Project Hail Mary, by Andy Weir

‘What’ is two plus two?’ With this thorny question, which our hero cannot answer, begins the epic space quest that will end all quests – especially if our hero (who doesn’t know who he is) gets it wrong.

I got so caught up in this book that I missed my train stop twice. For me, this was a strange achievement for a novel more packed with science than a textbook. But what exciting science it is. Both the story and the science move faster than a detective thriller. Our hero must detect through rapid experiments and improvisations, not made any easier by being in the wrong gravity, how to survive. Next, there is the question of fulfilling his mission, if only he could remember what it was.

I don’t want to add more to my above comments and to what the blurb (above) says for fear of accidentally spoiling the story. But I will note that one fascinating thing about it is the reverse-take on climate change. In this story, the earth is going to cool down fast, too fast. I am going to quote a bit. I’m sure the author won’t mind -perhaps its even part of the reason he wrote the novel, for all I know. That and a love of science.

‘Nineteen years. That’s my estimate for when half the people now alive will be dead. .. The math of famine is easy. Take all the calories the world creates with farming and agriculture per day and divide by about 1500. The human population cannot be greater than the number .. The major crops are sensitive to temperature changes. Dr Leclerc, Ch. 14.

Dr Leclerc goes on in grim detail about how the messed up climate will mess up food production. The mission boss, Ms Statt, adds how once agriculture is disrupted, hungry populations go to war against one another for the remainder, causing further disruption to food production and thus intensifying the famines. So there it is: whether our climate cools down too fast, as in this fictional scenario, or warms up two or three degrees, as in our actual terrifying reality, bad things happen.

This is not just Science Fiction; it is SCIENCE fiction. By the way, it turns out that high school science teachers rock. Just as well. It’s looking like only young scientists can save us.

I will leave you will a list of Very Important Scientific Equipment: String. Tape measure. Stop watch. Pen. Something to write on (or use your arm or a wall. Optional extras include sticky tape and popsicle sticks. Never get stuck in space without these essential items! Do you want to know why? Well, now you have to read the book, don’t you!

You might also enjoy my revisit, after 50 years! to The Foundation Series by Issac Asimov.

Where to find the Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir – who also wrote The Martian– which got turned into a movie with Matt Damon. Find it at BookDepository (free shipping) and Book Shop Org (supporting local bookshops) or at Waterstones. Or visit the sci-fi section of your revered local bookshop. There is talk of turning Project Hail Mary into a movie too. But there is no way it could be as much fun as this book. Read it before the movie spoils it for you.

You are at Mark’s blog called Baffled Bear Books. Mark is a dark coffee tragic and bibliophile as well as the Guardian and blundering typist for Mawson Bear, Ponderer of Baffling Things and one of this bright world’s few published bears.

Asimov’s Foundation: revisited

Long ago, in the dawn of galactic history, way back in the 1970s, on the crust of a planet orbiting an insignificant star on the fringe of the star charts, a small bipedal creature hunched over well thumbed copies of secret lore printed on cheap paper and marvelled at the immensity of space and time.

From one end of the galaxy to another there was a crumbling Empire; and only Hari Seldon’s successors could save its billions of people from 30,000 years of barbarism. Maybe other kids like me felt like misfits as we fumbled at games and got relegated out of teams to merely keep scores on sports days. But we were involved in the sweep of galactic history. We also knew the Laws of Robotics by heart. We read Asimov.

I spent the earnings of my paper rounds (remember those?) on Asimov’s books. When I had enough cash (remember cash?) I made my pilgrimage to the sacred local bookshop. I’d approach the cash register already reading the first page and cycle home to read late into the night, straining my eyes at the tiny print and firing up ganglion after ganglion in my brain. Weeks would have to then pass before I could afford the next title, so what did I do? I read the titles I already had over and over again.

Asimov’s Foundation series appealed to me because they they were NOT space operas in which brawny jocks blew up green aliens and rescued females clad in scraps of cloth and leather. There are certainly wars in the story but they take place on the fringes. All the action is comprised of talk: talk and thought; people using their brains to solve vast problems of strategy, politics and the sweep of history. (‘I am .. not a clef-chinned, barrel-chested hero of a subetheric trimension thriller’. General Bel Rios to Brodig. Foundation and Empire.). To a teenager who was regularly pummelled by cricket balls because he never worked out how to catch them, this was great reading.

Eons passed. Propelled by my interest in Table Top Wargames, I read much history, and realised that Asimov’s ‘pyscho-history’ was well based on the events on good old brutal Earth. The decay of his Galactic Empire is loosely modelled on the fall of Rome. General Bel Riose, who retakes parts of the old Empire but falls foul of a suspicious Emperor is obviously inspired by Flavius Belisarius who angered Emperor Justinian of Byztantium by being too successful. The “Traders” and their Association recalled to my mind the early aggressive European traders such as the Portuguese and, later, the powerful East India Company. There are many points of inspiration that I eventually spotted -and I imagine fellow Asimovians did too.

More eons passed – let’s call them ‘human decades’. There I was the other day browsing in the sacred local library, repository of the wisdom of the ages (and an astonishing number of Harry Potter books) when Lo! I chanced upon all three Foundation titles.

“Read us, Mark”, they called in that quieter-than-thought but unmissable voice that books transmit when they spot their likely readers (You all read a lot; you know the voice I mean.) “You’ve only read us a dozen times before. Take us home. You don’t even need to do a paper run in the rain any more. Borrow us. We’re free from your local library.” Readers, your Correspondent borrowed them.

What an intriguing return journey this is. It’s like returning to the town where you grew up but being now able to see it differently. Look, there on the second page are the ‘calculator pads’ that Asimov imagined in the 1940’s*. I thought it would be wonderful to have something like that – and now I do. I call it a ‘smart phone’. And there is the reference to the planetary power source that I did not understand at all in the 1970s but now know to mean thermal power. And look, there is the basis of all sci-fi travel, beloved by novelists and movie makers, without which their stories would be impossible even as improbable fiction – the notion of ‘Hyper Jumps’.

With the magic of hindsight, I can see too how Asimov was still stuck in the 1940s and 1950s despite the far reach of his imagination. For one thing, the characters read newspapers. Another oddity, is that although Asimov crafted his Robot novels on the idea of a ‘positronic brain’, there is little computerisation in the Foundation series – although, to be fair, he was imagining a decaying civilisation in which nothing new got invented. And there is the omission worthy of note even to a teenage boy in the 1970s: there are few women; and such who do appear, like Batya in Foundation and Empire, are introduced with cringeworthy emphasis on their looks. Tobacco smoking remains prominent and the men light up cigars at any excuse. Smoking inside space ships! The thought chokes me up.

*These stories by Isaac Asimov were first published in magazine form by Street & Street Publications and the first paperback editions in 1952 by Gnome Press. The 2016 edition by HarperVoyager is the one which I photographed above (with my calculator-pad-smart-phone.)

Where to find the Foundation series: At BookDepository (free shipping) and Book Shop Org (supporting local bookshops). Or visit the sci fi section of your revered local bookshop, repository of the wisdom of the ages and of books that will call to you from the shelves, “Take us home, take us home.”

You are at Mark’s blog called Baffled Bear Books. Mark is a dark coffee tragic and bibliophile as well as the Guardian and blundering typist for Mawson Bear, Ponderer of Baffling Things and one of this bright world’s few published bears.

Chronicles of The Pale by Clare Rhoden: A harsh post-cataclysm world

Imagine a landscape more forbidding than Central Australia, the Sahara, the Atacana desert. A landscape still shifting with the after shocks of a cataclysmic event that, 197 years before The Pale begins, destroyed most species. Clare Rhoden quickly establishes this ghastly world in our minds. At the same time she moves the narrative along with fascinating characters to care about.

‘How does anything live out there?’ Tad murmured.

Serviceman Tad patrols the Pale, the last place left that bears any resemblance to a city. Within the walls exist – you can hardly say ‘live’ – a hierarchical society of citizens who, like Tad, are partly liveware (tissue) and partly hardware. The Pale has wholly adopted technology and rationality as its survival mechanism. Subservience by the citizens to the poli-cosmos is the order of the day. (I think it no accident that the author’s use of ‘policosmos’ without a hyphen somehow gives it an overtone of ‘police state’.) Even so, there are unsettling signs in at least two Servicemen, Tad and his protégé Hector, of the Pre-catalcym human trait deemed most dangerous: empathy. The story of how this ‘weakness’ affects the Pale could have made a good novel in itself, I think, but Clare Rhoden interweaves it with so much more.


Outside the Pale, somehow life clings on. Here subsist the humans (fully liveware) of the Settlement. In their zeal to live up to Pre-cataclysmic ideals they have turned to biology. Strict breeding protocols result in a caste system. Beyond the Settlement roam Tribes. Some tribespeople have close bonds with the packs of Canini, wolf-like creatures. I defy any reader to not be fascinated by the Canini. Their codes and imperatives also serve as a contrast with the humans. All living things fear the Ferals, hybrids of biology and machine, a nightmare offspring of the former technological world. These scour the plains hunting biofuel i.e. flesh.

I particularly liked the depiction of how the mentality, society and even biology of humans could evolve to accomodate the need to survive and also to try to eliminate the weaknesses and disasters of Pre-Cataclysm humanity. In some dystopian stories all we really see, I think, is the last angry male humans mindlessly fighting each other to the last club and bullet. Here, to my relief, and I’m sure yours too, we have leaders, mostly female, relying on mutual respect, discussion, and the cross seeding of ideas between groups. This intelligent and thought provoking series looks at how the best attributes of we humans, empathy, hope, kindness, can have the power to lift us above struggle and misery.

Clare Rhoden’s website gives us more information about the Chronicles of the Pale ( The Pale, Broad Plain Darkening and The Ruined Land ) and  her other work.

Where to find The Chronicles of the Pale : From publisher Odyssey Books ,
BookDepository (free shipping worldwide): The Pale, Broad Plain Darkening and The Ruined Land.
From Amazon in Kindle and softcover. Also from
Or, ask your friendly local bookstore to order the series in for you, My tip: order them all at once because you’re going to want to keep on reading.

*The images and graphics you see here are copyright and courtesy of the publisher Odyssey Books .

Mark is guardian and blundering typist for Mawson, one of this bright world’s few published bears.