Project Hail Mary

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become increasingly weary of the alien invasion premise. The problem is the level of coincidence. Earth was a sitting duck for 4 billion years, but the aliens wait until the very century when humans are able to mount any kind of resistance.

(To the credit of HG Wells, the originator of this genre, in The War of the Worlds, the humans weren’t able to mount any kind of effective defense at all, although Earth’s microscopic life eventually does. So in that story, the result is the same as if the Martians had shown up before humanity evolved.)

Andy Weir’s Project Hail Mary has the type of coincidence I’m not wild about, although Weir’s writing is good enough to make up for it. But in this case, the invasion is itself microscopic life. And it’s not invading the Earth, but the sun and Venus. It’s a microbe that is able to travel in space. The problem is, it feeds on solar energy, and so gets the name “astrophage”. The astrophages are reproducing and consuming enough of the sun’s energy that solar output is beginning to fall. Within a few decades, it will be 10% lower, turning Earth into a frozen wasteland. Although before that crop production will fall and humanity will experience mass starvation.

As it turns out, astrophages can store vast amounts of energy. And when manipulated in certain ways, they can be used to power technology, including providing enough energy for a spaceship to accelerate for long periods of time. This turns out to be fortuitous. Most of the stars around Earth have shown falling solar output, indicating that the astrophages are spreading between those stars. Except at Tau Ceti, a star about 12 light years away. Tau Ceti’s energy is not dimming, despite all the stars around it doing so.

In a desperate gamble to save humanity, a mission is quickly thrown together, to send three astronauts on an interstellar mission to Tau Ceti, to see if they can figure out why that star isn’t dimming, and if whatever is preventing it can be used to stop the sun’s decline.

Except Ryland Grace doesn’t remember any of that when he wakes up. He can’t even remember his own name. All he knows is that he’s being tended to by some kind of robotic system. And his two crewmates are already dead. He gradually starts to learn about his situation, that he’s on a spaceship in interstellar space, alone, light years from Earth. He begins remembering the events that led to up to the mission, which are told as a series of flashbacks in the book.

As a character, Grace seems cut from the same cloth as Mark Watney in The Martian. Similar to Watney, Grace spends a lot of time solving scientific puzzles. I haven’t read Weir’s other novel yet, Artemis, so I don’t know if he uses this same schtick in all his books, but it works well again in this one. Although unlike in The Martian, this isn’t a story of one person by themselves throughout the entire book.

It’s tough to go in more detail without getting into serious spoiler territory.

All in all, Weir knows how to tell a compelling story, particularly one with characters in desperate circumstances using science and engineering to survive. So even though I had some issues with the premise, as well as a few other improbable events in the story, I enjoyed it a lot. Apparently I’m not the only one. It’s staying high on the bestseller lists, and there’s reportedly a film adaptation in the works that will star Ryan Gosling.

So worth checking out if it’s your kind of story.

10 thoughts on “Project Hail Mary

  1. Andy Weir is the poster child of the indie author.

    My suspension of disbelief threshold is so high these days… A life form that can put up with the ionizing radiation, gamma bombardment? Sounds like StarTrek to me.

    The more I learn about interstellar space… The Universe does not care for life.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, astrophages in and of themselves are kinda Star Trek. But most of rest of the book isn’t. No warp drive and mostly real physics.

      As I noted in the post, it’s the coincidence of the astrophages showing up just when humanity has a chance to deal with them that’s my biggest issue. There’s also another hell of a coincidence in the book that I can’t go into without spoilers.

      But Weir manages to make Grace relatable enough, as well another character later in the book, that you end up caring how things turn out for them. For me, it made up for those compromises pretty well.

      But definitely as Neil deGrasse Tyson points out, the universe seems to want us dead.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I have read Artemis. It’s the same schtick, though the protagonist in Artemis is living in a fully populated Moon colony rather than trying to survive all by herself. So that part is different.

    Project Hail Mary is the very next book on my reading list. I’ve been looking forward to it for a while now.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I started Artemis last night. I’m not sure about the premise but the protagonist is drawing me in. Weir’s prose is also effortless to parse, which makes being drawn in easy.

      I think you’ll like Hail Mary. It’s definitely your kind of book.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Hello Mr. Patterns! I hope it is ok to change the subject. I was thinking that there may be a better place to put this comment, but I don’t know, so here goes.
    A year or so ago, the discussion as about “instrumentalism or realism” concerning basic scientific theories, and I brought up A N Whitehead and his Process Philosophy. You asked why this kind of theory needs to be an Idealism. I didn’t give you a very good answer to that, let me try again. The issue came to mind again in relation to some current posts.

    The reason why Process goes Idealism goes back to very basic philosophical insights — like back to the Greeks. Any process takes time and occurs in an amount of space larger the infinitesimal. Therefore, there is no one place or time that the process exists. A process is a Rule, a Recipe, a Structure, an Abstract Organization that occurs through time among parts (defined in relation to each other). It’s not atomic, an atomos; it seems further divisible or explainable.
    That reminds us and the Greeks of how people think. We find very slippery similarities among all the differences that surround us. Some of those similarities and differences around us strike us as too different to explain each other. Consciousness is very diff than neural firings. Color has a Phenomenal Quality that seems very diff than electromag.

    This is about Functionalism. Once you start understanding things as Serving Purposes, you are on a slippery slope heading to Idealism or some compromise with it.
    Thanks, what do yu think.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey Greg,
      I can’t recall that specific conversation. Hopefully I don’t end up repeating points I made back then.

      I’m not seeing the point about a process not happening in a place or time. Certainly it may not be in as tight a place as we typically think of atomic events taking place. (For that matter, familiarity with quantum physics reveals that those events, in the absence of interaction with the environment, may be much more spread out than people generally think.)

      Consider an exploding grenade. This is definitely a process. But I think if one underwent that process anywhere near us, it would matter a great deal just how close or far it was from us, that is, it’s location is a vital property of that process. Likewise if it exploded yesterday or will explode tomorrow, when we’re not at that spot, again is a vital detail.

      For functionalism, I think the main thing here is to remember that evolution provides emergent purposes to processes. (Arguably, all purpose is emergent.) So otherwise meaningless molecular interactions achieve meaning in the KREB cycle, for instance. As systems that can simulate cause and effect sequences, we can project purpose, function, on those types of processes, whether you want to think of that as teleological or teleonomic reasoning.

      So I’m not seeing the necessity for idealism here. But it might well be I’m missing some important steps.

      Like

  4. I liked the book but was a bit disappointed by certain aspects. One was the science: in particular the mass ratio of charged and uncharged astrophage made no sense, the difference needed to be orders of magnitude greater to make sense as fuel. Second was the character’s lack of logic in treating two of the problems that needed solving as needing to be done in parallel instead of one after another.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. On the astrophages, I think the author covered himself by simply saying there was much about them that wasn’t understood. That essentially makes them magic, but magic that hides behind Clarke’s third law (broadly construed). My memory of the book is fading somewhat, so I don’t recall the parallel problems. I do recall a lot being driven by the limited time available back home.

      Like

      1. I was too vague to avoid spoiling it to others, but… I guess people shouldn’t be reading the comments if they want to be 100% safe. While we did have limited time for one home we seemed to have plenty for the other so there was no need to split the effort and reduce the chances.

        Like

        1. My approach with spoilers is to warn people when I’m about to give one, so they have a chance to stop reading if they want to. You did that, so all good.

          I think I see what you mean. I just assumed the others were under a time crunch as well. But maybe Weir didn’t establish that.

          Like

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