By Andy Weir
ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS
What makes a book good?
I’ve wrestled so hard with this question, and never answered it to my own satisfaction. I’ve never even come close to answering it, frankly, which is pretty dismal given how much time I’ve spent thinking about it. I’ve spent my life with my nose buried in book after book; I have thought about nothing else in my life so much and so hard as I have about books, but I can’t produce a standard, a single useful universal criterion, for what makes a book ‘good’.
Surely, some of it is in the eye of the beholder – people value different things, and that’s valid. But there must be some set of guidelines, if not universal and objective then at least reasonable and majoritarian, which can help guide us as we think about literary quality.
Historically, I think, what is good and what isn’t has been largely a matter of critical consensus: the knowing pronounce for the unknowing what they should and should not like. The problems with this system are myriad and obvious, but not least of them is, ‘Who is knowing?’ Who gets to decide what is and isn’t a good book?
I am not a proponent of Ivory Tower literary judgement. I don’t think you need a PhD in Literature to tell whether a book is good or not, and I have always been suspicious that the judgement of the cognoscenti tend to favor hard books, books which are dense or unintelligible, over lighter-hearted or plot-driven books. It is not that I don’t love hard books – often, I do – but I do not believe that ease (or fun) of reading is anti-literary, or that a highfalutin language necessarily makes a book “better”.
And while I think about this all the time, I don’t actually worry about it very much. I read for pleasure or for learning, not for literary bragging rights, and I leave questions of abstract merit to needier people. However, sometimes I find myself snagged on a certain kind of book and, during those times, this question becomes a sort of obsession for me.
The books that snag me this way are, to speak plainly, bad ones. These periodic crises of literary judgment afflict me when I have just read a bad book, but of a specific kind: bad books that just entertain the fuck out of me.
‘Project Hail Mary’ is a science fiction book by Andy Weir, who is most famous for writing ‘The Martian’ (which I have not read). The protagonist of ‘Project Hail Mary’ is Ryland Grace, a high school biology teacher who left academia years before after postulating that life was possible without water. When the sun starts to dim inexplicably, the new world-government team tasked with saving…all life on earth calls on Ryland to help solve the mystery. And when high school biology teacher Ryland does solve the mystery (before any of the highly sophisticated professional research organizations in the world), and discovers that the sun’s energy is being consumed by alien micro-organisms, it is Ryland Grace who is sent on a three-person suicide mission into space to…save all life on earth.
The entire book takes place in space or in flashbacks. The book opens with Ryland waking from a three-year coma, alone, in space, remembering nothing about himself or his mission but somehow remembering all of the physics, chemistry, and biology that humankind has hitherto discovered. And it is, of course, Ryland Grace who, alone and hopeless, will happen upon an alien, make best friends with it, and save both our world and theirs.
‘Project Hail Mary’ is a bad book. I feel pretty confident about this, and I don’t think I’m being unfair: I’m pretty sure it’s a bad book. At the very least, it’s definitely not a good book. It’s not well-written, it strains credulity (even for science fiction), and the plot is so full of holes that it’s frankly hilarious. It’s not good.
First of all, it’s wildly implausible. I know that this is a weak argument to make about plotty novels in general and about science fiction in particular, I know: plausibility isn’t the point. ‘Project Hail Mary’ is not meant to be an exercise in verisimilitude; it’s meant to be a fun what-if caper in space. But it’s really, really implausible, and that implausibility becomes a problem. The book is essentially the story of a bromantic relationship between Ryland Grace, the high school biology teacher who knows ALL science, and Rocky the Alien, who knows ALL structural engineering and lives in pure ammonia: it’s just not how things work!
Second, it’s a little too casual. Because the novel is the first-person perspective of a man alone is space, Weir tells the story in a sort of highly vernacular internal monologue. Which monologue becomes annoying quickly. And, yes, I know that this sounds like another nitpicky, beside-the-point complaint, but the language starts to grate on the nerves over time. It doesn’t help that Ryland is sort of annoying; for a man who knows all the science, he’s kind of an idiot.
“I set the cylinder on the lab table. Where do I begin? Everywhere!
I check to see if it’s radioactive with a Geiger counter. It’s not. That’s ice.
I poke it with various things to get a feel for its hardness. It’s hard.
It looks like metal but doesn’t feel quite like metal. I use a multimeter to see if it’s conductive. It isn’t. Interesting.” (p. 146)
The whole book is like this.
Great, fine, it’s a bad book. So why am I all messed up about it? Because it’s fun to read! It’s really fun to read; in fact, it’s as fun as it is bad, that is to say: very. I blew through ‘Project Hail Mary’ – I devoured it (and on vacation, no less). And, despite the fact that he’s an idiot who absolutely vaporized my ability to willingly suspend disbelief, I really cared about what happened to Ryland (actually, I cared what happened to Rocky the Alien, but that’s a whole other essay).
How does this work? How can a book be so irritatingly bad and yet so interesting? If I ruin a whole day of my vacation worrying about the fates of Ryland and Rocky, how can I say in good faith that the book is bad? By what possible rationale can I defend saying that a book is unsuccessful when it literally makes me tear up?
As usual, I don’t have an answer to this question. Badness, yet again, appears to be besides the point: ‘Project Hail Mary’ is entertaining, and perhaps that’s all that matters. But its badness lurks at the edge of my mind: maybe it’s OK for this book to be bad, but would it have been better if it were actually good?
I don’t know, and as soon as I finish writing this, I’m going to stop thinking about it. I know I won’t solve this problem, not today, not ever. What I will probably do, though, is go read ‘The Martian’.