Two books—one finished, one un


So two books came into my orbit recently with similar premises. In Seveneves, the moon is dying and thus will kill us. And in Project Hail Mary, the sun is dying and thus will kill us. These books are respectively by Neal Stephenson who has been in the news recently because Mark Zuckerberg is actively creating the dystopia he imagined in his second-only-to-Neuromancer cyberpunk novel which I wasn't all that impressed by, and Andy Weir who has been everyone's favorite scrappy little near-future/hard-scifi nerd novelist ever since The Martian arrived.

I picked up Seveneves because a trio of people told me it was worth reading. And three is kinda too many to ignore. So I asked the library for it and jumped right in. And I was making great progress. When a book breaks 700 pages, you have to stay with it or the library's gonna want it back before it's done, you know?

Anyway, son #2 really wanted to read it and kept sneaking it away so I told him to just take it and read it. He's cranking out books-read faster than I am (and I had another long library book to read anyway).

When I thought he was finished, I picked it back up. He'd lost my bookmark so I spent a long time looking for where I'd left off. Then I read a few pages and he took it back to read the last hundred pages.

The thing is. I wasn't liking it that much.

The concept of the disaster was terrific—the moon breaking apart and becoming (eventually) a life-ending rain of death. But I read hundreds of pages and never got to that. Hundreds of pages of expository dialogue and Stephenson adding paragraphs to make sure we get to enjoy all the research he'd enjoyed. Which is find. It's like The Work and the Glory without endnotes. But that alone is not what I read fiction for.

The biggest draws for me are character and language, though plot can carry me through when those stagger. Seveneves's characters were interesting in their moments but I never grew to care about them between readings. The language is pedestrian. And the plot TOOK FOREVER.

So I took it back to the library. I couldn't be bothered to find my place again.

I'm bummed because I was looking forward to the destruction of the planet and the return of humans in 10,000 years. I've no doubt those would have been thilling passages, both viscerally and intellectually—and maybe if my bookmark had still been in place I would have skimmed forward—but figuring out where I left off was more work that I was willing to put in. Which is a bummer, because I still want to know what this is.

Also kicking around the house was Hail Mary (actually Project Hail Mary but the cover makes that Project easy to miss and it's a catchier title without it). Son #1 made son #2 and their mother read The Martian (he tried to make me, but I could never talk myself into it; I didn't doubt it was a fun read and a commercial concept, but the first page did not inspire confidence in language or character). Son #2 got Weir's third book from the library before our monthlong summer vacation and, I thought, finished it before we left. But no. So he got it back from the library and I decided to declare Martian bankruptcy and read this one instead. The cover copy was intriguing.

Although I don't think Weir's a terrific writer, I do think he has real prowess, conceptually. For instance, "The Egg" is not beautifully written, but it has stuck with me far more than just about any other afterlife fiction. And it's been made into So Many short film. So many. He has power.

Hail Mary commits most of the same sins as Seveneves (characters waxing expository in their dialogue when they should not, for instance) but it at least starts us off in media res. Granted, that means we end up with almost half the book in flashback, but he has layered reasons for that which I suppose count as "clever" or at least reasonable.

My biggest complaint with Hail Mary though is how predictable it is. I don't try to outsmart texts, but the ultimate solution to the dimming sun was obvious to me almost immediately. The idea that all the great minds of Earth wouldn't shoot off into space with this hypothesis already leading the back is ludicrous. Maybe one of the pleasures of (if you will) "popular fiction" is that the reader gets to feel smarter than the characters, but I don't take much pleasure in that.

Still, Project Hail Mary delivers one of my all-time favorite aliens. And not everything needs to be Great Literature. Have fun. Eat a potato chip.

In the end, I read about the same number of words from both Stephenson and Weir. They weighed about the same in terms of fact-sharing but one weighed more in terms of dumb fun. And thus the same amount of reading from two books results in one book added to unfinished books and one added to this year's books-read list:

109) Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir, finished on October 29 

 about a week   

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