Friday, July 28, 2023

Karen S. Wiesner {Put This One on Your TBR List} Book Reviews: The Martian, Artemis, and Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

{Put This One on Your TBR List}

Book Reviews: The Martian, Artemis, and Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

by Karen S. Wiesner

After I watched The Martian movie with Matt Damon, I immediately bought and devoured the 2014 book from start to finish. I honestly believed the author must work for NASA. But, no, Any Weir was a computer programmer and software engineer before he made it big with his first title. He didn't even finish college, which doesn't really mean anything other than I'm pretty sure most people who work for NASA do. Not surprisingly, his parents were a physicist and an electrical engineer. His website describes him as "a lifelong space nerd and a devoted hobbyist of such subjects as relativistic physics, orbital mechanics, and the history of manned spaceflight". Everything in Weir's first bestseller felt so authentic and believable to me.

The concept for this science fiction story is simple: A team of astronauts is on Mars exploring, mega bad weather hits, so the part of the team that's still alive bugs out and heads home. Turns out, though, that the guy they left for dead isn't, and he has to survive until NASA (and later, the Ares III team of astronauts he came with) can figure out how the heck to rescue him…if they even can.

The actor Damon's performance was so phenomenal as Dr. Mark Watney, a botanist and mechanical engineer, I couldn't help seeing the character that way while I read the book. Watney had a sense of humor at nearly all times and a brain that just wouldn't quit as he faced every seemingly insurmountable hurdle that could possibly be thrown his way. Resourceful is a mild word for this dude. He just kept going and going even when most people would have reached the point of defeat long ago.

I binge read this book each time I pull it down from my keeper shelf. The only downside of reading it is the swearing. The four-letter word that starts with an 'f" is used so often, I'm convinced it accounts for at least 20,000 words (or 40 pages) of the book. If the author had only done a search for that word and seen just how much it's overused, I think he might have cut out most of them. If he'd just started the first few chapters with the character using the word often, we would have gotten the hint that Watney didn't actually stop using it after that point--the author just stop beating us over the head with the word. But that is honestly the only negative.

Weir initially self-published the book as a free serial on his website, then, at the request of his fans, made it a Kindle book on Amazon, where it became a bestseller. After a literary agent approached him, the book was sold to Crown Publishing Group. Andy Weir, the bestselling author, became a household word.

Interesting tidbits: The authors of The Expanse Series (which I reviewed a few weeks back in this column) were so influenced by The Martian, they gave a nod to it in that series, where the Mark Watney is a long-haul freighter used as a colony transport. Additionally, a species of bush tomato from Australia was named after the fictional botanist. In October 2015, along with announcing its next steps for a real-world human journey to Mars, NASA presented a web tool that tracked Watney's fictional trek across the planet.


The Martian was so good, I knew I wouldn't be able to wait for the paperback before purchasing Weir's next release in hardcover, the 2017 published Artemis. This science fiction thriller novel is set in the 2080s-2090s on the moon's first city of Artemis, populated with some 2000 people comprised mainly of tourists but a good share of criminals as well. The heroine of the book is no exception. Jasmine "Jazz" Bashara is a porter who dabbles in smuggling to not only make ends meet but to pay back a debt she owes. When the biggest score of her life comes along, she can't turn it down, even when things turn ugly and what appeared to be a mere smuggling job becomes all-out war for control of the city.

Jazz is very similar to the character of Mark Watney. She's smart, resourceful, always fighting when life throws the worst it has at her, and none of it defeats her. Instead, it hones her, bringing out the best, most innovative aspects of her.

I wanted to dislike Artemis. Jazz makes one stupid decision after the other, not 'fessing up to her own initial crime that caused her to become a criminal in order to pay back the very personal and still tender "debt" she owes. When the truth is finally revealed, I couldn't help feeling for Jazz and even believing the best of her. I rooted for her to win and overcome the demons hounding her for bad choices in the past that led her where she ends up in this novel.

I read Artemis very fast, unable to put it down, just as I do each time I read The Martian. It's an irresistible story of a good girl in a bad situation that she brought about herself with poor choices. Though it's been optioned and reports of the script being written have cropped up, the movie prospects are a bit uncertain. It may be renamed Project Artemis and might star Scarlet Johansson and Chris Evans--yeah, you read that right. Black Widow and Captain space. Weird. No release date has been set.


The title of Weir's third science fiction, published in 2021, threw me for a loop. I couldn't imagine, based on the name, what it could be about, thought religious, spacy connotations were at the forefront. But, no, not at all. In fact, Project Hail Mary goes back to Weir's roots with The Martian.

Set in the near future, a global dimming event with the potential to bring about the extinction of the human race is what forces the world's first cooperative government to try to solve the problem. They make Ryland Grace, a high school teacher and former molecular biologist, into an astronaut and send him to study alien microbes that consume all forms of electromagnetic radiation, using radiant energy to move. Because it consumes energy from the sun and also feeds on Venus' carbon dioxide, this organism is named "Astrophage" (star eater). Astrophage has also infected and dimmed nearby stars. Only Tau Ceti, which is 12 lightyears from Earth, resists. Scientists figure out how to use Astrophage as rocket fuel, they build a starship, the Hail Mary, and send Grace off on a suicide mission to figure out why Tau Ceti is resistant so they can reproduce the effect. Unmanned mini ships will return his findings to Earth.

The book opens with Grace waking in the Hail Mary from a coma, initially afflicted with amnesia. As his memory comes back, all the intelligence and resourcefulness in the face of extreme challenges that motivated Weir's previous main characters Mark and Jazz are evident in Grace. His spaceship reaches Tau Ceti, where Grace meets "Rocky", an alien with a stone-like exoskeleton from 40 Eridani, a planet also plagued by the Astrophage infection. Rocky is a skilled engineer and the last survivor of his crew, sent for the same reason Grace was.

What follows in the story after that is a much more sophisticated and emotionally compelling version of Enemy Mine, best known from the 1985 sci-fi action drama featuring Dennis Quaid and Louis Gossett Jr. but originating from the Barry B. Longyear novella of the same name published in the September 1979 issue of Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine.

I was engrossed in Project Hail Mary until Rocky's introduction, at which point I became full-on, single-mindedly absorbed. Even as I saw the silly connections the book had with that sappy old movie Enemy Mine, I couldn't help falling for Rocky. Grace was a compellingly drawn character, but Rocky was the star of this show. I rooted for both of them in the face of absolutely impossible challenges. Two guys from separate planets had to design a language they could both understand before they could even communicate were somehow supposed to save the entire universe? Come on! But I desperately wanted them to succeed, and the thought that they might not (and, wow, did it look bleak and black right up until the final moment!) was devastating. I'd be hard-pressed to remember a time I wanted a happy ending more for both these main characters. For sci-fi fans, this one is a must-read. With Ryan Gosling signed on to star in and produce Project Hail Mary, it was announced in May 2023 that the film would begin production in early 2024. Fingers crossed the movie comes to fruition. Until such a time, if any, I'll just have to re-read the book.

Andy Weir has a lot of works available (which used to be available on his website but not currently even mentioned on it now, and I confess I haven't been as interested in the ones that aren't science fiction and aren't published by a major conglomerate like Crown Publishing. That could be a failure on my part, as well as short-sighted. Even the tie-prequel to The Martian, "Diary of an AssCan", has me hesitating in no small part by the title.

I will say that Weir found a winning type and stuck to it. It's very true that this trio of books stars very similar lead characters and they're all placed in impossible, no win situations. There's a theme that's haunting familiar from one book to the next. I don't doubt it. I doubt the author could refute the claim. But the bottom line is, it ain't broke and there's no need to fix this. So what if these stories are all variations on the same theme? I like that theme, and I want more of it.

I'll also add that all three of these bestselling science fiction novels would make my Top 50--maybe even 25--Favorite Books list, and I'm in good company with Bill Gates and Barack Obama over recommending them--along with the movie counterparts, if the latter two ever get their own adaptations. These are all read-in-one-sitting (if you can) novels, and they're definite keepers you'll want to re-read at least every couple years.

Karen Wiesner is an award-winning, multi-genre author of over 150 titles and 16 series.

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