Project Hail Mary

Over the weekend I finished reading Project Hail Mary, the latest book by author Andy Weir. Actually, saying I read the book really doesn’t capture the process; you might say instead that I devoured it. Weir also wrote The Martian, and if you enjoyed that book (or even just the enjoyable Matt Damon movie version of that story, although I thought the book was better), I’m pretty sure that you’ll also enjoy Project Hail Mary.

The plot of the book grabs your attention from the very first page. The main character, Ryland Grace, wakes up from an enforced multi-year coma that has left him mentally sluggish and forgetful about pretty much everything. As he slowly regains his memory, he realizes that he is on a spacecraft and was part of a three-person crew that has been sent to a faraway star system. Unfortunately, his two crewmates didn’t survive the prolonged coma, and he is alone except for his robot caretaker. As his memories gradually return, he not only realizes things about himself, he also recalls that the purpose of the mission was to try to save the Earth by figuring out a way to eliminate the threat of astrophages–tiny organisms that are consuming the Sun’s energy and threatening to convert the Earth into a frozen waste that humans and other creatures cannot survive. His crew was sent on a one-way suicide mission to the Tau Ceti system because that star–alone among the stars in our solar system’s neighborhood–isn’t showing signs of its output being affected by astrophages.

I won’t spoil the book for those who might wish to read it; obviously, I thought it was well worth the read. I do want to say two general things about the book, however. First, the book–like The Martian–makes me wish I had paid more attention to science and math courses in high school, and actually taken some more math and science classes in college. In both books, Weir’s characters routinely use their scientific knowledge, and their deftness with math, to solve imponderable problems and develop practical solutions to fend off one potential disaster after another. If school boards are looking to incentivize kids to take more math and science courses, assigning the kids to read The Martian and Project Hail Mary would be a good first step.

Second, and despite the fact that the plot of the book has the Earth and the human species teetering on the brink of extinction thanks to the astrophages ravaging the Sun, the book presents a fundamentally optimistic view. The nations of Earth manage to come together to address the astrophage blight, and Ryland Grace, like Mark Watney in The Martian, also takes a positive, cheerful approach to his impossible situation and the immense challenges he encounters. As he remembers more and more about how he got to where he is, works to overcome every challenge thrown his way, and maintains his sense of humor in the face of unimaginable circumstances, it’s hard not to come to like the guy.

It was a pleasure to read a book that projected such optimism about the future, and human beings. It was a special treat to read the book right now, when positive news and cause for optimism can sometimes be hard to find.

All Alone

I’ve been reading The Martian by Andy Weir   Made into an Oscar-nominated movie that I haven’t yet seen, the book tells the story of Mark Watney, an astronaut on a Mars expedition who is injured and lost in a blistering sandstorm and presumed dead by his crewmates.  They leave because the sandstorm threatens to wreck their exit vehicle and their ability to get home, and Watney then finds himself abandoned on Mars, with no means of communicating with Earth.

The book’s careful recounting of Watney’s efforts to use the remnants of the expedition supplies to create water, grow food, and stay alive long enough to be rescued — and later, the discovery of NASA that he is still alive and the efforts to get him home before he starves — is riveting.  I can’t attest to the engineering and practical science involved in Watney’s development of soil capable of growing potatoes or his cannibalization of rovers to create a vehicle capable of a long-distance journey, but they have the ring of authenticity, and you can’t help but applaud his ingenuity.

the-martian-matt-damonAll of this occurs, though, against the backdrop of a bigger human drama:  a person left all alone on an alien planet, with no means of communicating to fellow members of his species, and always on the ragged edge of death from starvation or the hostile Martian environment. How would any person cope with such absolute solitude?  Watney establishes a journal to maintain a conversation of sorts, and he goes through the music, book, and TV selections left behind by his former crewmates — and pays the price by enduring disco music and the complete episodes of Three’s Company.   But even the syncopated efforts of the Bee Gees and feeble comedic antics of Jack Tripper and his roommates Chrissy and Janet, and the human interaction they reflect, are preferable to complete isolation.  In effect, the journal, the songs, and the TV shows are Watney’s version of Wilson, the volleyball who became Tom Hanks’ only companion on Cast Away.

Watney’s got a great sense of humor and a never say die mentality that allows him to deal with his predicament, but as you read the book you can’t help but wonder how you would deal with total abandonment on a desolate, alien planet — assuming, of course, that you had the botanical and engineering training that would allow you to survive using the same steps Watney followed.  After the initial zeal for trying to survive, how would you react after weeks and weeks of drudgery, with no actual communication or direct human interaction of any kind?  It’s hard to imagine that even good TV, music, and reading material could fill that void and allow you to maintain the positive attitude that would be essential to survival.  Most of us, I suspect, would just stop caring and give up.