have the U.S. Army,” she said. “And that’s a damn fine army.””

Page 193

People get such boners for military coups. They love em. They’re enamored with the idea of an infallible god flanked by incorrigible soldiers cutting through the bullshit of democracy. It’s puerile, adolescent at best. It’s Atlas Shrugged.

“Oh thank God. I can’t imagine explaining “sleep” to someone who had never heard of it. Hey, I’m going to fall unconscious and hallucinate for a while. By the way, I spend a third of my time doing this. And if I can’t do it for a while, I go insane and eventually die. No need for concern.”
Page 205

““The shelf will cleave at the line of explosions and slowly work its way into the sea and melt. Sea levels will rise about a centimeter over the next month, the ocean temperature will drop a degree—which is a disaster of its own but never mind that for now. Enormous quantities of methane will be released into the atmosphere. And now, methane is our friend. Methane is our best friend. And not just because it’ll keep us warm for a while.”

““Oh?”

““Methane breaks down in the atmosphere after ten years. We can knock chunks of Antarctica into the sea every few years to moderate the methane levels. And if Hail Mary finds a solution, we just have to wait ten years for the methane to go away. You can’t do that with carbon dioxide.””

Page 242
“I’ve gone from “sole-surviving space explorer” to “guy with wacky new roommate.” It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out.”
Page 254
“Rocky’s data about Planet Adrian was dead-on. It’s 3.93 times Earth’s mass and has a radius of 10,318 kilometers (almost double Earth’s).”
Page 285

How does Rocky measure anything at astronomical distances if he doesn’t know about radiation? How do long-range instruments work when you don’t know what wavelengths are? How does Rocky’s sensorium work? How can he hear anything Ryland is doing when their two environments are separate?

“Just like that, with minimal complication, Rocky had made a life-support system for Adrian life-forms—a system that didn’t need to know the conditions to provide in advance. It just maintains the status quo. He really is a genius. I wonder if all Eridians are like that, or if he’s special.”
Page 310
“The Hail Mary was complete. Over 2 million kilograms of spacecraft and fuel in a nice, stable orbit—four times the mass of the International Space Station, and put together in one-twentieth the time. The press used to keep track of the total cost, but around the $10 trillion mark, they gave up. It just didn’t matter. It wasn’t about efficient use of resources anymore. It was Earth versus Astrophage, and no price was too high.”
Page 351

I watched Don’t Look Up while I was reading this book. That scenario seemed much more plausible than the one outlined above, unfortunately.

“Rocky admonished me for leaving the sample at (human) room temperature for so long. He had a lot to say on that subject, actually. We had to add “reckless,” “idiot,” “foolish,” and “irresponsible” to our shared vocabulary just so he could fully express his opinion on the matter.”
Page 356
“Eridian electronics isn’t nearly so advanced as Earth’s. They haven’t invented the transistor yet, let alone IC chips. Working with Rocky is like having the world’s best engineer from 1950 on the ship with me. Seems odd that a species could invent interstellar travel before inventing the transistor, but hey, Earth invented nuclear power, television, and even did several space launches before the transistor.”
Page 377
“We need to raise a strong, solid generation of survivors. Right now we’re soft. You, me, the whole Western world. We’re the result of growing up in unprecedented comfort and stability. It’s the kids of today that’ll have to make the world of tomorrow work. And they’re going to inherit a mess. I can really do a lot more by preparing kids for the world that’s to come. I should stay here on Earth where I’m needed.””
Page 391

““Hey. What’s is your ship’s name, anyway?”

““Blip-A.”

““No, I mean, what do you call it?”

““Ship.”

““Your ship has no name?”

““Why would ship have name, question?”

“I shrugged. “Ships have names.”

“He points to my pilot’s seat. “What is name of you chair, question?”

““It doesn’t have a name.”

““Why does ship have name but chair no have name, question?”

““Never mind. Your ship is the Blip-A.” “That is what I said. […]””

Page 407
“They have a copy of Wikipedia now. They’d work out what we’re up to when they saw the flashes.”
Page 433

Skipping lots of encoding steps there. Like, a ton of them, on both the encoding and linguistic level.

“Figuring out where to put the mini-farm was another matter. Even with its small size, it’s too big to fit inside the little probe. So I epoxy it to the undercarriage. Then I spot-weld a small counterweight to the top of the beetle. The computer inside has very strong opinions about where the center of mass of the probe is. It’s easier to add a counterweight than completely reprogram a guidance system.”
Page 436

Elegant.