In the church of computer programmer turned nerd-thriller novelist Andy Weir, the sacred text is a science textbook. His best-selling 2011 debut, “The Martian” — which was adapted into a Matt Damon-starring, Oscar-nominated blockbuster — was hailed for its scientific accuracy, jam-packed with so many equations and theorems that it now has its own classroom edition (minus all the swearing). Still, the heavy on the science sci-fi story of an astronaut stuck on the Red Planet never got bogged down in the minutiae, thanks to gripping suspense and one of the funniest protagonists you’ll ever encounter.
Nearly a decade later, Weir has stranded another science guy in space and escalated the stakes from rescuing one man to saving an entire planet in “Project Hail Mary.” It makes sense that he returned to this winning format in his third novel, even if the similarities sometimes feel like Weir plagiarized from his own material. His sophomore effort, “Artemis,” a heist caper following a smuggler on a lunar colony, added more complications and characters to Weir’s space thriller formula, yet struggled to keep them all in orbit. “Project Hail Mary” is a bit of a reset — both book jacket covers even feature a recoiling astronaut! — but Weir’s ambitions in his latest far outreach our solar system, for better and for worse.
As in “The Martian,” the story begins with a man stuck in space with only his wits about him, only this time Weir adds an amnesia wrinkle. In “Project Hail Mary,” Ryland Grace wakes up from an induced coma in a spaceship hurtling toward an unknown destination, the “sole living human within several light years.” He can’t remember who he is or how he got there. Everyone else on board is dead. “What the fudge is going on,” he wonders, a far cry from the foul-mouthed Mark Watney in “The Martian.” That’s because, as he quickly works out, his Earthly profession was junior high school science teacher, with a skill set that will be frequently put to use as all manner of things go awry. A series of flashbacks establishes the gravity of the now solo mission. A mysterious organism is causing the sun to dim at an alarming rate, leaving just a few decades before global food shortages, an “instant ice age,” and eventual extinction. Somehow, this schoolteacher has become humanity’s last hope to stave off the apocalypse. Well, that is until he discovers he’s not the only one out there trying to save their species from destruction, and a “wacky new roommate” moves in.
Weir going full weird is the standout aspect of “Project Hail Mary.” Space is sci-fi’s favorite frontier and many missions end up on the same trajectory. Where Weir succeeds is his willingness to take a giant leap and get wildly speculative. A Green Planet is discovered, Africa gets covered in solar panels, and Earth is nearly doomed due to microbial poop. Weir’s inventive twists are the fuel that keep this nearly 500-page thriller zipping along at a relatively speedy clip. There’s just one major snag that keeps stalling the momentum. For every new concept and obstacle that’s introduced, Weir has a spreadsheet full of formulas on hand to help explain it to the point that you’ll be wishing you could get excused from class.
The focus on scientific accuracy was integral to “The Martian” because the story always stayed within the realm of possibility. If the math didn’t work out, the realism would be lost. The issue with “Project Hail Mary” is that Weir seems convinced that his imagination must never go beyond what he can ground in hard science. Nearly every page has a unit of measurement, calculation, and/or factoid that, though interesting, adds unnecessary clutter. “This is like being in a video game,” Grace says early on, a seeming wink to the reader. As the problems level up to outlandish extremes, so do the mental math gymnastics Weir outlines to solve them until, frankly, readers without a scientific background may start feeling lightheaded and a little lost in space themselves.
Despite Weir’s penchant for info-dumping, “Project Hail Mary” is still a suspenseful space yarn that zigs and zags — sometimes literally — in ingenious directions. Only Weir could intersperse rocket science with dad jokes and create a memorable space MacGyver in Grace, who can science his way out of any situation. It’s no wonder actor Ryan Gosling signed on a year ago to play Grace in the upcoming “Project Hail Mary” movie. “Maybe it’s just the childish optimist in me, but humanity can be pretty impressive when we put our minds to it,” Grace says, a theme that could be called Weir’s mission statement. This is a crowd-pleaser on the grandest scale, sure to satisfy fans of “The Martian” and add new members to the church of Weir. It’s likely not long before it gets adapted into a science textbook, too. If only it didn’t so often read like one already.
PROJECT HAIL MARY
By Andy Weir
Ballantine, 496 pages, $28.99
Landry Harlan is a writer based in Cambridge and creator of Noteworthy, an arts and culture newsletter.