Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Where no one has gone before

Continuing in the nonfiction mode, we have Mary Roach's Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void.  I'm new to Mary Roach, and -- after listening to Henrietta Lacks -- her authorial invasiveness felt intrusive.  Still, her breezy and informative take on various scientific studies was interesting, and certainly convinced me (not that I needed convincing, despite my long-time [yet inexplicable] fondness for Star Trek) that I am not astronaut material.

Roach addresses -- chapter by chapter -- the situations of human survival (eating, eliminating, intercourse/procreating, need for bathing, our tolerance for close quarters -- with or without our fellow humans, etc.) and how scientists (from NASA and other places) have prepared for these situations in space, either in actuality (Gemini, Apollo and space shuttle/space station eras) or on a future years-long voyage to our nearest neighbor, Mars. The questions Roach asks are those that NASA by and large prefers not to answer, although they appeared to be quite cooperative with her. I learned a lot:
  • We lose our ability to smell ourselves after about eight days (but that we can get very, very stinky).
  • Clothing will eventually just rot off.
  • Food crumbs and dandruff aren't ignorable (i.e., hanging out quietly on the floor) in zero-gravity.
  • The pornography industry has spent some time and talent trying to recreate weightless sex.
  • A major problem in zero-G defecation is the moment the poop actually separates from your body (gravity is essential!).
The author went on one of those zero-G parabolic plane rides, she met with heavily indebted folks who were paid to lie in a bed for two weeks, she watched the pornography, she listened to the elimination engineers talk about that separation problem. She's mostly amused at what she finds, and I think that's what I ultimately found offputting about her style. Yes, she's informative and engaging, but she inserts herself in such a knowingly arch way (much differently than Rebecca Skloot does) that the book becomes all about her, rather than about her very interesting subject. Perhaps it wouldn't have bothered me as much had I not just come off of Henrietta Lacks. Give me a few years and I might try another one of her books (each of which sounds equally fascinating).

The narrator, Sandra Burr, goes with Roach's self-aware, aren't-I-amusing approach, reading with an edge of irony (particularly in Roach's copious footnotes) that tells you that she is in on the joke.  Burr is a pretty straightforward reader -- which I have found a little dull in fiction -- using a no-frills style that is appropriate for nonfiction. Her reading here is a unsurprising, yet professional, job.

From the department of too-much-information (and an explanation of my personal habits that goes on and on and on ... so feel free to ignore). The main reason I don't like listening to downloadables is that they don't work well for falling asleep. My clock radio has a place where I can connect my mp3 player, but the volume needs to be so high that when the radio goes off in the morning it is heart-attack-inducing. Then there's the problem of middle-aged wakefulness -- I fall asleep listening, but then wake up in a whole 'nother part of the book. Tracking back to where I was is impossible, particularly so when you are trying to not fully wake up.

So, when I have a downloadable going (and I have a downloadable going because I want to listen to the book and it's usually only available to me in that format), I like to have another book in the ears for nights. I've been using Brilliance audiobooks because of their 99-track format. These don't transfer well from the copy I've made on my laptop onto my mp3 player (all the Track 1s fall together, then the Track 2s, etc.). I tried valiantly to make this work on a recent trip out of town, finally putting each disc into a different "type" of audio (one was in Albums, one in Audiobooks, one in Podcasts). Ridiculous. Those 99 tracks make it easier to go back and listen to the parts I've slept through as well ... I don't have to listen three times to the beginning of a six- or seven-minute track, always falling asleep before it finishes.  This has worked out pretty well to date: a downloadable for daytimes, and a Brilliance on CD for nights. But now -- after I've been complaining about them for a decade (I'm embarrassed to note the six times I blogged about it) -- Brilliance has changed format -- the 99 tracks are no more!!  In the future, there will be more and more downloadables, fewer and fewer books on CD. Solution? Ambien?

[The image of Mars taken by the Hubble Space Telescope was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach
Narrated by Sandra Burr
Brilliance Audio, 2010.  10:35

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