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Mary Roach
Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2010

W. W. Norton
USA Trade Hardcover, First Edition
ISBN 978-0-393-06847-4
Publication Date: 08-02-2010
256 pages, $25.95
Date Reviewed: 08-21-2010

Index:  Non-Fiction  Science Fiction

The limits of genre fiction are at the heart of its appeal. We know what to expect in a novel about zombies, ghosts, body horror, or space travel. If the subject has some sort of innate appeal to us personally, we know that there's a good chance that we'll enjoy the book. But any given subject may be treated in an entirely different manner. Zombies, for example, get a very serious and somber treatment in 'World War Z' by Max Brooks. It's an oral history. In 'Breathers,' by S.G. Brown, we see a dysfunctional family and a romantic comedy via the zombie. And in 'Stiff,' by Mary Roach, we get a non-fictional treatment of zombies that is very funny.

'Packing for Mars' is Mary Roach's take on a nuts-and-bolts novel of space travel. It's very funny, entertainingly informative and ultimately offers a goofy but generous vision of that breathing, eating, sweating, and excreting space alien known as the human.

Humans really are alien to space. Everything that we need to live, we have to bring with us. Moreover, much of what awaits us beyond the gravity well, is, if not instantly fatal, either eventually fatal or disablingly harmful. Space is not our friend, and we don't belong there. But like the back of your father's sock drawer, it is endlessly alluring. In 'Packing for Mars,' Mary Roach focuses on the unglamorous aspects of what it takes to get us up in space with carefully crafted comedic joy. We may not belong in space, but we sure as heck can't keep away.

Roach is a genre unto herself, and her science fiction novel latest work of non-fiction is every bit as enjoyable as her other work. She's a master humorist who makes her examinations of actuality as entertaining as any imagined world. 'Packing for Mars' finds her riding the vomit comet, one of those zero-g plane flights, talking with the Japanese scientists who ask their astronauts to fold origami cranes while in a simulation and peering unblinkingly into the unpleasant alternatives not just for space food but also for peeing and pooing in space. You don't have to imagine — Roach will put you right where the squeam hits the ish.

There are lots of choice bits in 'Packing for Mars,' which unfold in compact, expertly written chapters. It's not just the passages on space poo and the problems with carbonated beverages that are funny; everything is. This is because Roach writes with a gracefully understated sense of geeky humor. She knows that timing is everything when it comes to humor, and she always makes her mark. She never forces the issue. Her prose is really a marvel of talent and discipline, matched by her ability to ferret out he most entertaining facts pertinent to her vision of humanity, in this case, humans in space.

Beyond all the wonderful specifics of this book, which are best experienced first hand, 'Packing For Mars' offers a refreshingly honest evaluation of human space travel. It is, of course, crazy, dangerous, and unnecessary. Our level of technology, so potent on the earth, seem positively primitive when we get beyond the atmosphere. The things we take for granted on the ground are often simply unachievable on space. And the humans who are fortunate enough to experience space travel must endure embarrassment and humiliation that is not possible on the earth. It seems like a lose-lose situation. Why bother, then, to send men up in little tins cans?

And here is where the unity behind all of Roach's works makes itself known. No matter what Mary Roach subjects us to, from death itself to life after death or sex, and now, space, no matter what indignities she finds us heaping upon ourselves, Mary Roach likes humans very much. She thinks that we are worth "escapees," wearing the same underclothes until they literally disintegrate, and the hazards of space BO. No matter how smelly or icky we manage to become, Mary Roach sees sweet likable nobility in our absurd behavior. She knows that the drive into space makes life on earth more bearable for those critters that surround her. If Mary Roach is a genre unto herself, and she is, her subjects are the men and women around her. We are her genre.

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