Review: PROJECT HAIL MARY (2021)

I got my little hands on an ARC of this. Any inaccuracies are mine (or the ARC’s).

SPOILERS AHEAD!

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Spouse and I talk a lot about science fiction, although most of our discussions revolve around film and television. One thing we’ve recognized is that SF narratives can support pretty much one structural premise the viewer shouldn’t examine too closely.

One example is Edge of Tomorrow, a film I love. The central premise has to do with an alien that can “reset the day” if things don’t go the way it likes—an ability that can “infect” a human via the alien’s blood. It’s absurd on its face, but the film spends no time examining or defending the idea. It simply states it as a thing, and builds a story with absolute internal consistency. The film is about “What if <insert Mad Thing here>?” And it works, not because Mad Thing makes a lick of sense, but because the film builds every narrative element within the constraints of Mad Thing.

I think Project Hail Mary might have two Mad Things going on. (Maybe one and a half.) Enough that as I was reading it—and, to be clear, enjoying the journey—I was thinking “Oh, reviewers are going to rip this up.”

The story opens with that pariah of all openings: the narrator waking up. But our narrator, Ryland Grace, is in a strange place, reminiscent of 90s alien abduction scenes: connected (and immobilized) by numerous medical devices, tended to by a machine that ignores all his inquiries. Grace soon realizes he’s lost his memory, and at that point he starts the work of figuring out his environment. As he’s working, he begins to regain his memory in bits and pieces, and puts enough together to understand what’s happening: he hasn’t been kidnapped by aliens at all. He’s on a deep-space mission to save the Earth from an alien life form that is devouring the sun’s energy, and will destroy all life on earth if it isn’t stopped.

Mad Thing #1: The alien life form.

It’s not intelligent—these are not little green men (or gray; fine, Mulder, fine) viciously harvesting our star in pursuit of galactic domination. It’s simply found a food source, and we’re collateral damage. On the surface, that’s kind of a neat idea: we’re not in danger of extinction because Evil Aliens or because we’ve done something stupid to ourselves; we’re in danger because of galactic serendipity.

I trust Weir has done his homework on the physics here. That’s the guy’s brand.

I just don’t quite buy it, and maybe that’s just me. At the beginning of the story, though, I was okay with it. Here’s the Mad Thing, the conceit within which the rest of the story needs to work. Had it remained the only Mad Thing, I probably would have stopped asking questions entirely.

Which brings us to Mad Thing #2: Rocky.

Grace finds, when he reaches his destination, that another ship has arrived, presumably to solve the same problem. Aliens! This time not low-level plantish things, but actual sentient extraterrestrials. With a little trial and error, Grace manages to communicate with—and eventually meet—the single resident of the other ship, who he names Rocky.

At this point the rest of the story falls into place: Grace works with Rocky, and together they find answers that will save both their worlds.

Descriptions of Grace and Rocky’s efforts are interspersed with Grace’s returning memories, which tell a different story than the one he’d expected, and for the most part I found that worked reasonably well. One of his ongoing questions has been how a middle school teacher ended up as Earth’s last hope; we learn the backstory gradually, as Grace remembers it, and with a few exceptions the reveals work. One reveal in particular seems designed to emphasize that this book is not The Martian, and even though I could feel my strings being pulled, I found it affecting enough. And the ending, like the ending of The Martian, was upbeat and optimistic in a way that’s absolutely not real-world, but was very much welcome.

But Rocky.

I liked Rocky. He was funny, and helpful, and focused, and loyal when necessary. There was no awful “To Serve Man” reveal here. Rocky was what Grace perceived him to be, and yeah, I got emotionally attached.

Rocky’s human. Alien tentacles notwithstanding, Rocky is a human character.

Mad Thing #2.

This is by far a larger problem than the alien sun-eater, and I somehow feel more churlish pointing it out. Because a couple of decades ago, an anthropomorphized alien wouldn’t have seemed quite so jarring. Yes, SF has always written about the Otherness of aliens, and how we shoot ourselves in the foot assuming they’re somehow going to be just like us; but there have also been hundreds of popular narratives that make aliens some variant of humans. (I’ve been re-watching The X-Files with The Kid; there are a lot of human-ish aliens there, and a lot of them work really well in context.)

But thoughtful science fiction has gone mainstream. Films like The Arrival, as well as shows like The Expanse, have built their dramatic tension on the foolishness of assuming an alien species is going to be like us, or even in any way familiar. I’ve internalized this so much that I spent a lot of Project Hail Mary waiting for that reveal, for Grace to be upended by his misinterpretation of Rocky and his agenda.

That didn’t happen.

On the one hand, I was glad. This last year? Oh, my. It has been a Mad Thing all its own. Reading a book where the good guys are all good guys, where there are no conspiracies and no Evil Enemies, was a real balm. I liked this book in large part because it didn’t explore all those typical SF themes of human arrogance and presumption.

On the other hand? That’s two Mad Things, and it popped me out of the narrative. Not enough to make me stop reading, not even enough to make me stop enjoying, but enough to make the book feel out of its depth.

On top of the one-too-many-setup-conceits, Ryland Grace is very Watney-adjacent. He’s a scientist; he figures out his environment with methodical experimentation. He rallies in the face of absolute disaster, and remains optimistic when most of us would (let’s face it) curl up in a ball and freak out. Despite the largely entertaining reveal of his backstory, Grace’s nature isn’t part of the suspense here. His character is our guide; he’s not really the point of the tale. As a character junkie, that keeps me at arm’s length more than I like.

But in the end? He wins. And Rocky wins. The Earth isn’t undamaged, but it’s saved. We’ve faced a problem that isn’t, for once, our fault, and we’ve survived it.

This was not a Great Book[tm], but it was the book I needed right now.

Rating!

Science-Fiction-ness: 4/10. Relies too much on long-outdated tropes, and ignores some Big Questions one might have expected to see addressed.

Readability: 8/10. It wasn’t deep. It wasn’t complex. But it was a Warm Fuzzy, and if that’s what you could use right now, you could do a hell of a lot worse.

Rating: ★★★✩✩ 6/10. That feels about right.

AND NOW an addendum about my own stuff that includes massive no-I-mean-it spoilers for Breach of Containment:

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I spent quite a bit of time thinking about how to handle the issue of aliens in my universe. I’m writing a thousand years in the future, give or take; I could easily have gone full Star Trek (speaking of anthropomorphic aliens) and had a dozen different civilizations around. I didn’t want to do that, in part because I liked the idea that maybe humans started all this exploration stuff starry-eyed about the idea of meeting E.T., only to discover that space was pretty much just a bunch of inhospitable rocks, and maybe there was enough adventure in figuring out how the hell to survive somewhere we hadn’t evolved.

That said…there was that strange little wormhole in The Cold Between. That was absolutely premeditated Potential Alien Stuff.

Breach of Containment brought me Bayandi, a seven-hundred-year-old artificial intelligence acting as the captain of a generation ship. And yes, he’s pretty anthropomorphized. That was deliberate, as was the ambiguity of his origins (but no, seriously, he’s not the centuries-long evolution of someone’s undeleted Github project). If we begin with the premise that survival is an imperative for any species—which may be my personal Mad Thing—he’d have used that time to turn himself into something with which humans would feel kinship, and wish to protect.

Machines, of course, are fundamentally different. Bayandi is more like an adopted child than something truly alien. He is a product of his environment, which is human. His “real” nature? Who’s to say? If he’s just code and machine instructions, why shouldn’t he be as human as he can be?

And of course I’m not using aliens the way a lot of SF uses aliens. I’m not using my probably-alien-origin seven-hundred-year-old AI to interrogate the arrogance of human assumptions.

Bayandi’s story is about the importance of empathy.

I’ve often said that all future-based science fiction—no matter how bleak the story—is optimistic, because it assumes humanity survives all this <gestures at the whole damn world>. I love Alien Otherness stories; I love watching The Expanse and thinking No, no, don’t do that, have we learned nothing?? as I hold my breath and see if my favorite characters manage to survive. I love a good apocalypse—although lately, as I noted in the review of Weir’s book, I’ve been craving a little optimism, because damn.

When I write SF, I’m interrogating, in part, how we might make it to that future, how we might persevere over the worst and most unforgivable aspects of human nature. I’m questioning whether the things we’re all taught to value—might, intelligence, scientific advancement—are more important than, or even morally equivalent to, essential human kindness. There’s a thread of forgiveness in what I write, I think; there are characters who don’t get forgiven, and they’re the ones I’m not especially nice to. Even there, though, I sometimes moderate a bit. Admiral Herrod is a bad man who’s made bad choices—but not always, and not every choice. His end is appropriate, but Jessica is never able to bring herself to hate him, not altogether, and Elena extends him something close to compassion.

Greg hates him. That seems fair.

And Greg’s empathy with Bayandi is absolute. It doesn’t matter to Greg that Bayandi is a machine, that his origins are lost forever, that he might be genuinely an alien creation. Every character, major or minor, reacts to Bayandi in a way that reveals who they are. Just as Bayandi’s reaction to a catastrophic situation reveals who he is.

Does it matter that Bayandi is a machine? That his emotions are ultimately a programmatic response, no matter how sophisticated that response might be?

Does that make him less human?

Back in the Before Times, when I’d take my parents out, I’d put on music in the car and have Siri give me driving directions. I’d cuss her out sometimes, and my dad would always say “Hey! Be nice to her.” He was joking, mostly; but he was also responding in the way Siri’s programmers had hoped people would respond. Humorously or not, he was attaching emotion and intent to Siri’s behaviors.

Siri’s not an artificial intelligence, not of the type I write about. We don’t have those yet; we may never have them. Programming that sophisticated might be a bigger Mad Thing than aliens.

But it’s the Mad Thing I use to write about who we all are.

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