Science

Impressions of “Project Hail Mary,” by Andy Weir

Andy Weir is the author of The Martian (made famous by Matt Damon’s adaptation). Hail Mary is an original story but contains the same themes of using science to solve a series of seemingly impossible problems. In the world of Hail Mary, the Sun is infested with a space-traveling parasite called astrophage (star-eater). While a new book, Project Hail Mary is classic “hard sci-fi,” in that the author cares a lot about scientific reasonableness and also basic future technology on currently known principles. A major character in Project Hail Mary is a science teacher, and I can see this story being used as an adjunct to a science class.

With regards to literature, Project Mail Mary feels like a reaction to, and intermingling of, three classic works: The Shadow Out of Time by H.P. Lovecraft, Contact by Carl Sagan, and The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu. The references to — and partial inversion of — Lovecraft’s and Sagan’s works are self-evident once you come to them. But Weir’s dialogue with Liu is deeper and more subversive. In many ways, Weir’s Project Hail Mary feels like an intentional attack on The Dark Forest.

Dark Forest, and the entire Three-Body Problem / Death’s End series deal with interspecies contact as a way of thinking about interpersonal contact. “Three-Body” is an opportunity that rapidly becomes a threat, but a threat driven by its own, internal, and essentially defensive posture. The “Dark Forest” the third book is named after is an analogy for the universe of all communication, where every one hides his own brilliance in fear that it will be snuffed out.

Project Hail Mary, in contrast, uses a similar set-up to think about interpersonal cooperation. “Three-World” is both an alien place and, also, the source upon which exchange and sharing can be built. Once you learn what others actually want, you begin by adjusting your own behaviors in a way that can maximize your, and their utility. Eventually, this builds into empathy and the love between friends, and from there into self-giving love.

Another way that Project hail Mary is a response to The Dark Forest is the role of “Wallfacers” (better translated as “Anchorites”), scientist-bureaucrats who coordinate the massive response to the alien threat. In Liu’s book, three hyper-active and obviously ambitious Wallfacers are contrasted with his protagonist, Lou Ji, described by Wikipedia as “an obscure Chinese professor of sociology who is lazy and unambitious.” Eva Stratt, Weir’s equivalent formerly majored in social sciences but no one could ever describe her as either lazy or not goal-oriented. Again the theme of openly communicating one’s goals and objectives is seen as positive by Weir in Project Hail Mary, and negatively in Liu’s The Dark Forest.

It’s worth noting the strikingly Catholic references in both books. Early in Three-Body Problem, an important scene takes place at St Joseph’s Church, Beijing, Christianity is compared favorably to Buddhism, and there’s a prominent reference to Psalms 110:1. Likewise, the pilot of the “Hail Mary is Grace, he is sent from Eve/Eva, and his character’s moral ark after he leaves Earth paints a landscape of purgatory.

I read Project Hail Mary in the Audible edition*.…

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