I’m disappointed by Project Hail Mary.
I noticed when it first came out that it disappeared from the pop-culture zeitgeist pretty quickly. There was plenty of anticipation for it, then a blip of hoopla when it was published, and then everyone stopped talking about it. I didn’t expect it to be the phenomenon that was The Martian, but even Artemis was discussed more than this. I found it curious.
I understand now. It’s not a great book. It’s far less compelling than The Martian and not as polarizing as Artemis. Weir plays it too safe this time around, tries too hard to deliver what he thinks his fans expect from him. It’s not a bad book but it falls short.
He’s writing to fulfill the Weir Formula, and it shows. Artemis was such a departure from The Martian, I was hoping he wouldn’t fall back into something this formulaic for his third book. He’s trying too hard to create The Martian redux. He’s trying too hard to win back his fans after the blowback he got for Artemis.
It’s disappointing because the premise of Project Hail Mary is wonderful. This story and concept deserved better. They deserved to stand on their own without the overly self-conscious attempts at fan service. It’s the strongest story Weir has written yet. The concepts are some of the most compelling he’s created, the pacing is near perfect, and his world building is compelling. The plot fully captured me and drew me along.
The problem is the main character. The one person the entire narrative depends on. He’s underdeveloped, one-dimensional and boring, and I don’t care what happens to him. He’s nowhere near up to the task of carrying this tale.
Mark Watney in The Martian is one of the all-time great characters in science fiction. We talk a lot about the science and engineering and the unabashed celebration of geekery in that story, but the reason we love it is because of Watney. He’s so charming, unique, and his sense of humor is addictive. He wins our hearts and our interest. We care about what happens to him.
In Artemis, Jazz Bashara may not be as charming as Watney—is, in fact, frustrating and off-putting at times—but she’s no less fascinating. She’s strong willed, smart, immensely capable, with a biting sense of humor. We care about what happens to her.
There’s nothing about Ryland Grace in Project Hail Mary that captures me. Weir works hard to give him an interesting back story that equips him with skills uniquely suited to the situation (maybe too well suited, it strains credulity), but there’s blankness where his personality should be. He’s completely flat as a person. He has no sense of humor, no quirks, no unique sense of identity.
He’s milquetoast. He’s Generic Science Guy and nothing more. He feels like the outline of a character and not a real person. A placeholder.
Both The Martian and Artemis are character-driven stories. The Martian is the story of how Watney deals with his situation; Jazz’s choices and actions determine how her story plays out. Those stories evolve around the characters. In both cases, I can easily imagine these characters removed from their stories, placed in other situations, and they’d remain fascinating.
Grace feels like he was written to spec: a character constructed to answer the needs of the plot. He’s not a unique individual separate from the story. He’s the narrator and someone to be good at the science when the science needs doing. And that’s all. It’s not enough.
My disappointment in Project Hail Mary boils down to this: it’s not a character-driven story but I want it to be. Characters are Weir’s biggest strength, even more than his detailed scientific accuracy. Project Hail Mary is so reminiscent of The Martian that I want someone like Watney as the beating heart of it. Grace doesn’t cut it.
It’s particularly galling because there are genuinely intriguing characters in Project Hail Mary. Stratt is riveting and I want more of her story. Rocky is a brilliant creation—this book would have been so much more daring if it was told from his point of view.
The concepts, plot, and setting of this novel are excellent—the best Weir has created yet—and it’s paced masterfully. It’s a great story. But there’s a gaping empty hole right in the middle where the main character should be.
There are a couple other aspects of the novel which bother me.
This is a story about doing science, just like The Martian is, but this story is uncomfortably self-conscious about that fact. The doing of the science sometimes feels intrusive and unnecessary. There are moments—especially times when Grace does math—that are clearly just the author showing off the science because he feels like he’s supposed to, and not because the story actually needs it. This stands in stark contrast to Artemis where the science wasn’t foregrounded because the story didn’t need it, and Weir cared enough about the story to know the difference. It’s also a consequence of the fact that the main character is woefully underdeveloped, and his scientific capability is pretty much his entire personality, so what else is he going to do? It’s all he has, so it’s all we get to see.
[Warning: Mild Spoilers]
I can’t forgive the whole “global warming is actually going to help save humanity” bit. Yes, it’s a minor point in the overall scheme of things. Yes, Weir makes it make sense within the specific circumstances of the plot, and it’s necessary for the specific timeline of the story.
But it’s shockingly tone deaf given the profound existential threat climate change poses to our future. It’s irresponsible. It wouldn’t have been that hard for Weir to rework some of the science to rejigger the timeline so this wouldn’t have been necessary. The plot still would have been plenty suspenseful without it.
[End Mild Spoilers]
In the end, I’m disappointed because Project Hail Mary is both too much like The Martian—Weir attempting to repeat his most successful trick—and not enough like it—lack of an interesting main character to drive the story. He’s trying too hard to please his fans and it comes across as a knock-off of his own work. I appreciate Artemis in large part because it’s so different from The Martian and he showed he wasn’t just a one-note author. Project Hail Mary is replaying the same note he sounded with The Martian, only he’s not playing it nearly as well this time.
It’s a letdown.