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.