Andy Weir’s latest Sci-Fi novel is on the subject of the end of the world: the sun is cooling down and Earth is getting colder and within an estimated thirty years the planet will be stone dead, unless…
This is not an unfamiliar premise – novels about the end of the world are a dime a dozen. However, the reason for this apocalyptic situation (the sun is cooling down) reveals Weir’s peculiar and amazingly creative mind: there are little critters, amoeba-like creatures, “Astrophage”, that are travelling from another planet and consuming the sun’s energy. The world’s scientists need to unite, and take the few cells that they have of the critters, and figure out a way to find them and stop them. No plot spoilers here, but that involves a species almost as terrifying, dubbed “Taumoeba” – Taumoebae?! Taumoebas? But all that is far into the novel.
It starts off with the narrator waking up from something – somewhere – for some reason. To wake up with a computer quizzing you and probing your tender bits and know nothing, not even your own name, is frightening. It gets more scary if you do know why you are there. Or in how much trouble you are in.
Opening lines to grab you
Novels are often judged on their opening lines. It’s harsh, but if you are standing in a bookshop or browsing online and you open a book and the first few paragraphs, the first words actually, do not grab you, then you drop it and move on to the next book. This one absolutely grabbed me:
“‘What’s two plus two?’
Something about the question irritates me. I’m tired. I drift back to sleep.
a few minutes pass, then I hear it again.
‘What’s two plus two?’
The soft, feminine voice lacks emotion and the pronunciation is identical to the previous time she said it. It’s a computer. A computer is hassling me. I’m even more irritated now.
‘Lrmln,’ I say. I’m surprised. I meant to say “Leave me alone” – a completely reasonable response in my opinion – but I failed to speak.
‘Incorrect,’ says the computer. ‘What’s two plus two?'”
These few lines are packed with mysteries and foreshadowing, immediately causing the reader to want to know what is going on, and what is going to happen next. In other words, it works.
Doing the calculations
Weir then does what he did so well in his previous novel, The Martian: the narrator gradually reveals the answers to those questions, both to himself and in the process, to the reader. He does this by describing the reverse-engineering, step by step, in the process of getting to answers to all that. Because it’s a calculated process of calculations, a long, detailed, niggling process in which one wrong step can cause death. Basically, the narrator spends much of the novel carefully doing the Math, often reverting to the simplest, most elementary calculation, assumptions and laws of Science, and building on those.
This human, the astronaut (or, considering where he is, the cosmonaut) “Dr. Ryland Grace”, is on a spaceship. He is somewhere near the sun. His ship is loaded with those energy-consuming, power-generating, icky Astrophage blobs, like a car running on nuclear fission – a risky business. Until, like a quick, almost-missed blip on a radar, another spaceship appears. It’s a shocker – what or who is on board? And why are they there?
At this point, I was so riveted I was reading non-stop all night long. Weir’s description of the “Close Encounter of the First Kind” was fascinating, cleverly thought out and constructed, and faultlessly logical, even incorporating our hero’s confusion and mistakes. It is completely convincing. I can just see this becoming a film, same as The Martian.
The human space traveller and the alien
Dr. Grace is a likeable protagonist, from the first “Lrmln” and his grumpy awakening, to the last page. He is a very human human, he is stubborn, cowardly, selfish, self-absorbed, and prone to despair. He is also intelligent, inquisitive, witty, highly accomplished when push comes to shove, and completely open-minded. He is a well-developed and rounded, engaging character. I rooted for Dr. Grace. But I also rooted for the alien who he encounters on the other spaceship, who he dubs “Rocky”, for reasons that become clear later in the story. He speaks normally, informal and slangy – very well observed by Weir, in my opinion. (“Yo, Rocky!”, he yells out to get the alien’s attention.)
As far as I am concerned, Weir’s alien, Rocky, from the hot, gassy planet “Erid”, is a stroke of genius and it sets the narrative and this novel apart. Nothing about this alien is, well, properly alien-like, the way popular culture has established. But he is a lovely alien! I really liked Rocky and my heart pumped chocolate for him, as the saying goes.
The question of eyes
One of the rules in horror and Sci-Fi films and novels relates to what truly defines something horrible: what does or does not makes something a monster or an alien. The answer is eyes.
If you want to create something that makes your skin crawl, don’t give it eyes. Humans are recognizable by the fact that they have two, equal-sized eyes in the front, top part of their faces. People read emotions by looking at other people’s eyes – eyes being the windows to the soul, and so on. So, think of monsters – what do they have in common that makes them monstrous? No eyes. You can deal with beings that have no limbs, or too many limbs, are a strange colour, or move weirdly, or have a funny sized head, or a head in an odd place, or even eyes on stalks, or in their hands. But a thing with no eyes at all? That’s a thing, not a human, or a humanoid.
No eyes – the most frightening (and iconic) monsters and aliens
Aliens who we can learn to like – look at them eyes!
In the centre image, above, from the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind, you can see the iconic depiction of an alien from outer space – big, blobby head, thin limbs, tiny mouth, and huge, shiny eyes. In fiction, whether in books, films or animations, scary aliens are often depicted as being human-friendly by giving them human features – heads, limbs, oxygen-breathing lungs, mouths, nice big eyes, etc. (Of course a nice-looking alien can still rip your head off and suck your brains out.)
So, here is the clincher in Hail Mary: Rocky, the alien in the spaceship that pulls up alongside has no eyes. In fact, he has no head, as such.
He has a carapace and many agile limbs. That’s why Dr. Grace calls him Rocky. He looks like a rock. So as not to spoil the fun for future readers, I’ll say no more about Rocky’s looks – but the lack of a head does not make this alien unlovable. He is still enormously appealing.
The astronaut prefers to err on the side of optimism and calls the alien a “he” when he first encounters him. He, Rocky, is even more traumatized than “Grace”, as Rocky eventually calls him. Rocky is the perfect engineer. And, just to make it really challenging, he communicates using the frequencies of music notes. He feels the sound rather than hears it. So a sentence communicated between the two becomes a music phrase – a series of notes, and that’s how these two space travellers start communicating. That, and his discovery that Eridians use base 6, a senary system, for numbers – whereas most modern civilizations on Earth use base 10, the decimal system – everything counted is in units of 10. Well, I did mention that Grace needs to be open-minded and inquisitive, and that he is.
The process of finding out what led them there, to that spot in outer space, and how they could survive, and whether they do, makes for thrilling, engrossing reading. The climax of the novel is so well written that I could not, and did not, put it down, and in fact I read it more than once to take it all in:
“‘I turn up my radio volume. All I hear is static.
A crackle. My ears perk up.
‘Yes!’ I’ve never been so happy to hear a few musical notes! “Yeah, buddy! It’s me!’
‘You are here, question?!’ his voice is so high-pitched I can barely understand him. But I understand Eridian pretty well now.
‘Yes! I’m here!’
‘You are…’ he squeaks. ‘You…’ he squeaks again. ‘You are here!’“
Aw! That made me so happy!
Conclusion – highly recommended
I really enjoyed Project Hail Mary, and as a piece of Hard Science Fiction, I would say it is superlative. There are many other interesting characters, politics and plots going on in the background (since the end of the world is a problem that must be addressed by the whole world), and curious references to Science and fictional innovations. I therefore wished that the publishers could have done a better job with the typesetting. Yes, not for the first time, I thought the publishers and printers could have done more.
On a tangent – Weir’s constructed language
For this story, Weir had invented a new language, “Eridian”, which is based on the musical frequency equivalents of sounded letters and numerals. It works something like this, starting with the symbols representing the Eridian numbers 1 to 6: :
𝐼 𝓁 ⋁ ℷ + ⩝ = 1 2 3 4 5 6
This means, for example:
ℷ (gimel Maths symbol)= 3 = ♫♪ - in Eridian + (plus Maths symbol) = 4 = ♩ ♩ - in Eridian
Unfortunately, this is where the typesetting, or Weir’s language design, if he did not consider it, falls short: the music notes in the text are meaningless unless they are depicted on a music staff, those five horizontal lines used in a music score, with the clef indicated (like so: 🎼). That way, you can tell which key the note is in, and therefore what frequency the sound is. Those notes shown in the book are just typical graphics for music notes, and in fact they only represent the duration or number of beats of a sound, as a crochet, a quaver, and two crochets joined by a bar.
What does “two” sound like?
Well, this just frustrated the heck out of me. So I did what Ryland Grace does in in the book and found myself an online Frequency Spectrum Analyzer. I checked the frequency for the word “two” – the “I” symbol, and saw that it was about 2 kHz. (In my female voice, that is. This is the kind of daft thing someone who has had practically no education in Science gets up to.)
And what does 2 kHz sound like? Like a high-pitched beep. Amazing the stuff people put on YouTube – someone, though it sounds daft, put a recording of precisely a 2000 Hz, 2 kHz sound on YouTube as a video (below). I really wonder why someone would – but never-mind; it does make the theory of Rocky communicating with high-pitched squeaks more plausible. And it did remind me of the tones that scientists used to communicate with the aliens in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (also below).
It’s the idea that counts
But I’m 100% sure that Weir never intended some weird, nitpicking reader like me to go and try to figure out his constructed language. The idea behind the language is more important than whether it is comprehensive or whether it actually works. And the idea is that if you make an effort, and set aside your prejudices, two-way communication makes anything possible. Living or dying can simply be a matter of communicating the right information. No-one is a stranger or an alien if you can, and do, communicate with them.
The sound of “two”?
Is this the sound of Rocky saying “two”? Nah – just messing with you.
Here are the tones of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, with matching hand signals.