All people crave romance and sex, accomplishments and adventures, possessions and travel. Most of us settle for marriage and work while living our fantasies out vicariously in fiction. We use books, TV shows, movies, video games, or VR as substitutes for our desires. When fiction fails to satisfy we dine out, party, exercise, or travel. What we really want is to live a different life.
Knowing this should enlighten us about the fiction we choose. Are the stories we love most the ones we wished we were living?
Andy Weir’s latest book Project Hail Mary, left my eyes watery and my nose runny while listening to the last chapter on audio. I loved it. Is that the life I wished I was living? At 70, I know it’s an absurd fantasy and should answer that question with no. But when I was a teenager I would have said yes with great enthusiasm.
Nowadays, few science fiction books move me like that. And, I have to ask myself why. Did Project Hail Mary impact me in the same way the Heinlein juveniles did in the 1960s when I was twelve? Getting close to the end of life, I’m not sure I have much of a sense of wonder left, at least not the kind I had when reading science fiction in that golden age of being young.
When I discovered science fiction sixty years ago almost every story blew my mind with far-out ideas, giving me a tremendous sense of hope for the future, especially for the possibilities for my personal potential. Now, that I’m living in the future, with what little potential I have left, I see science fiction from a different vantage.
Project Hail Mary is one hell of a hopeful book and I enjoyed the hell out of it. I highly recommend reading it. If I had read it in 1964, or if I was 12 years old today, it would have made me a true believer in the science fiction faith. This week I read Weir’s novel and forgot about the world we see every evening on the NBC Nightly News, and I entered into a wonderful virtual reality created by Andy Weir’s skillful worldbuilding with words.
The entire time I listen to Project Hail Mary I marveled at Weir’s storytelling skills. He blended many of my favorite SF themes into an enchanting first-person narrative. Weir obviously imagined his novel as a movie, creating a lovable hero that will save the Earth. For some reason, science fiction blockbusters always seem to put Earth in final jeopardy. And many of them love having an average guy overcome an endless series of obstacles. Kurt Vonnegut gave some famous advice to would-be writers. He said: create a likable character and then do mean things to them. Andy Weir gives Ryland Grace a long series of impossible problems to solve.
The story begins with Ryland waking up in a strange hospital bed, not knowing who he is, where he’s from, or where he’s at. This is a neat storytelling trick. The novel breaks down into two tracks: the now and the past. Amnesia is the perfect excuse for creating flashbacks. Normally, I hate flashbacks, but Weir’s gimmick made me look forward to them.
I don’t want to tell you much about the novel and I want to beg you to get the audiobook version. The narrator acts out each character with a different voice, including accents for different nationalities. For the alien, Rocky, who speaks in musical tones which the audiobook plays, the narrator creates a charming accent for his English. The audiobook should have way more impact than just reading with your eyes.
Looking at reviews on Facebook, Goodreads, and Amazon, some readers loved this novel, while many others complain it’s too tedious. Weir tells this story in one long series of problems that Ryland Grace solves, many of which involve science. I assume the readers who love this story are problem solvers. If you’re not, this book might not be for you.
Ryland Grace is the ultimate competent man who can do everything. This character attribute is why I loved the Heinlein juveniles as a kid. It’s why I also loved the recent Bobiverse books. That’s one of my big personal fantasies, being a generalist that knows everything and can do anything. I’m not. I’m half-ass at doing a lot of things, and I vaguely know a little about a lot.
Ryland Grace is the modern manifestation of Tom Swift. That might be another clue for you if you’re thinking about reading this book.
Another fantasy Project Hail Mary tunes into is being alone in the world. I love the last man on Earth type stories, the Robinson Crusoe types. Ryland Grace is alone in space for a lot of this story. He even meets his Man Friday. (I hope I’m not giving too much away.)
Ryland Grace is the hero that saves Earth, and that’s one fantasy this book promotes that’s not mine. I don’t like attention. However, because of the way Andy Weir presents Ryland Grace’s achievements, I didn’t feel getting attention was a theme of this story. In flashbacks, we learn that Ryland Grace loved being a junior high school teacher who enjoyed promoting science with his students. That’s another theme that Heinlein and Weir are into that doesn’t resonate with me, but I imagine it will for teachers. Project Hail Mary would be a great book to teach in an English or science class.
Now to the negatives – which I just ignored because I was enjoying the story so much. Ryland Grace pulls a rabbit out of the hat every time, and his mental abilities are unrealistic. Plus, the invented science for this story is too good to be true. If people love Superman for his fantasy physical feats, Ryland Grace is a Superman of intellectual feats. In other words, the reality of this story is closer to a comic book than literary fiction.
That brings us back to my original psychobabble. Why do we choose the fiction we do? Why do we love some stories way better than others? Do the same themes appeal to us our whole life, or do they change as we age?
The Heinlein juveniles made the biggest impact on me of anything I read as a teen. That’s because I wanted to be like the characters in those books, and I wanted to grow up and live adventures similar to those in the stories. I wanted those fantasies to become real.
I can’t possibly believe that at 70. I’m a great deal more aware of reality now. I shouldn’t buy into anything in Project Hail Mary. I should be too old to enjoy it, but I did. A simple answer is I know too much about reality, and yet, I loved reading this book because it help me escape from reality that’s becoming all too harsh and hard. And that might have been the reason I loved science fiction as a kid too. The 1960s were tough times for anyone to grow up in, and I had feuding alcoholic parents who dragged me and my sister from state to state. That made things worse. Is it any wonder I wanted a science fictional fantasy to be real? Is it any different today?
Project Hail Mary is not a young adult novel, but it has that kind of appeal. As a kid, I knew science fiction was fantasy but reading science fiction made me hope that reality would become more like science fiction. It didn’t. We have science-fictional technology, but not science-fictional lives. That’s what we wanted. That’s what I wanted then, and now. And I can only find that life in books, books like Project Hail Mary.
James Wallace Harris, 8/7/22