[SPOLIER ALERT: The following might give spoilers to Project Hail Mary.]
Andy Weir made his name on the survival story The Martian. That book was impressive for a number of reasons, not least how Weir holds the reader’s attention when the majority of the time is spent with a single character.
Good stories need tension and conflict. They also need believable, interesting characters. Even in stories with external tension, much of the conflict will be inter-personal. Characters will argue. They’ll say one thing but mean another.
It’s tough to get this kind of tension with an inner monologue, so it’s no surprise that dialogue drives many stories. This is especially true with stories on the screen, despite film and TV being very visual media. A script will be predominantly dialogue.
So coming up with a riveting story when there is no dialogue is very hard. Weir pulled it off in The Martian. For his next book, Artemis, he had a cast of characters interacting, but in his latest book, Project Hail Mary, he’s returned to the lone character struggling to cope with a difficult situation.
So how does Weir keep our interest in this new book? How does he stop the challenges becoming introspective and dull?
First off is the premise. The character/narrator in Project Hail Mary is suffering from amnesia. He emerges from a coma to find himself aboard a spacecraft far from home, his two crewmates dead. He can’t remember their names. He can’t even remember his own name.
Then there’s the narrator’s voice. The action isn’t a simple description of what happens, but is filtered through the character’s personality. Through his struggles (and his internal monologue) we get to know him as he finds out who he is.
His memories return, and Weir gives us these as flashbacks. In these flashbacks we get other characters, and we also get some of that much-needed interaction. The flashbacks provide a welcome respite from the solo scenes.
[Incidentally, Weir’s use of tense is worth nothing here. The flashbacks are all written in past tense, while the space scenes are written in present tense. This could’ve been annoying, but the main character’s voice carries through, and the change of tense almost becomes invisible.]
Still, much of the time is spent alone with the main character (Ryland Grace). While the puzzles he’s forced to solve are interesting on an intellectual level, for me the book started to flag. Watching him solve problem after problem felt too distant. I started looking forward to the flashback scenes because I needed that interaction and dialogue.
And the [spoiler alert] Grace comes across an alien.
At this point, for me, the book really picked up. There’s another entity in the story now, clearly intelligent, and Grace starts to communicate with it. While the intellectual problems remain (and are compounded now, in figuring out how to communicate and then work with a very different being), there’s more interplay. Grace and Rocky (the alien) develop a means to communicate, and start to work together. They develop a rapport, start to anticipate one another. They bicker, and they work together. Now, instead of Grace talking through problems to himself, there’s a dialogue. They bounce ideas back and forth.
They’re both trying to save their respective home planets, but they’re also trying to save each other.
This is worth considering in a little more detail.
We enjoy stories with high stakes, and there’s little that tops saving the whole of humanity. But high stakes like this, while exciting, are so far outside our personal experiences that it’s hard to relate. And if we can’t relate to the problems the character(s) face, we’re outsiders, passive observers. We don’t feel connected.
To help readers connect, there has to be something more personal. This is why so many high-stakes stories also involve the hero saving a loved one. Bond has to save the day, but he also has to save the girl.
Grace, in Project Hail Mary, has little attachment emotionally to anyone back on earth. Yes, he goes on about his kids (the students he teaches), but that’s as much a justification for his existence as a personal attachment to any of them. This detachment might make him suited to the mission, but it doesn’t make him relatable.
But as he and Rocky grow closer, he finds that connection. This isn’t a romance/love story—it’s more a buddy thing—but it gives Grace (and the story) an emotional edge that we, the reader, can relate to.
And this development is shown in the interplay between characters—in the dialogue, both spoken and non-spoken.
This struck home for me when, toward the end, Grace and Rocky go their separate ways. We return to the internal stuff. I found myself alternately trudging through these pages and rushing through them, wanting—needing?—to reach a point where Grace was with others, either human or alien.
The ending highlighted this even more. Without spoiling too much, the book ends with Grace finding contentment in others. It’s a decent closing to the book. We might not be able to relate to Grace saving humanity, but we can relate to him coming through his ordeal a changed man.
This book showed me how important inter-personal conflict is in stories. It also highlighted how dialogue can help engage readers, and how tiring description and internal monologues can be, no matter how well-written the character voice.
And on a final note, I love how Weir constantly pushed himself with his books. He could have so easily written a different version of The Martian (same ideas, different planet or something.) But he didn’t. He followed it with a thriller (Artemis, which I enjoyed a lot). And although Project Hail Mary starts with a similar feel to The Martian, it is a very different book. I look forward to the next book Weir puts out. I don’t know what to expect, but I’m sure it will be well worth reading.