This year, I’m reviewing all of the nominees for the Hugo Best Novel award. My hope is to provide a brief overview, an analysis of world-building, characters, and narrative pace/structure, and what I feel its strengths and weaknesses are. I will attempt to avoid any major spoilers but will necessarily be dealing with some specifics.
Overview of Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir from the back of the book: “Ryland Grace is the sole survivor on a desperate, last-chance mission – and if he fails, humanity and the earth itself will perish. Except that right now, he doesn’t know that. He can’t even remember his own name, let alone the nature of his assignment or how to complete it. All he knows is that he’s been asleep for a very, very long time. And he’s just been awakened to find himself millions of miles from home, with nothing but two corpses for company. His crewmates dead, his memories fuzzily returning, Ryland realises that an impossible task now confronts him. Hurtling through space on this tiny ship, it’s up to him to puzzle out an impossible scientific mystery – and conquer an extinction-level threat to our species. And with the clock ticking down and the nearest human being light-years away, he has to do it all along. Or does he?”
I knew what I was getting into with Andy Weir, having previously read The Martian, so the setting and the type of world-building was familiar. With his first novel, I almost struggled to call it science fiction as it was set so close to our time and was mostly plausible. This is definitely science fiction, not because it isn’t technically plausible, but just because it’s set a bit further out and Weir has taken a few liberties to simplify his storytelling.
The science is the cool bit. Weir really has a knack for making complex science and calculations accessible and from what I can tell and have read, it seems accurate. I liked that the ‘Hail Mary’ never felt like an SF spaceship but always remained something that we might recognize from our current space programs (even if more advanced) and the SF liberties Weir took were always scientifically plausible.
I have one major world-building issue, but it’s related to a character, so I’ll mention that there.
Ryland Grace is a great narrator for the most part, because we get all of his second-guessing and in-the-moment reactions. It works particularly well to see not only his perspective but to follow his thoughts and reasoning as he solves the many complex issues surrounding him throughout the story.
Rocky, without giving too many spoilers, is my favorite. The interactions between Ryland and Rocky are pretty adorable and I like how Weir has characterized the little guy. They must both be linguistic geniuses though, otherwise I’m not sure how the communication sequence works.
Stratt is a problem, however. Her character makes sense from the perspective of needing someone to be in charge of a critical, world-important project that can pull all the strings. Temporarily setting aside the plausibility of that ever happening (Stratt acknowledges that humans don’t tend to work together when she discusses the food crisis), her approach is very dangerous. She seemingly realizes that her methods aren’t always good but justifies them because she’s ‘saving the world’. I get that through Ryland’s perspective, Weir is not entirely promoting an ‘ends justify the means’ approach to the world, but since it doesn’t really find a resolution, that’s in essence what the book ends up meaning. I think we’ve seen enough times in our history when someone decides that this approach is justifiable and the dangerous ramifications.
As to the world-building aspect, Stratt’s character doesn’t make sense. I get that it’s necessary for the story to get the mission off the ground in such a short time-frame, but it makes her character rather unrealistic—not her personality, but the fact that she has this almost absolute power to requisition trillions of dollars worth of materials, divert whole industries, get Russian and Chinese militaries to do whatever she wants, etc. That’s a bit of wand-waving from Weir and it’s because otherwise this story doesn’t work. That’s a bid heavy-handed for my taste.
Narrative Pace/Structure: 4/5
The story moves along at great speed most of the time. The opening is moving from one question to the next, each problem seamlessly leading to a whole host of others, and before we know it, we’re a third of the way into the book. In part, that’s due to Ryland’s amnesia so we discover things as he does, but also his narration makes it work well. The final third of the book was excellent from a tension perspective, though I felt the middle third lacked the tension of the beginning and end. I can see why it was necessary and I did enjoy that part of the book very much as well (because of Rocky) but it didn’t have quite the relentless pace or tension as the rest.
My major quibble has to do with the flashbacks. Weir chose to include flashbacks as his way of providing information about what went on before the moment that Ryland wakes up. That’s a great method of telling a story. However, these flashbacks are also Ryland regaining his memory, so they’re still in first person (good) and in each flashback we read, we gain more information about what happened previously, as does Ryland who can then use that in the present time-line. And yet, it’s far too neat. The mind doesn’t work like that—there are way too many crystal clear details in these flashbacks for them to be memories returning and they certainly wouldn’t return in chronological order like they did, almost always skipping over the mundane stuff and revealing crucial information at just the right time. It makes the whole story-telling structure feel very contrived. Weir is great on the hard sciences like biology, chemistry and physics, but squiffy on the psychology and neuroscience aspects.
The near-plausibility of the scenario, the narrative voice, Rocky, and the pace are what make this story work. It’s an entertaining read, at times nerve-wracking, at times adorable. I enjoyed this despite what I felt were story-telling unsubtleties. I think Weir is very good at some parts of telling these types of stories but the writing often feels functional and so doesn’t really reveal itself as anything remarkable. In that sense, I find this less a work of speculative fiction, than a fun story set in the future. Worth the read, but probably not the Hugo.