Andy Weir's new book 'Project Hail Mary'
The 2015 film The Martian, directed by Ridley Scott, was a box office sensation. It was also a hit, in particular, with scientists - who particularly appreciated the attention to scientific detail that made the story plausible and realistic. Andy Weir wrote that story, and now he’s got a new book coming out called Project Hail Mary. He told Chris Smith all about it...
Andy - It's just another one of my hard science sci fi books. The main character wakes up with complete amnesia aboard a spaceship with no idea why he's there or what he's supposed to be doing. As his memories come back to him, he realises he's on a last ditch mission to save humanity from an extinction level event. So, you know, no pressure.
Chris - The one thing that struck me - there is a very high level of science in this. I was very impressed by the way in which your character managed to work out that he was on a spaceship. The guy works out what g, gravity, he's experiencing, by dropping weights and timing it, and therefore works out he's in space. I was quite impressed with that.
Andy - Thank you, I'm glad you enjoyed it. I feel insecure here - I'm among people who are actually doing useful things for society, and I wrote a book! My book does have microbes that are indirectly deadly to humanity, and my book also has some cool materials science in it... so I guess I feel good being here. Side note, Anna, if I can call you that, I've always thought that material science is the primary limiter on the space industry. If you materials science folks could just hurry up and make a strong, solid material that can handle much higher temperatures without melting or softening, then we could take the full advantage of the hydrogen-oxygen combustion to make a rocketry. As it is, the only reason we can't do that is because the engines would melt.
Chris - Anna, it's all your fault.
Anna - Just leave it with me!
Andy - Get on it! Quit messing around with like, glass and concrete and stuff and hurry up.
Chris - But Andy, if I may, are you actually a scientist or come from a scientific background? Why did you decide to write not one... you know, this is another book which is infused with quite high level science, which has won plaudits from scientists who said it wasn't just rubbishing science and making science look daft, it was actually including some decent science and it's plausible.
Andy - My profession before I became a writer was a software engineer. I was a computer programmer for 25 years. So if you call that a science, sure, but it's not a physical science. I wasn't any sort of a material scientist or anything lofty like that. The main thing though is - I'm just really interested in science. All this stuff has always fascinated me. You write what you're interested in as a writer, and for me, space, space technology, science in general has always been very fascinating to me. So that's my hobby, that's my area of nerdy obsession.
Chris - To give a summary to the book - the situation in which it's set is that there is some entity, some kind of microorganism, which is in some way devouring our star, the Sun, and it's going to compromise life on Earth. Now that's very similar to the situation in which we find ourselves right now, isn't it? Where we've got a threat which is compromising Earth and our existence on it, and we are being forced to all work together - as we've been hearing this so far from Ashish - to get together and work to solve the problem. And that's what happens in your book. Now did you write the book before the pandemic came along, or did the pandemic make you go, "my goodness, here's an idea for something off the planet that is similar"?
Andy - I completed the entire book before the pandemic started. So any correlations seen there are purely coincidence. The reason that it took so much time to get from me finishing the book to it being on shelves, is because of the pandemic. It shut off the print production pipelines and everything like that. Also - it's a little bit of a misnomer to say that the book has a microbe that's eating the Sun. It's more like an algae bloom on the Sun, but the microbe has bred so much out of control on the surface of the Sun that it's actually absorbing a non-trivial percentage of the total solar output.
Chris - But you did call the entity an astrophage, which means 'sun eater'?
Andy - Yes, that's true. You've got me there!
Chris - Just to prove I did actually read the book! The one thing that strikes me - it is also infused with a healthy helping of humour. I mean, it's funny too. When your lead character - and I don't think we're giving too much away - meets up with an alien, it's pretty phenomenal, the humour in the way they learn to talk to each other. It was laugh out loud funny, which is not what you normally get from a scifi book of this sort of gravity, if you'll excuse the pun.
Andy - Well, thank you. I'm glad you like it. Humour is my style of writing. All my books have a lot of humour in them. One thing I've found - which is the tippy-top secret that only me and a million other authors know - is that exposition is normally boring. That's where you have to inform the reader about some stuff, some backstory stuff that's not directly related to the plot unfolding. If your exposition is funny, if it makes them laugh, they'll forgive you any amount of exposition and enjoy reading it. That's the big trick.
Chris - Did you watch The Martian, Ashish and Anna?
Anna - I have to say, I have not seen that movie, unfortunately.
Ashish - I did, and I loved it.
Andy - Ashish, I like him now. Anna, you're dead to me!
Anna - I've got some homework to do!
Chris - Anna has some homework watching to do. That's not going to be too difficult though. You can jump on the TV after this.
Andy - Or you can read the book, that's acceptable!
Chris - Or read the book. Yeah.
Anna - Excellent.
Chris - What did you make of it then, Ashish?
Ashish - It was extraordinarily entertaining. The science in it... I'm going to have to tell you, part of watching a movie is not worrying excessively about whether the science in it is all right or not, because that's a test that most movies fail so quickly that the suspension of disbelief becomes difficult. But it was entertaining. And now of course, as Andy was speaking, I was starting to replay parts of it in my mind and thinking about the science parts of it. And it really is quite good. But most importantly, it's just a fun, interesting movie to watch. Anna, you should watch it.
Chris - Andy, is Project Hail Mary, the new book - is that slated to turn into a film at some point too?
Andy - Yeah, so far so good on that. MGM bought the film rights. We have Ryan Gosling slated to play the lead, he's attached to play the lead, which is awesome because the main character is named Ryland Grace, so they have the same initials - he can bring his own cuff links to the set or whatever. We have Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the directing duo, who've done a bunch of really cool things - they're set to direct. And Drew Goddard is working on the screenplay, and Drew Goddard wrote the adaptation of The Martian, so that was really successful. So we'd like to repeat that level of success if possible.