Book reviews, art, gaming, Objectivism and thoughts on other topics as they occur.

Mar 29, 2006


I enjoyed this science fiction novel by Ben Bova, but unfortunately it also contains some flaws that prevented it from being truly deep and inspiring.

The novel is, essentially, about the first manned mission to land on Mars and all the things that they accomplish and hope to accomplish. Among the novel's many good points is an extensive dramatization of what happens to the science when the scientists go to politicians for funding. The mission is presented very much in a "future of mankind", "manifest destiny" fashion; the landscape on Mars is detailed as magnificent, awe-inspiring, but also not really frightening. Even a serious problem, a hole in the pressure dome, is handled with dispatch and professionalism.

The problem is that Mr. Bova went too much out of his way to create conflicts and dangers, so much so that they seem hokey and contrived. However, he manages to ignore several very real dangers completely; his astronauts and scientists breathe nitrogen as a component of their air supply, and after an accident they're reduced to breathing pure oxygen for two days.

Now, if I remember my dive medicine correctly, only a masochist or an idiot would breathe nitrogen in space. It's dangerous enough over the comparatively gradual pressure changes of a deep-sea dive; when the pressure difference between outside and inside is as great as it would be on Mars, you'd be in serious trouble if there was any kind of problem.

In addition, no one can breathe pure oxygen for two days. When you breathe pure oxygen, your blood saturates to the point that even the blood returning to your heart through your veins is oxygenated. Although it's commonly known that hemoglobin carries oxygen, it really serves two purposes; one, for oxygen molecules to attach and be carried to your cells for use, and secondly for carbon dioxide molecules to attach and be carried to your lungs, where they are wasted to the outside world.

Carbon dioxide is not attractive enough to hemoglobin to replace oxygen that's already there. If you breathe pure oxygen, you will drown in your own waste products. If I remember correctly, this was discovered during the first military trials of oxygen rebreathers for assault divers, and the result was unfortunately fatal.

A big oops on Ben Bova's part. A lot of science fiction novels contain errors, however since this error is actually a part of the most significant plot conflict, it seriously detracts from the quality of the novel. The characters are also somewhat artificial and cookie-cutter, making the entire book more appropriate for teenagers than adults. Younger persons may be able to enjoy the romance of the story without being disturbed by the superficialities involved.

Rating: 2.5

No comments: