Can you describe the threat to the earth that’s posed in PROJECT HAIL MARY, and why your hero’s mission aboard the Hail Mary is the last chance to stop it?
AW: Scientists discover that our sun’s output is decreasing at a geometric rate, and if we can’t stop what’s happening, the Earth will freeze.
The culprit turns out to be a fictional single-cell organism that lives on the surface of stars. Like algae in the ocean, it doubles its population at regular intervals. Once the sun is “infected” with this lifeform, the population grows so large, so quickly, that the solar output of the sun is reduced. And it will only get worse as time goes on. We discover that all the stars near us have been infected, too – they’re all getting dimmer. All, that is, except Tau Ceti. What’s so special about Tau Ceti that makes it immune? There’s only one way to find out. Send someone to look.
What was the inspiration for that plot?
AW: Honestly, it was a collection of story ideas that I had for other books. Several of them came from my abandoned novel Zhek, while others were concepts for future books I had in mind. I didn’t even imagine they would go together but then each one clicked into place and they really worked together well.
For Zhek, I had this idea for a perfect spacecraft fuel–a nanotechnology that would absorb photons and electromagnetic radiation, mass-converting it into matter. I wondered, what if a substance like that was a naturally occurring phenomenon instead—a monocellular life form, similar to mold? Unrelated to that, I had a story idea about a guy who wakes up with amnesia on a space ship with no idea why he’s there. And finally, I had yet another story concept about a no-nonsense woman who had basically unlimited authority to get things done and used it to save the world.
Then I had to find a way to elegantly marry those ideas. The real “aha” moment was when I realized that this lifeform could be threatening the solar output—and that its qualities as a perfect fuel would give us the exact tool we needed to counter that threat. And then everything came together.
You’ve said that Martian hero Mark Watney is much more courageous than you are. Is the same true of Ryland Grace, our hero here?
AW: Actually, Ryland is about the same level of courage as me. Namely: not much. He doesn’t know why he was put on the mission and doesn’t really want to be there.
Developing Ryland’s personality and character was the hardest part of the book for me. He’s carrying the present-day part of the story completely, so I knew I had to make him likeable and believable for it to work. But I wanted to do that without just having a rip-off of Mark Watney.
In the end, I love how Ryland turned out and he’s different enough from Mark. But during the process it was really hard work.
One thing Ryland and Mark have in common is that they’re not typical Hollywood action heroes. Mark describes himself as a glorified janitor, and poor Ryland’s just a high-school science teacher, of all things. Are you consciously drawn to underdogs as protagonists?
AW: I think we all are. While it’s fun to watch James Bond kick ass, we don’t really identify with him. Most people – myself included – feel overwhelmed by life from time to time. And we can more easily understand and empathize with a character who is in over their head and barely keeping it together.
Ryland gets drafted for this mission because he’s written theoretical papers on xenobiology—but it seems like you have thought almost as much as he has about how non-human life forms might work. Is this a lifelong area of interest for you?
AW: Yes, absolutely. I admit I put a little of myself into Ryland in that way. I’ve always questioned the assumption that liquid water is necessary for life. Who made that rule? It’s necessary for all life on Earth, but life on another planet might be based on a completely different set of chemical reactions.
And, even if you say water is needed for life, the boiling point of water is based on atmospheric pressure. A high pressure makes a higher boiling point. So the “Goldilocks Zone” that people like to talk about for where life-bearing planets could be makes no sense. The temperature of the planet could be as high as you want, if the atmosphere is thick enough to make water remain a liquid.
Without giving any spoilers away, PROJECT HAIL MARY has a huge twist, in the form of a crazy character who’s very different from anything we’ve seen in your fiction—and who turns out to be everyone’s favorite thing about the book. Were you nervous about taking such a big swing?
AW: I was. It’s a huge step into full-on science fiction for a writer like me. But I wanted to do it and I saw it as a way to do it my way. And my way means tons of speculation, research, background, etc. I worked out all the details about how that character could happen.
Do you think it’s important to challenge yourself in big ways like that when writing?
AW: No! If it were up to me, I’d stay in my happy little niche. But I want to keep my readers happy and stay on top of my game. So I try to better myself and write different story elements. So I guess the answer is really “yes”, but not because I want to. Because it’s the only way to keep turning out good content for my readers.
I think we can say without giving too much away that PROJECT HAIL MARY is a first-contact novel, of sorts. That’s obviously a classic science-fiction scenario. Have you always been intrigued by the idea of writing something in that genre? Do you have any favorites that inspired you?
AW: Yes, I have. And I’ve got a list of gripes as long as my arm about how first contact stories are usually handled. So I got to address all of them with this story. I got to do it my way and I’m pretty happy with how it turned out.
What are your feelings on alien life really existing? How about UFOs?
AW: The universe is so vast I do believe there is naturally-evolved live on other planets. However, I also firmly believe that the speed of light is absolute and there will never be any way to go faster than light, nor any way to even send information faster than light.
So, there is almost certainly alien life out there, and probably even intelligent alien life, but the odds are they’re so far away it would take millions of years just for us to say hello. I definitely don’t believe that Earth has been visited by aliens.
Like The Martian, PROJECT HAIL MARY is very much about watching characters working through problems with the scientific process and trusting that the reader will be engaged—which is something we see very rarely in fiction. Why is this something you like writing so much, do you think? And how do you actually make it fun?
AW: I love problem-solving! It’s automatically fun. Any time you have a clever person doing clever things, it’s a joy to read. I almost feel like I’m cheating. It’s such an easy formula.
As for the science angle – I think the trick is to infect the reader with my enthusiasm for science. And the stakes. If a firm understanding of how neutrinos work is critical to the survival of the entire human race, it becomes a compelling plot point. Every story has a setting. Fancy sci-fi and fantasy novels put time and effort into explaining how things work in their worlds. For me, I treat real science as the setting. And just like The One Ring, Warp Drive, or The Force, there are a set of rules that the reader needs to know. I just happen to use rules that exist in the real world.
PROJECT HAIL MARY definitely pushes the science-fiction elements of your writing further than in The Martian and Artemis, where you were making the minimum extrapolations to existing technology and concepts. How did you go about tackling those elements? How do you keep things feeling real and believable, while pushing the ideas so far?
AW: For me the trick is to have big concepts coming from small concessions. There aren’t any violations of physical law in HAIL MARY. The only change to reality is a lifeform that has the ability to corral and store neutrinos. Everything else flows from that. With such a small suspension of disbelief (one that only people with a strong physics background will know is problematic), it’s easy for the reader to buy in to the reality of what’s going on.
That’s one reason I spend so much time obsessing about the scientific details and the logic of the problem-solving. Even if only a fraction of the background makes it onto the page, that grounding is my way of making sure the story feels true and getting the reader to trust me.
Can you talk a little about the work you did in researching PROJECT HAIL MARY?
AW: I went waaaay down the rabbit hole on this one. Stuff like the math behind relativistic travel, time dilation, and fuel consumption is tons of fun for me. And I had to get a lot of astrophysics details figured out—stars’ exact behavior and how they work, and how astrophysicists do their jobs.
One of the biggest challenges was getting my interstellar sun-munching algae (aka Astrophage) to make sense, from a scientific standpoint. Okay, there’s a lifeform that lives on the surface of a star. How does it do that and not die? What’s its core chemistry? How can it exist—and reproduce—when the only elements on the surface of a star are hydrogen and helium? Wouldn’t it need other stuff?
Then I realized: What does Earth life do when it doesn’t have the stuff it needs to breed? It migrates! This was the main breakthrough moment for me. That realization. It solved so many problems and created so many awesome plot hooks.
Astrophage needs carbon, oxygen, and a bunch of other stuff to breed. So it needs to migrate from the star to a planet in order to get those elements.
Then it and its offspring have to migrate back to collect energy. But it takes a lot of energy to travel hundreds of millions of kilometers through space. Especially when you need a propellant. So Astrophage evolved the most efficient propulsion system there is: light.
This gave me another problem to solve, though, because if Astrophage uses light for thrust, it needs to store energy almost as efficiently as anti-matter. How could that be?
Without getting too deep into things, I found my answers in neutrinos. Neutrinos are a special category of particle called Majorana particle, which means they are their own anti-particle. This means that two neutrinos colliding can mass-convert into pure energy, just like a matter-antimatter interaction. And that energy is light – two photons. So all of a sudden we have a way to not only store energy, but also a way to turn that energy into light for Astrophage thrust.
And what about designing the Hail Mary itself?
AW: Oh yeah. I had a great time engineering my ship’s astrophage engine. And thinking about other consequences of a ship traveling nearly the speed of light. You’d actually need it to be aerodynamic, even though you’re traveling in space. Out in deep space you can expect a few hydrogen atoms per cubic meter. Doesn’t seem like much, but when you’re going nearly the speed of light, it’s enough hydrogen hitting the ship that it actually gives it some drag. So the ship has to be streamlined.
Also, the ship needed a centrifuge to create artificial gravity. So the ship has a seam between the crew compartment and the fuel tanks. It separates into two halves connected by cables and will spin to provide artificial gravity.
But that creates another problem. I realized that once the engines are off and the centrifuge is activated, the crew compartment would experience force in the opposite direction to what it experienced in thrust, which would be seriously inconvenient. So I had to come up with a solution for that too. This is the sort of stuff I love. Simple concepts that lead to increasingly complex situations.
It must have been something to see your first novel, The Martian, brought to the big screen with Matt Damon playing your title character. PROJECT HAIL MARY has also been optioned for film with Ryan Gosling set to play the lead. What aspect of the book are you most excited to see brought to the screen?
AW: There’s a strong friendship plot in the story, and I’m looking forward to that with Ryan as Ryland, and to seeing how they pull off the visuals involved. Also, in the flashback segments, the interactions between Ryland and Stratt (that no-nonsense character who’s leading the effort to save the world) should have some great energy.
And for pure visual spectacle, there are some particular scenes in my head—specifics of the Hail Mary’s journey and destinations—that will be pretty incredible on screen. I want readers to discover those for themselves, though.
About the Book:
Ryland Grace is the sole survivor on a desperate, last-chance mission–and if he fails, humanity and the earth itself will perish.
Except that right now, he doesn’t know that. He can’t even remember his own name, let alone the nature of his assignment or how to complete it.
All he knows is that he’s been asleep for a very, very long time. And he’s just been awakened to find himself millions of miles from home, with nothing but two corpses for company.
His crewmates dead, his memories fuzzily returning, Ryland realizes that an impossible task now confronts him. Hurtling through space on this tiny ship, it’s up to him to puzzle out an impossible scientific mystery–and conquer an extinction-level threat to our species.
And with the clock ticking down and the nearest human being light-years away, he’s got to do it all alone.
Or does he?
Article originally Published in the June / July 2021 Issue: Futuristic.