After the success of 2015’s The Martian (directed by Ridley Scott no less) it’s little wonder that the world is hyped to read the next novel from The Martian’s author, Andy Weir. Luckily, the wait is now over and Weir’s latest novel, Project Hail Mary is out this month (and already optioned for a movie adaptation!).
The novel follows Ryland Grace, the sole survivor on a desperate, last-chance mission – and if he fails, humanity and the earth itself will perish. Except that right now, he doesn’t know that. He can’t even remember his own name, let alone the nature of his assignment or how to complete it.
All he knows is that he’s been asleep for a very, very long time. And he’s just been awakened to find himself millions of miles from home, with nothing but two corpses for company.
His crewmates dead, his memories fuzzily returning, Ryland realizes that an impossible task now confronts him. Hurtling through space on this tiny ship, it’s up to him to puzzle out an impossible scientific mystery-and conquer an extinction-level threat to our species. And with the clock ticking down and the nearest human being light-years away, he’s got to do it all alone. Or does he?
We spoke to Weir about the novel, scientific research and his contact list full of NASA engineers…
You’re known for heavily researching your topics before you write a novel. What can you tell us about the research that went into Project Hail Mary?
Well, people think I have this contacts list all full of NASA engineers and Nobel Laureates…. and I do… [laughs] but I don’t use it! I use Google. Pretty much all of my research starts with a Google search because the sort of scientific information I want is very well documented. It’s a bunch of technically savvy people who are really proud of what they do. So, that finds its way to the internet very well.
What did you learn during that research?
I learned a lot about exoplanets and exoplanet detection, but one important thing was that some part of the book involves our local stars and astronomers paying attention to the stars that are very close to our star. I found out that professional astronomers don’t look at those stars, they’re looking for supernovas (technically the plural is supernovae but I refuse to say that). They’re looking for supernovas and other galaxies. They’re looking for background radiation, they’re looking at stuff way far away. Nobody pays attention to the stars closest to us, so I thought it was interesting that it’s actually amateur astronomers who would be the first to notice anything weird about stars nearby. That was a neat little tidbit that I learned.
The main protagonist, Ryland Grace, is a teacher. Why decide to have the novel told from a teacher’s point of view?
Well, my previous two books, The Martian and Artemis (which are also available for sale!) feature characters whose personalities are based on aspects of my own real personality, Mark Watney [from The Martian] has a lot of my own personality traits and Jazz Bashara [from Artemis] who is a Saudi woman living on the moon, believe it or not, her personality is based on largely the way I was when I was her age.
I wanted to grow as a writer this time, so I made Rylan Grace’s personality not [be] based on my own. I created a new character out of whole cloth, not just using aspects of my own persona. So one thing I decided is that he’s conflict-averse and likes to stay in a safe environment (or something he considers safe) and being a middle school teacher is a safe environment. He doesn’t get a lot of adversity from the students. They look up to him because they’re not teenagers yet. He’s also a goody-two-shoes, so it makes sense that he would work with children.
What would you like readers to take away from Project Hail Mary?
I don’t actually write books with the idea that anyone takes anything away, I just write them to be entertaining. I have no moral message, no nothing [laughs]. I just want you to have a good time when you’re reading it, and maybe I can infect you a little bit with my faith in humanity. Because maybe a little positivity could be helpful to people nowadays!
Finally, if you could only take one thing into space with you, what would that be?
A complete catalogue of every single remaining episode of Doctor Who!