Friday, April 20, 2012

Tess Gerritsen Tests Gravity In Space

The reason author Tess Gerritsen originally traded in writing romance for thrillers is immediately provocative. She was having a dinner conversation in Russia and learned that orphans were being abducted from the streets of Moscow to be used as organ donors. She knew she had to write about it.

It's this same sort of urgent timeliness that has rekindled interest in another one of her thrillers, Gravity. As the Discovery space shuttle makes its final voyage from space to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, Gerritsen had fictionalized a different fate for it.

Discovery crash lands in White Sands, New Mexico. Its crew was either incapacitated or already dead, victims of a contagion unlike any other.

In reality, Columbia was the only shuttle to ever land at White Sands. But this landing may have provided just enough inspiration for Gerritsen to imagine a real belly landing like the one Columbia nearly experienced. Although most people would never notice, the landing was near disastrous as NASA tested the shuttle's Autoland system for the first (and last) time.

Gravity is a riveting medical thriller set in the least likely confines of space.

Much of the story takes place on the International Space Station (ISS), where a team of six astronauts suddenly finds themselves threatened by a virulent contagion. They don't know it at first, but anyone reading the story will never forget the first careless mishap when an Archaea experiment is able to make the leap to another experiment.

This fatal moment happens when one of the tiny mice greedily gobbles up a free-floating, blueish-green globule, much like astronauts might do for entertainment in a microgravity atmosphere aboard the ISS. Had the globule actually consisted of Archaeans, the micro-organisms known for their ability to survive in extreme conditions (acidic mine drains, volcanic hot springs, etc.), it may have been a non-event.

But Gerritsen has other plans for the ill-fated astronauts. And to make her thriller play out, she uses the readers "knowing" to create a feeling of isolation and helplessness as each successive problem unfolds and the first astronaut is infected. Those feelings can be easily appreciated by touring the real ISS.

Now imagine fictional Kenichi Hirai from Japan's NASDA having no idea why his mice are dying or why some of the other mice cower on the far side of the cage and away from the deceased. In attempting to work through the mystery, it is Hirai who becomes infected, but without exhibiting symptoms associated with a pathogen.

Instead, his upset stomach, high amylase count, and scleral hemorrhages in both eyes seem to be related to pancreatitis or maybe something he ate. In fact, it is this possible early diagnosis of pancreatitis by protagonist Emma Watson that distracts everyone from the severity of the problem.

Instead of focusing on the medical problem, everyone is considering the operational problem. NASA only has two emergency evacuation protocols for Hirai. Either they would have to move up the launch date of the next shuttle flight or instruct the crew to use the Crew Return Vehicle (CRV). Using the CRV comes with consequences: Every onboard experiment would have to be abandoned.

The decision is encompassing enough that no one ever considers something else. Maybe bringing Hirai home could potentially expose the planet to something more sinister and deadly.

Maybe alien life forms don't need flying saucers to ever conquer Earth.

The concept isn't too far removed from the classic techno-thriller The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton, but Gerritsen has two advantages in her storytelling. The first is her own background as a physician that breathes life into the medical thriller of the story. The second is 30 more years of science, microbiology, and genetics.

There really is speculation that archaea could exist in environments like those found on Mars. And if that is true, then viable microbes could be transferred between plants in meteorites or hapless space explorers. And in this case, Gerritsen creates a nasty variation with parasitic properties, except it steals DNA from every creature it infects and has no concern about killing its host.

Gravity By Tess Gerritsen Orbits 7.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

Gravity is an extremely fast-paced novel, driven by Gerritsen's education and impeccable research that makes the story plausible. As many readers discover, her backup career — a physician — became the catalyst for making her thrillers feel real.

While there are moments that the novel feels too rushed for its own good, Gravity manages to cover considerable ground within its subplots, raising small questions about living in space for long periods of time, to big questions about how much humans have left to learn. The story, however, is not a warning.

"There are always dangers to exploration. Yes, there will certainly be deaths as we move into space or deeper into the sea — but that's the risk man takes whenever he moves into unknown territory," she says. "That compulsion to push into the unknown is what makes us, as a species, unique — we are always asking what's beyond the next mountain."

Gravity by Tess Gerritsen is available from Amazon and the book can be found at Barnes & Noble. Gravity can also be found on iBooks and was recently released as an audiobook on iTunes and read by Campbell Scott, who struggles at times in distinguishing between the story's unique atmospheric and action-driven sequences.
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