Project Hail Mary

   “A best-seller is the gilded tomb of a mediocre talent,” wrote a snooty bookish professional in the 20th century who had never, obviously, produced a bestseller in a lifetime of writing. Writers who’ve never had a bestseller have often reflexively dismissed the whole phenomenon as some kind of brainless debasing of a pure art. They tend to hold onto this attitude right up until one of their books takes off.

But what to do after that happens? What do writers do if their very first book is a bestseller? Egomania forbids retirement, so what’s the strategy? Reprise your bestseller every year for the rest of your life? Or try something new and risk alienating the audience that got you where you are?

Andy Weir’s debut novel, 2014’s “The Martian,” was a massive bestseller, and its sales were hugely increased when it was adapted into a beloved movie directed by Ridley Scott. It adds up to a very tough act to follow.

His immediate follow-up, 2017’s “Artemis,” naturally felt anticlimactic--and also was anticlimactic, a sloppy, disjointed mess of a novel. So naturally a good deal of interest attends the appearance of Weir’s new book, “Project Hail Mary,” the story of a hapless man who wakes up alone on a spaceship with no knowledge of his mission and no memory of his own name. The two other passengers have been dead so long they’re virtually mummified, the ship is run by a computer, and mechanical servitors aren’t particularly deferential. 

The man is at first maddened by his own amnesia, but it’s a very effective narrative gambit on Weir’s part; it encourages the reader to sympathize with the main character—who quickly turns out to be high school science teacher (and formerly prominent speculative xenobiologist) Ryland Grace—and learn about what’s going on right along with him.

What’s going on is dire: something is siphoning energy from Earth’s sun and a bunch of other stars in Earth’s local cluster, something called the Astrophage, which Project Hail Mary is designed to counteract. And now Ryland Grace IS Project Hail Mary. 

It’s a very “Martian”-esque basic setup, perhaps understandably so. The execution is likewise very similar, right down to the persistently, sometimes annoyingly quippy dialogue. “Self-ambulation detected,” the computer announces at one point early in the book. “What’s your name?” To which our hero replies, “I am Emperor Comatose. Kneel before me.” You can practically see the smirk that’ll be added by whichever young star is cast in the inevitable movie. 

Fortunately, the echoes of “The Martian” aren’t confined to dialogue. “Project Hail Mary” also captures a great deal of the feral charm of that famous debut. Weir works a very sizable amount of fascinating scientific exposition into the narrative without ever slowing down the story’s momentum. And more importantly, the characters—Ryland Grace and all the people back on Earth—are happily, merrily drawn. 

“Project Hail Mary” recovers completely from the sophomore slump of “Artemis.” Andy Weir deserves to have another bestseller on his hands.

Ballantine Books, 2021

496 pages