Our society has lauded a lot of heroes in the past year and a half—health professionals, teachers, grocery, food-service workers, etc.—many of whom may not feel the public nods of recognition translate to real-life appreciation.
But in sci-fi author Andy Weir’s newest novel, Project Hail Mary, protagonist Dr. Ryland Grace is a schoolteacher suddenly thrust into the position of becoming humanity’s sole hero, whether he wants to or not. When astronomers discover that a single-cell life form soon to be named “Astrophage” (star-eater) threatens to decrease solar output and cause global extinction, Dr. Ryland Grace finds himself at the forefront of an impossible-seeming mission.
Outcast from academia for his controversial theories on non-water-based life forms, at the book’s outset, Dr. Grace has found his calling teaching middle-school biology. That is, until his skillset is needed to help prevent the apocalypse. Recruited by the incredibly powerful Eva Stratt—an enigmatic and hard-headed official appointed by “every member nation of the UN” to spearhead an international world-saving taskforce—Grace is taken across the globe to find out all he can about Astrophage.
As usual, Weir favors an everyman protagonist throughout his work.
“While it’s fun to watch James Bond kick ass, we don’t really identify with him. Most people—myself included—feel overwhelmed by life from time to time,” he explained. “We can more easily understand and empathize with a character who is in over their head and barely keeping it together.”
Grace’s occupation as a teacher resonates through his whole character—he doesn’t curse, and makes corny jokes in life-threatening situations—as well as with the tone of the book as a whole. Since his debut novel, The Martian, critics and readers have praised Weir for his ability to accessibly work real-world science into his prose. In Project Hail Mary—which the author calls a “science mystery”—step-by-step procedural scenes punctuated by Weir’s trademark snark provide the feel of a classroom lab with the stakes taken to eleven.
Whether he’s bantering with thirteen-year-olds in his classroom or stuck by himself in another solar system, Grace’s personality is reminiscent of every teacher who channels their own childlike fascination with a subject into a contagious passion for learning.
Upon the book’s release, Weir confirmed excitedly that “the research is my favorite part!” True to his word, his world-building often delves into hard details: he wrote programs to calculate space travel logistics for The Martian and did some serious speculation on the math of a lunar colony’s economy for his second novel, Artemis.
For Project Hail Mary, Weir sketched out a blueprint for the titular ship, “just so I could understand what it looked like, and why.” This diagram is reproduced for the reader at the beginning of the novel. I found myself going back to it for a visual understanding of the Hail Mary’s most impressive functions—including a centrifuge that kicks in to give the crew compartment artificial gravity, so that Grace’s lab equipment doesn’t float away in zero-g. While I myself have never had much focus for hard science, Grace’s narration imparts the same excitement for physics, microbiology and problem-solving as the beloved English teachers of my adolescence did metaphor, subtext and close-reading for me.
Grace’s quick adaptability throughout the novel also sharply reflects the modern-day worker’s need to play multiple roles in an increasingly precarious society. Waking up from an induced coma, alone in a spaceship with huge holes in his memory, our hero must figure out everything about his environment from scratch. As he regains his pre-interstellar memories, back-and-forth flashbacks reveal how such an unlikely figure ended up on an international mission to save Earth.
Weir himself has worn many hats throughout his life: a former software and game programmer, he’s also written a webcomic and inspired an album by the rapper Logic (with his breakout short story “The Egg”). Raised in Milpitas by an electrical engineer and a physicist, Weir is currently Mountain View-based, and credits his knowledge of neutrinos to a classmate at Livermore High School who went on to win a Nobel Prize for neutrino research.
Though it relies on a classic premise of genre fiction, Project Hail Mary is still weirdly relatable—and not just because of a looming, climate-change related apocalypse threatening humanity: following a man who must constantly update his understanding of the current reality, both in real-time and retrospectively, fits the mood of the last two years well.
Of course, in a post-Covid world, it’s nearly impossible not to read the pandemic’s presence into any type of doomsday-adjacent story concept. Weir describes the early days after the discovery of Astrophage and its threat by writing: “Gone were the days of careful peer review and published articles. Astrophage research was a free-for-all where researchers posted their findings immediately and without proof. It led to misunderstandings and mistakes, but we just didn’t have time to do things the right way.” In an era that wildly flings about both information and misinformation, this strikes a resonant chord with the constantly-updated CDC guidelines, nurses quitting their jobs at hospitals over vaccine mandates and anti-parasite medication touted as a virus miracle cure.
As a genre, science-fiction’s appeal lies in its paradox of escapism and often-gritty reality. While the events of Project Hail Mary only grow wilder as Grace’s ship approaches its destination (and as he learns he is not alone), Weir grounds the unbelievable in fact—quite literally element by element. Grace, meanwhile, navigates his ongoing confusion, fear and despair with humor and a willingness to try anything.
As he goes where no man has gone before, Weir captures the goal of all great teachers: to imbue another with curiosity and wonder amidst a frightfully dimming world.
An excerpt from ‘Project Hail Mary’
In which Dr. Ryland Grace explains how he and Eva Stratt begin to figure out mysterious space ‘dots’ at the heart of their mystery
By Andy Weir
“Believe it or not, light has momentum,” I said. “It exerts a force. If you were out in space and you turned on a flashlight, you’d get a teeny, tiny amount of thrust from it.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“Now you do. And a teeny-tiny thrust on a teeny-tiny mass can be an effective form of propulsion. I measured the dots’ average mass at about twenty picograms. That took a long time, by the way, but that lab equipment is awesome. Anyway, the movement I see is consistent with the momentum of the emitted light.”
She set her tablet down. I had, apparently, accomplished the rare feat of getting her undivided attention. “Is that something that happens in nature?”
I shook my head. “No way. Nothing in nature has that kind of energy storage. You don’t understand how much energy these dots are emitting. It’s like . . . getting to the scales of mass conversion. E = mc2 kind of stuff. These tiny dots have more energy stored up in them than remotely makes sense.”
“Well,” she said. “They did just come from the sun. And the sun is losing energy.”
“Yeah. That’s why I think it’s a life-form,” I said. “It consumes energy, stores it in some way we don’t understand, then uses it for propulsion. That’s not a simple physical or chemical process. That’s complex and directed. Something that must have evolved.”
“So the Petrova line is . . . tiny little rocket flares?”
“Probably. And I bet we’re only seeing a small percentage of the total light coming off that area. They use it to propel themselves to Venus or to the sun. Or both. I don’t know. Point is, the light will go away from their direction of travel. Earth isn’t in that line, so we only see the light that reflects off nearby space dust.”
“Why do they go to Venus?” she asked. “And how do they reproduce?”
“Good questions. Ones I don’t have answers for. But if they’re single-celled stimulus/response organisms, they probably reproduce through mitosis.” I paused. “That’s when the cell splits in half to become two new cells—”
“Yes, I know that much, thank you.” She looked to the ceiling. “People always assumed our first contact with alien life—if any existed—would be little green men in UFOs. We never considered the idea of a simple, unintelligent species.”
“Yeah,” I said. “This isn’t Vulcans dropping by to say hi. This is . . . space algae.”
“An invasive species. Like cane toads in Australia.”
“Good analogy.” I nodded. “And the population is growing. Fast. The more of them there are, the more solar energy gets consumed.”
She pinched her chin. “What would you call an organism that exists on a diet of stars?”
I struggled to remember my Greek and Latin root words. “I think you’d call it ‘Astrophage.’”
“Astrophage,” she said. She typed it into her tablet. “Okay. Get back to work. Find out how they breed.”
The word alone makes all my muscles clinch up. A chilling terror that hits like a lead weight.
That’s the name. The thing that threatens all life on Earth. Astrophage.
I glance at the monitor with my zoomed-in image of the sun. The sunspots have moved noticeably. Okay, it’s a real-time image. Good to know.
Waaaaait . . . I don’t think they’re moving at the right speed. I check the stopwatch. I was only daydreaming for ten minutes or so. The sunspots should have moved a fraction of a degree. But they’re halfway off the screen. Way more than they should have moved.
I pull the tape measure from my toga. I zoom out the image and actually measure the widths of the sun and sunspot cluster on the screen. No more rough estimates. I want real math here.
The solar disc is 27 centimeters on-screen and the sunspots are 3 millimeters. And they moved half their width (1.5 millimeters) in ten minutes. Actually, it was 517 seconds, according to my stopwatch. I scribble some math on my arm.
At this resolution, they’re moving 1 millimeter every 344.66 seconds. To cross the entire 27 centimeters it would take (scribble, scribble) just over 93,000 seconds. So it’ll take that long for the cluster to cross the near side of the sun. It’ll take twice that long to get all the way around. So 186,000 seconds. That’s a little over two days.
Over ten times faster than the rotation should be.
This star I’m looking at … it’s not the sun.
I’m in a different solar system.
Excerpted from PROJECT HAIL MARY by Andy Weir. Copyright © 2021 by Andy Weir. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.