Project Hail Mary - Space Sci-fi at its finest
If you liked The Martian, you will definitely love this.
Andy Weir did it again. You have probably watched the movie The Martian, the basic premise was about an astronaut who gets left behind on Mars, and is able to grow potatoes to sustain until a very interesting turn of events leads to his rescue. (Sorry I should have mentioned spoilers).
I had seen the movie when it came out in 2015, but I only got around to read the book last year, and it was a delightful read.
So when my friend told me that he wrote another book that released this year, I stopped all the other books I was reading (Sorry Dune, still not your time), and pounced on it.
Interestingly this book kept me company as I got stuck in trains and trains stations due to flooding during my summer break getaway in Southern Japan. It was finished within 48 hours. Likely because I literally didnt have anything else to do, but equally because I couldn’t keep the book down AT ALL.
The narration, the pacing, and the twists and turns of this book were perfect for a quintessential sci-fi read along. It has everything, you would expect.
Interestingly enough its very similar to The Martian, the core themes being space, isolation, survival, communication all layered with humor and an against all odds attitude and a lot of science. If you liked martian, its right down your alley.
Its very hard for me to describe this book without delving into the plot, so if you are planning to read this book, then please stop here, go read it and then come back to read my thoughts. I dont even want to let you read an inch of it, because it will spoil the reading experience. If it doesnt matter much to you, or you wish to know why you should read it, then feel free to continue, but I did warn you.
Danger Zone: Continue at your own risk
Anyway so Project Hail Mary is an only-hope mission by the human race to stop the apocalypse. After discovering a new life form on Venus that is actually feeding on the sun’s atmosphere, we realize the the sun is losing its brightness. Even if the sun loses 1% brightness, what does that mean? It means, a new ice age, ecological disaster, and basically extinction of the earth’s life as we know it.
But this plot is revealed to us in a very interesting way. The book starts with the protagonist waking up from a coma and not able to remember anything at all about his past and his reason for being in this weird room. The narration is in first person, and it’s so interesting because we learn about the protagonist as he learns about his own self. He slowly tries to infer who he could be based on how he is behaving to certain situations. Does he think in imperial or metric units? Why does he know that a certain smell is the smell of ammonium? And some specific things trigger memories, which help us learn about his past, as he starts remembering it.
Eventually as he understands where he is (he is in a spaceship, alone), who he is (a highschool science teacher turned astronaut??), and why he is there (to figure out how to save the earth), he realizes he is not the only one. There is another spaceship around. When I started reading this part, I knew this is either gonna be super lame, or amazing. And yes, he met an alien. And no it was not lame at all. I loved the entire thing about it, because it made sense. Turns out the alien’s planet is also facing the same issue and it was sent to figure out the same solution.
The rest of the book focuses on how Grace (human) and Rocky (name given to alien by Grace) figure out how to communicate with each other, and learn about each others world’s and cultures. Interestingly the way they handle science is the same and that is what bonds them, because they are both scientists from their respective planets. And through this bond, they solve the constant stream of problems that hit them, and try to find a solution to the imminent threat against their home planets.
Thats enough of a summary, I wanted to write down some of my thoughts about what takeaways I had from this book.
Space Travel as a Product
I am after all, a Product Manager, and this book had a lot of detailed passages about how humans used spaceships. The hardware, the software and the user experience of space travel is very interesting to think about. If you are losing oxygen, you dont want to be straddling through complicated screens and buttons to save yourself. There are actual deadly consequences to the product that we might build.
To think further those who design security systems, airline systems and such. Big salutes to you!
Communication is the baseline of a species. Interspecies communication is the foundation of progress. Grace used his ears to listen and eyes to see. However Rocky’s species (Eridians as they were coined) used sound as a sensing as well as communication mechanism. When Rocky ‘spoke’ he used a distinct combination of notes that could be put on a music scale.
Even though both Grace and Rocky had different way to perceive their environments, they were able to develop a way to understand and communicate with each other, through the use of technology and logic. A similar situation could have been the first time an American met a Japanese person. How would they have learned each other’s language? By using body language to learn the simpler words and build their vocabulary with each other on top of that.
The important part was that their intelligence level needs to be the same to perceive the other’s language. This is also probably the reason why we havent been able to directly communicate with animals.
It seems that humanity might just…. figure it out
We are not a perfect species by any means. We have issues with members of our species, emotions and also a blatant disregard for our planet. But regardless of anything, humanity has survived wars, famines, and anything else that was thrown at us. (Sometime by external forces, but usually by ourselves). This book showed that when the whole planet is in danger. interesting alliances could be formed to tackle the issue. A real life example is COVID. When faced with a global crisis, the whole world rallied together to figure it out. Knowledge sharing about the health issues. distribution of vaccines, we did everything globally. It makes me believe that if an alien race does rain down upon us with the intent to destroy us, humanity we will not give in so easily although we might actually deserve it. It’s all about priorities.
Quotes from the book
Here are some quotes I highlighted while reading the book — Hoping I can read these once in a while to be inspired.
“My subconscious has priorities.”
- Sometimes it feels like your mind is running on autopilot. This quote encapsulated that well.
“People always assumed our first contact with alien life — if any existed — would be little green men in UFOs. We never considered the idea of a simple, unintelligent species.”
- When the first set of aliens found were just microscopic bacteria
“It’s simple, really. Get energy, get resources, and make copies. It’s the same thing all life on Earth does.”
- In the end we all have one purpose.
“The slight reduction of fear has a feedback effect. I know I will get less afraid now. And knowing that makes the fear subside even faster. Soon, the panic dies down to fear, which diffuses into general anxiousness.”
- Our mind has a very interesting way of digesting fear and helping us deal with it in a tough situation
“Broadly speaking, the human brain is a collection of software hacks compiled into a single, somehow-functional unit. Each “feature” was added as a random mutation that solved some specific problem to increase our odds of survival.”
- Comparing our brain to a chaotic software
I glared at him. “And it would destroy the ecology of Africa and probably Europe.” “Not as much as the coming ice age will.”
- Collateral damage is a real concept
“So his whole body is a microphone. His brain must be doing some serious processing. It has to know the exact position of the body, sense the time difference between sound hitting different parts of it … man, that’s interesting. But hey, my brain gives me an entire 3-D model of my surroundings just from two eyeballs. Sensory input is really impressive across the board.”
- Sometimes we really take our senses for granted, eyesight is magical
“People nowadays … they have no idea how good they have it. The past was unrelenting misery for most people. And the further back in time you go, the worse it was. For fifty thousand years, right up to the industrial revolution, human civilization was about one thing and one thing only: food. Every culture that existed put most of their time, energy, manpower, and resources into food. Hunting it, gathering it, farming it, ranching it, storing it, distributing it … it was all about food. The industrial revolution mechanized agriculture. Since then, we’ve been able to focus our energies on other things.”
- An interesting perspective about human history and our purpose and priorities