A book review! How about that? One of the perks of getting a working tablet with a battery that lasts longer than an hour is that I now take it to the gym and read it while I run. Since I tend to do 1-hour long runs, I manage to consume quite a bit of a book each outing and, over the last couple weeks, I’ve been reading Oxygen by Randy Ingermanson and John Olson, which I downloaded from Amazon onto the Kindle App on my Asus Transformer Prime. (Did I do enough product hyping? Yes? Okay.)
Originally published back in 2000, Oxygen tells the story of a potential Mission to Mars conducted by NASA, expected to land sometime in 2014. The crew of four has a number of last minute change ups — including substituting the mission commander for a new doctor and shuffling the command responsibilities — but they eventually make it off the ground … only to begin running into a host of technical challenges, each more dire than the last. Can the crew fix the problems in time? Has the mission been sabotaged? Will the crew make it to Mars alive?
I’m a fan of Randy Ingermanson’s blog, AdvancedFictionWriting.com, and have read about how he joined up with a friend/fellow-author to write manuscript for Oxygen in tandem over a rather short period. I was interested to see what Randy’s books were actually like (not having read any of them before) and when this book came on sale for $0.99 on Amazon back when it launched, I snagged it up.
The book is actually quite breezy in style, focused on character development instead of any technical challenges. Main characters Bob Kaganovski (“Kaggo”) and Valerie Jansen (“Valkerie”) are both scientists, one in biology and medicine and the other in physics and engineering, and while they get their moments to shine, it’s all in a very Star Trek way, where problems and solutions aren’t telegraphed in enough detail to allow the reader to solve them on their own. Which is fine, the book is pretty clearly about the emotional journey of the two astronauts.
Valkerie is a somewhat shy but dedicated scientist who is brought in at the very last minute for the mission and has to overcome enormous emnity from the crew for ousting Mission Commander Josh Bennett. She tends to fret internally and back off from social pressure, which aggrivatingly causes a few problems during the book that threaten the entire crew. She is portrayed as your typical hollywood nerd, which is to say she’s athletic, drop dead gorgeous, and is immediately attracted to the overweight engineering nerd, Kaggo.
Kaggo is older than Valkerie, smart, confident, but lacking real leadership qualities, and is still a little addled from his first romantic experience several years earlier, so he’s completely unprepared for the beautiful Valkerie to show attraction to him. Kaggo is an Anime protagonist. He has the same quiet confusion, the same tendency to jump to conclusions that undervalue himself, and is ridiculously rude towards the gorgeous female protagonist for stupid reasons and yet is STILL pursued by that female lead throughout the book.
You might have noticed that I placed particular emphasis on these two character’s romantic entanglement. Well, that’s because the BOOK places enormous emphasis on it. It is easily the axis on which the book spins. Certainly in Valkerie’s mind, where she dedicates many pages to the analysis between herself and Kaggo, almost to absurdity. In the end there is a payoff to this, but man is it painful to endure.
The rest of the main characters place themselves in positions familiar to those who have seen Apollo 13. We have a mission commander, the government liaison, the flight commander, a host of engineers and scientists, and two additional crew members who exist almost solely to complicate the ‘conspiracy’ plot line. Alexis Ohta, who starts off helpful, is waylaid early on in the book and spends quite a bit of it being treated as an object. New Mission Commander Kennedy Hampton is the jock, and is solely a source of aggravation to the rest of the characters, which no meaningful story of his own.
The book ends as the characters reach Mars and doesn’t address anything beyond that, which sort of surprised me. I was expecting the book to go on to tell about the return trip or possibly some problems ON Mars, but no, simply getting to Mars was the main problem, and once they’d reached it, it was game over. So I was pretty disappointed at the end.
In fact, I was somewhat disappointed throughout the book. While being an entertaining read, and containing some very nicely tense scenes and some fun humor, it skews towards the Hollywood side of things, and falls firmly in the Popcorn Entertainment side of the scale. It’s a good book, but doesn’t have anything meaningful to say, and will probably be forgotten before long. Give it a read if you’re looking for a diversion, but save your thinking for another book.