As Ready Player One’s Ernest Cline is to outdated pop culture references, Andy Weir is to the science of space. The author of The Martian shares the same guileless enthusiasm for the intricacies of his obsession, the same willingness to sacrifice all other elements of a novel—pacing, structure, characterization—on the altar of getting across just how much he loves this shit. If that equation ends up tilting against Cline in Weir’s favor, that’s largely because learning about the hard science of space travel and interstellar problem-solving is vastly more interesting than hearing about how cool someone thinks Back To The Future is.
Another check in Weir’s column is that, with his new novel, Hail Mary, he seems to be figuring out what he does best. He’s still not a terribly good writer, though, with a clunky conversational style that favors telling over showing and more unnecessary explication than a dozen Blade Runner voice-over tracks (at one point, he explains why products that come with built-in batteries include a plastic strip to prevent the battery from running down before purchase). Weir is unable to resist staying focused on the situation at hand when there’s an opportunity to drop in another factoid, often accompanied by a dad joke. But with his latest book, he’s gone back to the same basic premise that allowed him to best utilize that skillset in The Martian: one dorky guy, unexpectedly alone in space, desperately trying to pool his resources and apply a wealth of knowledge toward survival—only in this case, it’s about the survival of the entire planet.
The story begins with a tantalizing, Twilight Zone-esque setup: A man wakes up on a spaceship with no idea who he is or how he got there, and two dead bodies in the room with him. As the memory loss from his induced coma begins to clear, he starts to recover bits of information. The book’s structure alternates flashbacks with his present effort to understand his predicament, leading to the revelation that not only is he hurtling through space, but he’s also far beyond our solar system. Also: Something is slowly draining energy from the sun, and our protagonist, scientist-turned-schoolteacher Ryland Grace, has been sent on a last-ditch effort to figure out how to stop it and get the information back to Earth before the dimming of our star destroys all life on the planet.
It’s a strong, simple idea for a novel that allows Weir to engineer his plot to benefit his limited range as an author. As in The Martian, it’s a first-person account that largely consists of one science enthusiast talking to himself in the vastness of space. In this arrangement, the author’s foibles come to the fore without highlighting that this is the only way Weir is capable of writing. The big problem with Artemis, Weir’s dreadful second novel, was that it tried to take the exact persona of The Martian’s Mark Watney and transfer it to a character and setting that didn’t mesh with it at all. Perhaps realizing how poorly he fares outside of this narrow arena, the author has returned to a narrative that can help excuse his writing’s weaker elements as the rambling, hokey internal monologue of a man who’s never happier than when he’s solving puzzles, and then making a pun about it.
It’s no surprise to reveal that the novel works best when it focuses on the basics of problem-solving, showcasing Weir’s knack for creating plausible science-in-space challenges and then proceeding, Rube Goldberg-like, to overcome them via elaborate but practical solutions. The difficulties of surviving in the dark vacuum of space are addressed with the same commitment to real-world verisimilitude that Weir brought to his smash-hit debut—from how to create artificial gravity to the best ways to mimic Earth’s atmosphere. His facility for set pieces also helps contribute to the occasional beach-read fun, as Ryland racing from one crisis to the next means less chances for Weir to weigh things down with clunky exposition or character study.
But boy, those characters can be painful. Ryland Grace expresses himself with all the depth and mannerisms of Andy Griffith. It’s one thing for a character to have an aversion to swearing; it’s quite another to twist your prose to make that aversion nigh-pathological. A few choice expressions that Ryland utters:
- “‘Holy moly,’ I say. Is that my go-to expression of surprise? I mean, it’s ok, I guess. I would have expected something a little less 1950s. What kind of weirdo am I?” (Yes, Weir really hangs this big of a lampshade on it in the opening pages, as Ryland recovers his memories.)
- “…My shin. It hurts like a motherfluffer.”
- “‘Oh, come on!’, I said. ‘Who pooped in your rice krispies?’”
- “ ‘Are you joshing me with all this?’”
- “ ‘This is some bull-puckey.’”
Other characters are as one-dimensional as anyone from a Dan Brown book, just personalities for Ryland to react to. Even the science talk can start to drag, as when Weir gets bogged down in lengthy pages of exposition, holding court about all the neat stuff he presumably learned while doing research for the book. A passage on the heat and velocity of neutrinos and other small particles gets deadly dull, as does a section where the author keeps breaking down the differences between light and sound. It’s much better when he uses all the flashbacks to Ryland’s time on Earth researching the challenges of their plan as a means to simply depict unusual and engaging scientific riddles and the inevitably clever answers.
If you can make it through the sometimes laborious establishing material, there’s fun to be had in the all-stress-all-the-time of Ryland’s predicament, and in the humor he mines from the unusual struggles the scientist confronts when attempting to craft handmade, jerry-rigged solutions for the overwhelming existential problem of saving humanity from extinction. Andy Weir may only be able to write one type of character, in limited circumstances, but he does it well enough to make Hail Mary a source of gimcrack entertainment—shoddily made, but possessing ample pleasures.
Author photo: Aubrie Pick