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Saturday, November 26, 2022

Alone on a Spaceship, Trying to Save the World

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By Andy Weir

In the years before World War II, a new kind of hero appeared in American science fiction. Like his counterparts in adventure and western pulps, he was generally white, male and good with his hands, but he was defined by his ability to solve problems with science and technology. In real life, of course, not every conflict is a case study in engineering, but many readers still enjoy spending time with the character once widely — and chauvinistically — described as “the competent man.”

Andy Weir’s debut novel, “The Martian” (2011), found an enormous audience largely because it was a competent-man story that might have captivated fans in the 1930s. Its stranded astronaut, Mark Watney, survived on Mars using ingenuity, duct tape and plenty of wisecracks, but the writing fell apart in the scenes in which people actually had to have a conversation. Weir’s next effort, “Artemis” (2017), exposed his limited interest in constructing relationships or a plausible future society.

His latest novel, “Project Hail Mary,” is a sensible course correction that supersizes the strategies of his most successful book. The narrator awakens alone in a spacecraft, connected to a medical computer, and unlike Watney — who at least understood his predicament — he doesn’t even remember his own name. Readers who were underwhelmed by the attempt to write a leading role for a Saudi woman in “Artemis” will be relieved by his first few deductions about himself: “I’m Caucasian, I’m male and I speak English.”

Eventually, he figures out that his name is Ryland Grace, that he used to be a science teacher and that he’s the sole survivor of a mission to save the earth, which is threatened by a cloud of alien microbes that are draining energy from the sun. Because of a scientific paper that he wrote years ago, Grace has been recruited to seek a solution at the nearest star that is unaffected by the infestation known as Astrophage. As his superior says in a flashback: “When the alternative is death to your entire species, things are very easy. No moral dilemmas, no weighing what’s best for whom. Just a single-minded focus on getting this project working.”

In fiction, an unambiguous technological crisis can be oddly comforting, and the novel works best as we piece together the situation alongside Grace, whose memory loss is less an essential plot point — apart from a passing revelation toward the end, this isn’t a story that treats amnesia as a source of surprises — than a device for parceling out information. The main character’s isolation, which was so crucial in “The Martian,” is a similarly convenient excuse for Weir to downplay messy human issues in favor of a cleverly organized series of challenges that Grace himself compares to “a video game.”

For readers who can forgive its shortcomings, the result is an engaging space odyssey. While Mark Watney confronted a succession of escalating obstacles, Grace tends to resolve each setback almost immediately, and his relentless quips read like the output of an algorithm that was fed nothing but Joss Whedon scripts: “Astrophage would be the best thing ever if it weren’t, you know, destroying the sun.” Weir’s default voice allows for the painless delivery of facts, but it limits the emotions available to our hero, whose usual reaction to astounding events is to nerd out briefly at their awesomeness.

“Project Hail Mary” demands to be judged by the standards of hard science fiction, and it honors the laws of physics to an extent that makes comparable novels seem like playing tennis without a net. At its best, the genre is a delightful game indeed, and many literary virtues can be sacrificed to its potential pleasures, which include awe, strangeness and other effects that Weir never really achieves. For a sense of wonder, we can wait for the movie, which may even touch on the unspoken dread — implicit in the myth of the competent man — that Watney once expressed in a rare moment of doubt: “No more getting my hopes up, no more self-delusion and no more problem-solving.”

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