Project Hail Mary is the new scifi novel by Andy Weir, who is best known for writing The Martian. While Weir’s new book focuses on problem-solving in space, it makes heavy use of flashbacks on Earth that explain the nature of the threat and the background of the protagonist. Most writers doing this would be making a big mistake, but Weir is a skilled plotter. To examine what’s required for flashbacks to add more to the story than they take away, let’s cover where Weir succeeds with them – and where he fails.
Spoiler Notice: This article summarizes the entire plot of Project Hail Mary, including a couple of important twists.
Giving the Opening a Boost
The story begins as the protagonist awakens to find himself lying in a medical bed. He’s too weak to move, but robot arms are caring for him and a computer is asking him questions to assess his mental fitness. While readers can guess he’s in space, the protagonist doesn’t know where he is or even what his name is.
Novelists are always looking for ways to make their opening engaging. Because the plots of novels are usually complex, it can be difficult to plunge readers right into the action without doing setup first. Weir solves this problem by giving his protagonist amnesia. That way, simply introducing the space environment becomes an intriguing mystery. For instance, after the protagonist gets up, he notices that gravity is heavier than normal. Using Weir’s signature science problem-solving, the protagonist does experiments to discover whether this is because he’s in a big centrifuge or if he’s not on Earth. It turns out he’s on a space shuttle that’s decelerating.
Just as important for this book, amnesia transforms flashbacks into an engaging way of uncovering information. As I described in my article on meta mysteries, when the protagonist already knows what happened, flashbacks have no effect on how the story unfolds. As a result, they’re more like long exposition dumps than intriguing plot points. But a protagonist who has amnesia discovers the flashback memory when the reader does. That means it can reveal clues that move the plot forward.
The first chapter of Project Hail Mary has one flashback. In my document, it’s a page and a half out of the 23-page chapter. At this point, the protagonist is focused on figuring out who he is. While the flashback introduces an anomalous red line leading from the sun to Venus, no stakes have been introduced for that mystery. It evokes some curiosity, but it’s not particularly compelling. What’s important to the protagonist is that this memory reveals hints of his identity.
To keep tension up, the protagonist discovers that the two other medical beds in the room have dead bodies in them. This makes it feel more likely he could be in danger, and therefore it’s more urgent that he discover what’s happening. He manages to climb a ladder out of the medical room into a science lab, and as the chapter closes, he finally notices the gravity difference and realizes he’s not on Earth anymore.
Setting Up the Throughline
As the protagonist is working on whether he could be in a centrifuge near the beginning of chapter 2, he gets another flashback. This flashback once again covers the anomalous red line in Earth’s solar system, but this time it also establishes the stakes of the book. The sun is getting dimmer, which unless averted, will lead to a new ice age and mass starvation on Earth. After the flashback, the protagonist also realizes that somehow it’s his job to fix this catastrophe. That’s going to be tough, because he still doesn’t remember much and the other two members of his crew are dead.
Not only does this create tension and set up the throughline, but it provides a reason why the flashbacks matter to the story. The protagonist won’t be able to save Earth if he can’t even remember the details of the problem or what he’s supposed to be doing in space.
Because of this, the protagonist actively works to gain more memories so he can save the day. Then the memories he gains are delivered as flashbacks. Unfortunately, Weir doesn’t create an interesting conflict to let the protagonist earn his next memory. Instead, the protagonist just relaxes and lets one come to him. Maybe that’s medically accurate, but it’s also lackluster. Since these flashbacks are distributing important clues, the protagonist should work for them.
By relaxing and letting a memory come to him, the protagonist is testing to see if he can uncover a memory on purpose – any memory. The flashback he gets as a result isn’t game changing, but Weir makes up for it by adding novelty. The flashback reveals that alien microbes are making the sun dimmer.
After this flashback, it’s clear the protagonist will eventually get his memories back. Add in that the threat to Earth isn’t particularly urgent, and the tension could drop too low. So Weir immediately raises tension with a child arc. The computer alerts the protagonist of an error that suggests the ship is off course. However, it won’t let the protagonist into the navigation room to fix this problem until he remembers his name. Now the protagonist needs to gain a specific piece of information on a tighter timeline.
Thankfully, this time Weir creates a conflict to retrieve more memories. The protagonist goes over all the details he remembers from the previous memories to uncover who he is. He’s puzzled that he clearly liked children and was thinking about the kids in his life, yet he didn’t have any children living with him or any pictures of children in his apartment. As chapter 2 closes, the turning point arrives: it finally clicks that he’s a school teacher.
This realization triggers a memory of teaching that opens chapter 3, and this memory finally tells him his name: Ryland Grace.
Running Two Timelines
From chapters 3 to 5, Weir focuses more heavily on Grace’s backstory. Instead of framing the story in terms of the present and filling in bits of information using flashbacks, Weir has an arc running in the present and another arc running in the past.
In the present, Grace is trying to figure out how the ship works, where it is, and what direction it’s going in. He notices it’s going so fast that it’s bound to throw him out of the solar system. That is, unless it crashes into the sun first.
In the past, Grace is conscripted by Eva Stratt, who’s in charge of saving humanity. Referencing some papers he’d previously published on non-water-based life, she seals him in a room with the first samples of this alien microbe that can apparently survive on the sun. In his brief role as part scientist and part guinea pig, he’s supposed to figure out what the microbe is made of, but it somehow resists analysis from any of his expensive scientific equipment.
In some ways, these timelines are similar to having two viewpoints in a story. You might think that means it works great, but actually, Mythcreants has repeatedly argued that multiple viewpoints usually lower engagement by fragmenting the story. However, multiple timelines aren’t exactly like multiple viewpoints.
For one thing, these timelines have the same main character. That not only raises their relevance to each other but also doesn’t risk pulling the audience away from a character they care about to focus on one they don’t. For another, a past timeline will always have a bit of prequel syndrome. Since the audience knows the future, there’s less tension over what will happen. Luckily in this case, we know little enough about the future timeline that there’s still some wiggle room over what might happen in the past. Weir also adds personal stakes to the past arcs and makes studying the microbes novel.
Just like multiple viewpoints, though, the big question is what is gained by running two timelines side by side instead of telling them separately or one at a time. For concurrent arcs to pay off, they need to interact to some degree.
While the interaction between these timelines could be stronger, Weir does okay. First, it helps that they’re both focused on the book’s throughline: each one is a step in saving life on Earth from the alien microbes. In addition, the flashback sequences still provide the present timeline with some useful information.
- In a flashback, Grace figures out that the microbes store enormous amounts of energy and emit it as light that powers their movement. He names them Astrophage. In the present, Grace works out that by some means, he’s not even in Earth’s solar system. Then he sees diagrams of the ship showing there is a ridiculous amount of Astrophage on board, and realizes it’s the fuel that makes interstellar travel possible.
- In a flashback, Grace tries to go back to teaching only to wonder if his students will starve in thirty years. He leaves and begs Stratt to allow him to continue studying the Astrophage. In the present, Grace realizes there isn’t enough fuel for a round trip. Instead, smaller unmanned vehicles are ready to take critical information back to Earth. That means he’s on a suicide mission.
- In the present, Grace knows he needs to solve the Astrophage problem somehow, but he doesn’t know why he’s in this other solar system or what he’s supposed to do. In a flashback, he proves himself to Stratt by figuring out how to breed the Astrophage. Then she includes him in project Hail Mary, a mission to another star that has been exposed to Astrophage yet isn’t dimming. Back in the present, Grace now knows what he needs to do.
That last flashback takes the entirety of chapter 5. In this case, I think that was a good choice. While it’s nice to be consistent in how you switch between timelines or viewpoints, it can be taken too far. In Ancillary Justice, for instance, one of the two timelines is always incredibly slow. I suspect author Ann Leckie was adding filler to keep the two timelines even with each other. That’s not worth it.
In this book, present timeline Grace can’t do much until he knows what he’s supposed to do. While it’s always possible Weir could have given him more arcs to use up the time, it’s much better to spend a full chapter in the past than to spend several scenes watching Grace twiddle his thumbs.
You might have noticed that all the flashback scenes are in linear order, stepping readers through what happened on Earth from start to finish. While gaining memories in this manner is probably unrealistic, the conceit is well worth it. It allows readers to become immersed in the past timeline without spending their energy trying to piece together what happened.
Coasting in the Middle
Starting in chapter 6, the flashbacks become less frequent and don’t have as many arcs. This is also when the present timeline introduces the most important twist of the book. Grace is taking his first look at the new solar system when he spots an alien spaceship nearby – one that is clearly trying to establish communication. Digressing from flashbacks for just a bit, this twist works amazingly well because:
- The setting makes it unexpected. This is a hard science fiction novel using the present day as the starting point. Weir’s science is so high in realism that intelligent aliens showing up doesn’t feel likely.
- It still makes sense in the context of the story. The story already has alien microbes and interstellar travel, so why not more advanced aliens? This kind of context is all you need for most foreshadowing; Weir didn’t have to hint that there were intelligent aliens specifically.
Regardless of the speculative fiction subgenre you’re working with, the higher the realism of your setting and the less fantastical elements you have, the bigger the impact of the fantastical elements you do include. This is why Weir’s aliens make a big splash.
Okay, I’m done gushing now. No, I’m not a Weir fan; you’re a Weir fan.
From here through chapter 15, present-day Grace is focused on a meet and greet with his new alien buddy. He names his alien friend Rocky, and though Rocky is canonically nonbinary, Weir’s extremely milquetoast brand of sexism and queerphobia includes defaulting to he/him pronouns. Grace and Rocky spend these chapters figuring each other out, and because of the high novelty and the heart-warming mood, this is probably the most popular section of the book for many readers.
The flashbacks can’t compete. Several chapters don’t have flashbacks at all, and most of the ones that do shouldn’t.
Most of these flashbacks feature a conversation between Grace and another specialist involved in the Hail Mary mission, sometimes with Stratt present to act as a charming dictator. The specialist explains ship features such as the Astrophage-powered “spin drive” or the centrifuge that creates gravity for the ship’s lab equipment. While Weir makes these character interactions amusing, it can’t make up for how a few lines of exposition would serve the same purpose.
Weir might have felt he needed a couple of these to justify the conceits of the story. Grace’s crew members died during a coma that took up their interstellar journey. This coma also explains Grace’s amnesia. But why put the crew in a dangerous coma? Using a flashback, Weir explains that without the coma, a crew in tight quarters for years would kill each other. Unfortunately for Weir, that’s not actually true.
Similarly, Weir uses the idea that 1 in every 7,000 people have a gene that makes them withstand comas to justify why Grace was chosen for this mission. But since Grace clearly knows what he’s doing, justifying his presence feels unnecessary. Plus, limiting the candidate pool so dramatically makes the coma feel even less realistic. Altogether, it might have been better if Weir applied handwavium instead of using flashbacks to draw attention to this conceit.
Even among all of these explainer flashbacks, the flashback in chapter 11 is bizarrely out of place. In it, Stratt shows up in court to respond to a copyright lawsuit. Grace is not in this scene. All of the other flashbacks are bits of Grace’s memory as he recovers them, told in first-person past tense from his perspective. Weir writes this one in a bland third person omniscient, as though he’s hoping we won’t notice the viewpoint character is missing.
Stratt might be Weir’s best character to date.* She’s a powerful, no-nonsense leader who provides wish fulfillment for readers who want their governments to take care of global warming already. With the backing of the world’s most powerful governments, she figures out what must be done to fix the current crisis, and then she makes people do it. But this flashback takes the gimmick so far that it doesn’t feel like it’s in good fun anymore. While no one would sympathize with a copyright lawsuit targeting the space mission to save humanity, Stratt literally walks up to the judge and tells him that she’s above the law. Considering that this court is in the United States, where one of the two major political parties is trying to swap out democracy for an authoritarian state, glorifying Stratt’s blatant dismissal of justice is in poor taste.
And for what? Readers don’t need an explanation for why Grace has a hard drive with all the digital information humanity has to offer. He’s saving humanity; we can assume it was all donated or authorized or who cares. I’m left with the impression that Weir felt obligated to insert a flashback.
Of all the flashbacks in this middle section, only one of them connects even loosely to what Grace is doing with Rocky. Grace finds out that the rest of Rocky’s crew died from radiation, and then we have a flashback explaining that Astrophage blocks radiation. In turn, this explains why Rocky survived – as the ship’s engineer, they spend their time down by the Astrophage fuel tanks. Weirdly though, this flashback also includes the beginning of a romance between Grace and another scientist that is never continued.
Then instead of going right back to the radiation issue with Rocky, Weir adds a second flashback. In this sobering scene, an environmentalist has to melt huge chunks of Antarctica, releasing methane into the air to delay global cooling. Since this flashback reminds readers of the plight of Earth, it would make a great transition out of the alien meet and greet and back to the throughline. But the meet and greet isn’t done yet. With no outlet, the extra tension only makes readers antsy during what should be a light and fun sequence.
Creating an Ending Payoff… or Not
As the novelty of the meet and greet fades, Rocky and Grace team up to solve the Astrophage problem. Rocky creates a habitat for themself on Grace’s ship, and they head to that solar system’s equivalent of Venus, where the Astrophage breed. They discover that this planet is where Astrophage evolved in the first place, so it has natural predators here.
To collect a sample of the atmosphere, they have to bring the ship dangerously close to the planet. An accident occurs, and this ends up being the book’s climax. Unfortunately, it’s only a little over two-thirds through the book, which is too early. While there are more challenges later, they are less tense, so the story ends up feeling anticlimactic.
Considering the rigorousness of the science in this book, Weir might have struggled to find a life-threatening problem for the later part of the mission that Grace could solve. Besides trying to add a bigger catastrophe to the end of the mission, another option would have been to craft a lighter book. That would fit the heart-warming feel of the Grace and Rocky friendship. To do this, Weir would lower the tension of the planetary accident sequence, add more novelty – perhaps by examining more alien life on this planet – and then he could raise tension only a little toward the end to create his climax.
He’d probably also need to shorten the book a bit. That wouldn’t be too hard; he has all these later flashbacks that are mostly dead weight on the story. Like the previous set, the flashbacks in this section are interspersed in the story at random and generally unrelated to what’s happening in the present.
The difference is that they are focused on introducing the crew of the Hail Mary mission and Grace’s role in the program. In them, we learn that Grace oversees much of the mission, and he’s a tester for equipment and gear such as EVA suits. We find out that the Hail Mary will have a crew of three; one of those three will be a biologist. Grace is given the task of teaching the biologist and the backup biologist about the Astrophage.
The only question that’s left for these flashbacks to answer is how Grace ends up going instead of the chosen crew. But that’s not much of a mystery; any accident that kills both biologists will do the job. And even if this question was important enough to justify flashbacks, Weir includes many more flashbacks than he needs for this purpose.
In chapter 23, we finally see where Weir is going with all this. After an accident kills the biologists, Stratt tells Grace that he’s secretly been the second backup all along. But even though the mission clearly needs him, Grace refuses to go because he doesn’t want to die. So Stratt imprisons him, forces him onboard, and gives him a drug that will cause temporary amnesia. She figures the amnesia will be blamed on the coma, his crew members can fill him in, and this way he’s less likely to sabotage the mission to spite her.
This would be a great reveal, except for one problem: it doesn’t matter. Grace thinks it means he’s a coward, but at no other time in this book is that true. Perhaps Weir intended to give Grace a character arc that would take him from cowardice to bravery, only to realize that unless Grace does brave things, the plot can’t go anywhere.
Alternately, Weir might have hoped it would make his ending more meaningful. After this, Rocky gives Grace the fuel he needs to actually go home, and they part ways, each carrying some Astrophage-eating microbes. But the little predators get out and start eating the ship’s fuel. Grace manages to save his ship, but he realizes that Rocky is probably dead in the water. He has to choose whether to return home himself or send his little unmanned vessels home with the predator microbes and bring Rocky home instead. For some reason, he’s sure Rocky’s species won’t be able to make him any food. He thinks he’ll die after reaching Rocky’s planet.
Perhaps in a different story, this flashback reveal might sow a little doubt as to whether the protagonist would make that sacrifice. But in this one, Grace has already saved Rocky once by exposing himself to Rocky’s incredibly high-pressure, high-temperature atmosphere. Grace nearly died doing so.
While it’s beyond the reach of this story to convince readers that Grace has a real issue with cowardice or that he wouldn’t save Rocky, the reveal could have been relevant in another way. If throughout the story Grace used the image of himself as a self-sacrificing hero to gather his courage in emergency situations, then discovering the truth could cause a crisis of confidence. This could make the problems he’s facing more difficult to solve, before he finally forgives his past and realizes he’s different now.
As is, this flashback is full of wasted potential. It mainly succeeds in calling attention to how Grace doesn’t have a character arc.
As we get to the epilogue, the final damage from these flashbacks is revealed. Naturally, Rocky’s people find a way to feed Grace. He decides to stay in his enclosed dome on Rocky’s planet instead of going home. But after all the scenes on Earth, this doesn’t give readers closure. Weir tries to fix that by revealing that Earth’s sun has brightened again, so humans must have gotten Grace’s care packages and used them.
It’s not enough. We’ve seen terrible environmental destruction; do humans manage to repair it? Grace now has a serious beef with Stratt; what would he say to her if he returned home? Readers will want to witness what’s probably a slow and painful recovery for the people of Earth, but Weir is uninterested in writing about it.
Taking a Bird’s-Eye View
Given that the flashbacks start out strong but ultimately bog the story down, what’s the ideal solution here? For a situation like this, options include:
- Removing the flashbacks. But that would destroy engagement in the current opening. Much of the information in the early flashbacks is also important, so it would have to be delivered by exposition instead. That would risk burdening the first third of the story too much.
- Moving the flashbacks to the beginning, so they aren’t flashbacks anymore. Since the flashbacks are focused on the same throughline, this is possible, but it would be a lot of work and probably result in a lower-quality story. As is, Weir can easily jump in time to keep the story realistic but interesting. That would become harder. He’d have to build more rigorous arcs in the past and design a new opening. Even if he succeeds at all that, the story might feel uneven if the first third is on Earth and the rest is in space.
- Working to make the later flashbacks more relevant to the present timeline. I think Weir would have already done this if he could have managed it. But he’s already having trouble with his climax, and every constraint you put on a story makes it harder to tell. That’s why sequels are rarely as good as the first book. So while this is theoretically possible, I don’t think it’s practical.
Instead, my choice would be to make the presence of the flashbacks less even throughout the book. I would let them drop off starting when Rocky is introduced. However, I would remind readers that Grace is still recovering memories by showing him getting such bursts of knowledge about ship features that are relevant to what he’s doing. If readers need to know more about the ship, we could use a little exposition, or Grace could describe it to Rocky.
Keeping the flashback reveal at the end would help even things out and provide a feeling of symmetry. It just needs to be much better integrated. Besides making it part of an actual character arc, I would build up some mystery that it can solve. Maybe as he gains more memories, Grace starts to notice that something about his past isn’t right or that things he should remember are missing.
Finally, Grace needs to be at peace with what Stratt did, so readers don’t feel like they have unfinished business. The epilogue would also work better with fewer flashbacks and if the scenes on Earth didn’t get as dark. However, I would also want Grace’s choice to stay with Rocky to resolve its own arc. The most natural fit would be a relationship arc. Just establishing how lonely Grace is earlier in the story and demonstrating how Rocky changes that would help.
While flashbacks can make great additions to a story, most storytellers aren’t prepared to do what’s required to make them pay off. It’s easy to remember a cool flashback reveal you saw once and forget how much effort went into it. It’s also easy to imagine you’ll carefully weave flashbacks into your plot only to get exhausted halfway through and start dialing it in. If you want twists and reveals, there are easier ways to do them. If you’re looking for ways to stuff in the cool backstory you created, it’s time to kill a darling.
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