Saturday, June 19, 2021

One Review, One Advertisement, and Several Streams

Let's open this post with the review: Yesterday, I started - and rapidly finished - Andy Weir's Project Hail Mary, which is absolutely outstanding and thus earns my highest recommendation. Indeed, I don't think I've been this excited about a book in quite some time.

How shall we describe the premise of Weir's third novel? Well, I read it as an offspring of a marriage between The Martian (reviewed here) and my favorite first contact narratives (like, for example, James Cambias' A Darkling Sea, reviewed here), . 

Like Mark Watney, the protagonist and point-of-view character in Project Hail Mary - Dr. Ryland Grace - is a wise-cracking, super-skilled scientist who must rely on his wits to solve seemingly insurmountable problems. In this case, however, the primary test he faces is not mere survival but an imminent apocalypse: a newly-discovered space-faring unicellular lifeform is syphoning energy off our sun (and off many other stars in our local cluster), and Grace has been sent to Tau Ceti on a fast-tracked suicide mission to find a solution before crop failures and radical climate change destroy the human race. 

Interestingly, the above remit is not something Grace realizes right off the bat; interestingly, it is something he has to discover gradually after waking up from an extended medically-induced coma with severe memory loss. And it is this choice to situate the main character in the same condition of ignorance as the reader as to the full context of his predicament that, in part, makes for a riveting story. 

The other thing that kept me turning the pages besides Grace's slow-to-resolve amnesia (and, of course, Earth's impending doom) is "Rocky," our second principal character. "Rocky" (dubbed thus by Grace because of his mineral-based exoskeleton) is an ammonia-breathing alien spider from the Eridani system who has come to Tau Ceti to save his own species from the very same invasive organism that is threatening Earth. It is "Rocky" who brings the Darkling Sea elements to the table; after Grace and "Rocky" encounter each other, much of the middle chapters are devoted to their attempts to 1.) recognize each other's sapience, 2.) communicate, and 3.) learn about each other's biology and cultural traditions. I suppose another breed of reader might find such exposition boring, but I don't; on the contrary, I'm attracted to science fiction precisely because it tackles this challenge of mutual comprehension so often.

Plus? "Rocky" is so. damned. likable. Once Grace and "Rocky" learn the basics of each other's languages and it's revealed that they're both the sole survivors of their respective missions, they strike up a genuine, heart-felt friendship that, at several points, moved me to tears. The end of chapter 19 in particular is a stand-out moment. I actually had to stop for a while to collect myself before proceeding to chapter 20.

Bottom line, what we have in Project Hail Mary is a book that brings several positives to the table: 1.) sympathetic characters, 2.) high stakes, and 3.) more than one intellectually engaging mystery. On top of all that, we can add the fact that our main characters do not, as we eventually learn, hail from the cream of the crop. "Rocky" is a workhorse engineer, and Grace -- well, I don't want to spoil the specifics about his history, but suffice it to say that he's not a stellar specimen either. And I like what that says, implicitly, about the heroic capacities of ordinary people. This novel is competence porn -- but it's also Human Wave to the core. A+

Now for the advertisement: If you have the time, I encourage all of you to sign up for the July 3rd Zoom seminar that's been arranged by The Society of Tolkien. Said seminar promises to celebrate Tolkien's works as they were intended to be celebrated: without Current Year nonsense. Because of course, Tolkien was a mid-20th century Catholic fantasy writer who, if he were ported to 2021, would find present-day fixations utterly incomprehensible and bizarre.

(Yes, I'm throwing shade at a certain converged organization that shall remain nameless. And no, I'm not even remotely sorry about that. Authorial intent does matter -- and so does historical context.)

And finally, here are the links to my most recent streams:

This one is our discussion of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World.

This one is our regular Iron Man stream, which covered the latest annual, a plot-arc from the early 2000's, and one story from Tales of Suspense.

And this is the one we streamed today on C.S. Lewis' Out of the Silent Planet.

Hope you enjoy!

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