TL:DR – Ryland Grace is on a suicide mission to save Earth.
Summary (warning: spoiler)
Ryland Grace wakes up in a bed with tubes connected to him and has no idea why. Nothing in the room is familiar, and a computerised voice asks him what is “two plus two”. His motor skills aren’t functioning fully, but he does manage (with difficulty) to respond with the correct answer.
Slowly, memories and events start coming back to him while he pieces together his location. He’s a junior middle school science teacher. Check that, he’s a passionate and devoted science teacher who worked previously as a molecular biologist and has an inquisitive and sharp mind, and he observes that when an object falls in the room he is in, it strikes him as unusual. He starts using his understanding of physics and does a series of tests and calculates that the gravity in his room is greater than that of Earth’s gravity. However, Earth’s gravity is constant, which means only one thing: he isn’t on earth.
As he gathers more information, along with returning memories, he realises he has been in an induced coma, undertaking interstellar travel to Tau Ceti (another solar system). Why? Because he is on a mission to solve the mystery behind an alien microbe called Astrophage that is absorbing the sun’s light energy. If Astrophage continues unchecked, it will spell the doom of Earth as the sun will die out and all life will enter an ice age that will lead to extinction.
He and two other astronauts are flying to another solar system because they have detected Astrophage around the Tau Ceti sun there. The difference being that the Tau Ceti sun is not dimming. If they can figure out why then perhaps Earth’s sun and humanity can be saved.
Oh, and along with piecing his memory back together, Ryland Grace has another problem… his two fellow astronauts are dead.
Okay, I’ll say it outright. Project Hail Mary is the best book I have read so far this year. Andy Weir has done something that I can only dream of doing as a writer. Not only has he written an engrossing, page-turning science fiction novel, he has made me dream of becoming a scientist. Regardless of whether all the scientific concepts and ideas he conveys in Project Hail Mary is plausible (and I believe that they are), he does something that few authors are able to do.
One, he balances science talk with the plot. While there is a lot of science talk, he makes it accessible and conveys it in a way that we can understand even if we don’t have a degree in theoretical physics, or molecular biology, or any of the other science specialties explored in this story.
Two, caring about the characters is critical in any story, and Weir does that beautifully. But he also makes you care about the science, which is a rare feat. Because it is the science that becomes its own ‘character’. Science is the connection between Ryland Grace and Rocky (more on Rocky in a moment), and it is science that drives the suspense and tension in the story rather than spaceships blasting lasers at each other.
Three, throughout Project Hail Mary there is an infusion of humour that makes a considerable impact and elevates a read that could have been a depressing slog mired in tragedy.
The story mixes flashbacks of how and why Ryland ends up on the Hail Mary ship and while the basic premise is that he is humanity’s last hope for survival, the true joy of the novel is his interactions with Rocky.
So, who is Rocky? He is an alien from another planet, and his home world is orbiting a sun in another solar system also infected by Astrophage. He is on the same mission as Ryland and appears like a spider-type creature. Weir does a wonderful job making their initial interactions believable, and as they learn to communicate (which in itself is a clever bit of writing by Weir), they develop a friendship that transcends well… species.
Rocky is a genius engineer on his planet and combined with Ryland’s scientific know-how, the pair seek to unravel the mysteries of Astrophage and why it is attacking their respective home world suns. As their communication becomes more sophisticated, their banter is truly laugh out loud at times, and you want both of them to survive by story’s end.
And this is the driving force of the story. Yes, the extinction of humanity hangs in the balance. Yes, unraveling the mystery and finding a solution to the Astrophage invasion is critical to the plot. But it is the friendship between Ryland and Rocky, and the question mark as to whether they will survive that will make you turn every page.
Project Hail Mary is a story launched into the stratosphere and scores a touch down for all readers.
5 out of 5