Sunday, December 7, 2014

Book Review: Gravity- Tess Gerritsen

     Gravity is one of two books based on biology that I have read recently.  This one was my science fiction pick for this round and The Hot Zone was my science pick for the start of the next round [post to come].  I picked Gravity because I knew The Hot Zone was coming up.  The former biology teacher at my school, now principal, used to have a quarter project where she assigned books to be read, amongst them were these two and Jurassic Park.  I, of course, have read Jurassic Park, before but I had never read these two.  When I found out recently that The Hot Zone was about an Ebola outbreak I figured it was relevant to get around to listening to it now.  That decision triggered in my memory that I had never gotten around to listening to Gravity, so here it goes.
     I have very mixed feelings about this book.  There is a lot that I have to forgive it of because it was written in 1999 and there were things that she didn't know were coming, but at the same time, so many things just seem wrong.  For starters a summary will be necessary [no spoilers outside of those given on the dust jacket]: the book focuses on an outbreak of a Archaean Chimera [think very adaptable bacteria] that turned infectious aboard the International Space Station [ISS].  There were times where this book got a lot of the science and some of the operations of the ISS right, and there were other times where it was way off.  It was like looking at a bad poor reflection, where I recognized that this was supposed to be the ISS, but compared to how it actually runs and operates the description was so foreign that it just seemed off.  Now, in the author's defense international cooperation between the Russian space station MIR and the US Shuttle Program was not great, and Apollo-Soyuz was pretty much nothing but diplomacy.  It seems that she based how ISS would run and operate off of this and off of construction plans, after all construction only started in November 1998, and permanent habitation didn't start until November 2000.  So the crew members in her book don't speak any shared languages, didn't train together, are pretty unfamiliar with the other nation's sections of the space station, and not only don't work together as a team, but are even antagonistic towards one another.  On the other hand there were many optimistic views about the space program including shuttle missions in the mid-2000s in the 150s and 160s, whereas the actual final mission was STS-135 [mission #135] in 2011, Challenger was the only disaster, Columbia was still around, and launches were quick and frequent- including multiple missions at a time.
     Although the book was gripping and enjoyable, it became predictable and unbelievable pretty quickly.  If something could go wrong it did.  And although I enjoy books where the author isn't afraid to kill off characters, there was no time to establish a connection with the characters before they were gone.  There are also some containment mistakes that just seemed obvious.  At times I was reminded of a bad Andromeda Strain.  I do understand the point of assigning this as a biology fiction book about infectious disease, but in the end it stretched believability and credibility.  The science in the book was accurate for what I know of biology and was believable and based upon confirmed science.  Also, the symptoms of the disease were a lot like Marburgh and Ebola, which are the focus of The Hot Zone and current news, although it seems unlikely that an Archaean could behave like a filovirus, and although it is easy to let it slide, bacteria and viruses are fundamentally different.
Right before reading the book, I stumbled across a blog post on the authors webpage.  I remember when I first heard about the movie Gravity that I assumed it was based off of this book.  I was immediately going to listen to it, however, I shortly learned thereafter that the movie was not based upon the book.  I end up watching the movie before reading this book, and outside of having a female lead character and taking place on the ISS with a disaster driving the plot the two seem to have nothing to do with one-another.  According to her press release linked above she claims to have given them the benefit of the doubt at first, and that in the screenplay version she helped write she added in damage from a meteor shower.  Why the movie needed even more disasters than the book had I don't know, but such an event did not occur in the book.  Also, when it comes to movies in space there really is a limited number of disasters you can imagine happening and an unplanned meteor shower or collision with space junk is one of the predominate things you can think of, so I'm not sure this plot idea is all that unique.  I don't wish the author any ill will, but I don't think I find her claim credible.

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