My tastes in science fiction have gotten extremely Weir-d.
You probably know Andy Weir’s work, even if you don’t recognize his name immediately. It hasn’t been that long since his first novel, “The Martian,” was all over Hollywood. The tale of an astronaut stranded on the Red Planet captured movie audiences as surely as it held readers spellbound with his struggle to survive (while keeping his ability to wisecrack intact, naturally).
Well, now Andy’s back in a big way. His latest book, “Project Hail Mary,” pretty much hijacked me for the night –“Sleep? What’s that?” – and left me with no regrets for the extra caffeine in the morning. It’s hard to say too much without giving everything away, since the story reveals its secrets one layer at a time, but suffice to say that waking up on a spaceship without any memory of who you are or why you’re supposed to be there is one of those situations that makes being a Martian castaway look positively comfortable.
Why do I get so into Weir? Part of it is because he’s a “hard” science fiction writer in an age where that’s less common than it used to be, a teller of tales where science and engineering are both key plot points and useful tools. A friend joked that Andy tricks people into reading textbooks by disguising them as novels, which is more complimentary than it might sound. Put simply, he makes science cool.
But there’s more to it than that. For me, what really makes Andy Weir stand out is that his stories are hopeful.
In an age where dystopia sells, that’s no small thing.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not interested in cotton-candy visions of the future where life is perfect and everyone has their own jet pack. (Well, maybe the jet pack.) In a world that’s gone through crisis after crisis – biological, ecological, political, social – stories of utopia sound hollow or even a little desperate. The trouble is that most dystopias are just upside-down utopias … which to me, makes them about as interesting.
I’m not alone in this. Isaac Asimov once wrote that the two were flip sides of the same coin: that the chorus of “everything is bad, bad, bad” was just as monotonous as the chorus of “everything is good, good, good.” Stories are about change, while utopias and dystopias are a sign of paralysis. An ideal society has no way to change except for the worse, while a dystopia has frequently lost the ability to change. (Indeed, the few in the genre that I do care for, such as “The Hunger Games,” are stories where the possibility of change and improvement are re-awakened.)
Dystopias have a use as tools – the alarm bell in the night of dangers that await if action isn’t taken. But a steady diet of them steals hope, implanting the idea that there is no action to be taken, simply pain to be endured.
And if that’s truly the case, what’s the point of a warning?
Especially when a story has the power to do so much more.
Stories are an evocation of who we are. They let us struggle with our fears and reach for our dreams. And yes, at their best, they teach hope … not that good stuff will always happen to those who deserve it, but that with work and effort, it’s possible to make things different.
That’s not the same as a guaranteed “happy ever after.” Some heroes fail. Some tales are tragedies. Some victories are won at a cost, for either the people involved or the world around them. But the struggle is there. The possibility is there. In our stories and in ourselves.
In an often dark time, I’ll take that glimmer of light offered by Weir and others like him. It just may lead somewhere worth going.
And that’s an Andy thing to have.