I have a confession. I’ve dreaded physics ever since that I failed Astrophysics at Harvard Summer School. Unsurprisingly to everyone but me, astrophysics turned out to be a lot more of this and a lot less stories about red dwarfs, black holes and moon shots. It turns out that I have very little brain for physics: I will understand it about as long as it takes a highly competent teacher to explain it to me and no longer. So when Weir started pulling out the physics calculations in Project, my attention immediately wandered, so much so that I wondered if it was going to be a DNF. Then he pulled a rabbit out of the hat.
I enjoyed The Martian, where Weir used his science cribbing to good effect, solving problems of air, growing potatoes, waste disposal, and heat. Unfortunately, in Project, just like astrophysics, it’s all about the calculations. Oh sure, there might be exciting consequences in the story down the line. But a lot of the ‘magic’ comes down to pencil-and-paper calculations (or even worse, mental calculations). You know what’s not exciting? Math. I love math, but math is not exciting. It’s orderly and satisfying, but it is not exciting, and although I appreciate how Weir tries to translate solving equations into their real-world answers. As an example, early in the story there’s a bit where our hero is working out his velocity:
“Hmm, 11,872 kilometers per second. Velocity is relative. It doesn’t make any sense unless you are comparing two objects. A car on the freeway might be going 70 miles per hour compared to the ground, but compared to the car next to it, it’s moving almost 0. So what is that ‘measured velocity’ measuring the velocity of? I think I know.
I’m in a spaceship, right? I have to be. So that value is probably my velocity. But compared to what? Judging by the big ol’ picture of the sun over the text, I’m guessing it’s the sun. So I’m going 11,872 meters per second with respect to the sun.”
Wake up! Yeah, I feel you; that was me nodding off in class after lunch. Oh gosh–and don’t get me started on the ‘spin drive.’ Despite including an illustration in the front of the book, it did not compute.
Written in first person, the narrator is the same voice from The Martian, Mark Watney, albeit with substitutions–“darn,” “heck,” “gosh”–for cursing and less personality. There’s a dual timeline, which adds tension to both the historical situation and the current one. Despite knowing the eventual outcome of the historical timeline (obviously, it leads to the current timeline), Weir still manages a couple of surprises.
However, I don’t know that Weir’s writing has improved. Yes, there’s lots of jokes and snark, and humor will carry one a long way. But read this awkward thought, originally singled out for its wry commentary:
“I am not rested at all. Every pore of my being yells at me to go back to sleep, but I told Rocky I’d be back in two hours and I wouldn’t want him to think humans are untrustworthy.
I mean… we’re pretty untrustworthy, but I don’t want him to know that.”
Yes, all sorts of questionable construction. ‘At all’–necessary? Just awkward. Yes, I know people speak like this. But there’s a reason most authors leave these meaningless modifiers off their sentences. ‘Every pore’? Really? Our science guy says ‘pores’ can rest? This is the phrase Weir comes up with? And using the word ‘untrustworthy’ twice may be deliberate, but why not use ‘are’ instead of the contraction to emphasize it? It’s these little things that stand out when one reads slowly and/or carefully that really makes Weir a second-tier writer for me. He’s funny, sure. But so was Dave Barry and Erma Bombek. Remember them? Of course not.
I’ll leave discussion on plot points under the spoiler section. Suffice it to say that it both captured my interest but raised my science-disbelief index. Like a magician, Weir is busy showing us his ‘work’ so he can distract us from the real trick: getting us to believe in Rocky. I’m not complaining; after repeated attempts to pull my attention back to the book, Rocky is what sustained it. But there’s a lot of short-handed science there. Interestingly, it takes Rocky to really bring the emotional component into the book. Unlike Mark Watney, who had a family and crewmates, our intrepid science teacher seems to have no one. Literally. It’s hard to connect with a character who isn’t rooted in any relationships. When Rocky shows up, all that changes, which both saves and perhaps moves the story further into the ‘fantasy’ parts of science-fiction.
There was one section where Ryland Grace, the science teacher, is basically saying, “if a spaceship leaves Sol at X speed and another spaceship leaves Tau at Y speed, when will the two spaceships meet up?” This is basically Andy Weir’s answer to all those people making fun of story problems in math. Kind of ‘fun,’ in a curiosity sort of way, but perhaps not all that exciting.