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[Digital Simplicity] ‘Project Hail Mary’ and the meaning of ‘cultural things’

By Yang Sung-jin

Published : June 12, 2021 - 16:00

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Andy Weir’s much-awaited “Project Hail Mary” is certainly a page-turning interstellar tale that sends sci-fi fans on a thrilling space journey. Kirkus Reviews, a US-based book review magazine, hails it as an “unforgettable story of survival and the power of friendship.”

But when I was reading the novel, switching between text and audiobook on my commute, instead of the matters of survival and friendship, something else kept me thinking about my own experiences.

As with other fans across the world, I was initially sucked into the science-packed space fiction genre by reading Weir’s blockbuster hit “The Martian” (2011). The film adaptation, starring Matt Damon, was also highly enjoyable. This made me eagerly wait for Weir’s next novel, but “Artemis” (2017) was, if anything, disappointing.

So I had some reservations about his third major space novel, “Project Hail Mary,” and, thankfully, it was far better and more profound than I had expected. Perhaps, this is because the novel largely follows the proven formula of “The Martian” and adds a couple of new elements that effectively heighten emotional tensions and amplify dramatic effects.

“Project Hail Mary” follows the space journey of marooned astronaut Ryland Grace, who finds himself awakening from a coma on the spaceship. What is truly vexing for Grace (but interesting for readers) is that he doesn’t remember who he is or why he is on the spacecraft floating far, far away from the solar system.

Details about his past unfurls slowly through flashbacks, while Grace has to figure out how to “science” a number of thorny engineering, microbiological and psychological problems to survive on a personal level and, hopefully, save Earth from extinction.

Spoiler alert: From this point on, I will talk about details regarding one of the key plot twists, so please stop reading now if you wish to read the story for yourself. (And since I know you will read at least this sentence, my rating for the novel is 4 1/2 stars out of 5).

A major plot twist is the “first contact” in the nearest sun-like star Tau Ceti, in which Grace discovers an alien spacecraft and comes to forge a friendship with Rocky, the alien whose mission is the same as Grace. Both want to save their worlds by identifying solutions that could eliminate lethal threats, with time running out fast.

To join hands (or at least for Rocky, something like hands) and navigate myriad challenges, the pair, first and foremost, should be able to communicate with each other in a time-consuming trial-and-error fashion. This is easier said than done.

When I tried to explain almost untranslatable Korean concepts such as “nunchi” to my American college roommate years ago, I realized that there are many Korean words and concepts that do not exist in English. Given that humans often struggle to find words that are shared in two or more cultures, it is hardly surprising that the twosome on the trouble-laden spaceships would find it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to learn the alien languages in a limited period of time. After all, they have drastically different systems of perception, senses and vocal organs, not to mention a number of mutually mysterious behaviors originating from their unique cultural backgrounds.

It apparently did not go smoothly between the duo when it came down to culture-bound issues. Mentioning “the c-word” that refers to culture, Grace explains how they have come up with a solution: “We have an unspoken agreement that cultural things just have to be accepted.”

The mission to save the world is a mind-bogglingly demanding task, as would be the goal to communicate with aliens. I guess this is why the title of the novel is “Project Hail Mary,” and I bet the meaning of “Hail Mary” will be elusive for many Koreans.

Yes, it’s a cultural thing.

By Yang Sung-jin (

Yang Sung-jin is the multimedia editor of The Korea Herald. -- Ed.