Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir – Book

From a Google Image Search – collectSPACE

The only complaint I have about Andy Weir’s new book Project Hail Mary is that I finished too quickly. But I had a big smile on my face most of the time. Weir’s book has upset some physicists and astronomers because they say Andy Weir doesn’t always get the science right. I am not a physicist or an astronomer, although I like to read articles about both areas so, for me, this book offered enough math to make it seem authentic, without getting too esoteric. The main character, Ryland Grace, is, after all, just an eighth grade science teacher and the math seems just about right for that level. Acceleration in different gravities, temperature ranges that support life, an alien culture that uses base 6 rather than base 10, spectrographic analysis and control screens that can offer up any missing information or do the math—all of these elements are intended for readers who are not physicists or even biologists.

I don’t usually read reviews before I write about books but The Washington Post kept dangling one in front of me so I finally opened it but I tried to just lightly skim it. Another thing the reviewer found annoying was the use of coma amnesia by the author as a device to prevent information overload. We learn everything in flashback mode. If our reluctant astronaut only remembers info as needed we learn about technicalities as he relearns them or remembers them. He wakes from his coma alone and has lost the team of true experts that were supposed to keep the mission on track. This device did not bother me, it seemed useful, but it might bother some readers.

Earth has a pressing problem. For some reason the sun’s energy is being diminished and it looks like the culprit is Venus. With a probe scientists are able to collect samples from the place where the ‘Petrovian’ line heads from the sun and hits the atmosphere of Venus. We learn that the true culprit is a tiny organism called an ‘Astrophage’ and that it goes to Venus to breed because it needs carbon dioxide to reproduce, which cannot be found in the sun. It then returns to the sun to collect more energy for a return trip. Each trip increases the Astrophage population. So, as if climate change were not enough, now our own sun will get so dim that we will starve to death. 

When Grace (corny name or perfect?) finds himself alone in space he hears a Tap, Tap, Tap and finds he has a neighbor, an alien spaceship is nearby. He makes a leap of faith and allows his neighbor to connect the two ships with a tunnel. “Rocky” and Grace cannot share the same spaces or they will die. Rocky requires an atmosphere heavy on ammonia and he lives in extreme heat. Thank goodness for xenonite. Rocky’s planet is also being attacked by Astrophage, but Tau Ceti, the sun they are both visiting is infected with Astrophage and yet it is not losing energy. Why? Grace and Rocky find ingenious ways to figure it all out.

When my friend’s daughter was four she saw a movie over and over, as children love to do. The movie was called The Land Before Time. There was a character in the movie, Ducky, who would always say “yup, yup yup” or “nope, nope nope,” three times. It was so catchy and we all heard it so many times that summer that it has stayed with me all these years, although I never even watched the movie. Rocky and Grace also talk in threes after they learn enough of each other’s language. “Bad, bad, bad” they intone, or “good, good, good.” Rocky is a really lovable little alien engineer with a can-do attitude and a pretty even disposition. Does he make the book childish? I don’t know. That WaPo critic claims that the book is written like a movie script rather than a novel. Maybe. But Ducky prepared me well for a space engineer that looked like a turtle on top and a spider underneath, who had the lovable habit of saying things three times.

What is relevant about the book is not an imminent Astrophage attack on our sun, but the way humans come together to solve the problem quickly and efficiently. It is reminiscent of the way The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson tackles climate deniers by just finding ways to develop strategies that bypass them, right down to the leader of the Ministry, Mary Murphy, a strong woman who doesn’t take no for an answer. Dr. Eva Stratt is just such a strong woman and she leads the group of scientists from all of earth’s nations in getting a mission ready to travel to Tau Ceti as soon they see that earth will die if they don’t figure out why that other sun is not losing energy. 

Mary Murphy had a male counterpart who used the most aggressive and unethical approaches. Dr. Stratt plays both roles. She does not mind getting down and dirty. But this idea that humans, even humans and aliens, can let go of jealousy and animosity when the survival of their species is at risk is present in both books. It is cooperation, even enforced cooperation, that solves existential problems. We end up with the question of whether our problems are existential enough to get us to work together towards a common goal, which just so happens to also be  related to carbon dioxide. What do I have to say about Project Hail Mary? It was good, good, good!

Artemis by Andy Weir – Book

 

Artemis by Andy Weir is the kind of book you want to read in one bite. It is just so much fun that the word yummy would apply if a book was a meal (which, in a way it is). Andy creates for us the small domed community of Artemis on the Moon. He describes it for us through the eyes of his irreverent narrator, Jas (Jasmine), whose Dad came to the Moon from Saudi Arabia when Jasmine was young. There are several domes, each named after the astronauts who first journeyed to the Moon. There are rich folks on the Moon who live in the nicest spaces in the nicest dome. There are poor folks who live in more crowded spaces in another dome. There are domes where businesses operate. Jasmine’s father is a skilled welder who owns a fairly large work space until Jas, in a teenaged misadventure, burns it down. Fire is one of the most feared elements in Artemis. There is nowhere to run to. Jas owes her father a lot.

Right now Jas has a pretty big chip on her shoulder, constructed of guilt, dumb gumption, immaturity, and ambition. We meet her when she is taking her test to qualify to lead groups of tourists in EVA’s (Extra Vehicular Activities) on the Moon’s surface. We see how her impatience to earn her own way and move out of the space that she is living in, which is described as a coffin, without a private bathroom, lead her to neglect a careful inspection of her EVA suit. She almost dies and, surprise, fails her test. Because her impatience makes her careless, people she has known since childhood are leery of trusting her with much responsibility. This doesn’t sound like fun, but Jas is telling the story and she is full of sarcastic humor and she is indomitable. She is unfazed by her screw-ups. She just resolves to push on to the next adventure.

Jas is not totally alone. She still can rely on her father who loves her, but she tries not to. She has had a longtime pen pal in Kenya. Kenya is in charge of Artemis, the KFC (irony, humor?) and most goods ship to Artemis from Kenya. Jas is a porter who delivers goods from shipments as they arrive. This is how she earns her meager living right now, along with a bit of smuggling. But Jaz wants to be rich. She wants to live in the best dome and have her own luxurious bathroom. So when Tran offers to pay Jas 1 million slugs (credits) to do something very destructive, for what seem to be very good reasons, the whole, almost-fatal comedy of Moony errors ensues. Jas does love Artemis and she loves her father and she enlists the help of some very reluctant friends who obviously care about her. In the end we guess that Jas will finally enter a somewhat calmer adult lifestyle and we learn that not all her ventures have been so convoluted as the one we enjoy in Artemis. She has actually found a niche in Artemis.

I bought a membership in Audible because I planned to start exercising and I wanted to be very efficient with my time. If I could read and exercise at the same time I would be one of those people who make every second of their life count. I am having a problem with Audible, though, because I cannot see the spelling of the character’s names. I don’t like to read any reviews before I write mine so you may see some very creative spelling from me sometimes. The Moon community is home to people from almost every nation on Earth and offers a real challenge to Rosario Dawson who reads the book to us (I can listen on my Alexa). There are lots of accents which help to differentiate characters and add character to whoever is speaking. After a while the accents sound too similar and some accents sound less authentic than others. Still Dawson’s reading is suited to the saga of Jas and Artemis and the accents add another layer of entertainment to this tale, which gives us a sort of Moon thriller, and a tutorial in space science. Science is not usually this much fun (except perhaps in The Big Bang Theory with its clever writers). Andy Weir also reminds us that our flawed human nature will go with us wherever we go.