Sunday, September 4, 2016

Packing for Mars by Mary Roach

Source of book: Audiobook from the library

My wife actually checked this out for a trip she was taking, but didn’t end up listening to it, so I poached it later.

I will admit right away that I am a serious Mary Roach fan. Ever since I read Bonk (not reviewed - I was too chicken to review a book about sex back then - even a scientific one) I was hooked. Her next book, Gulp, about the alimentary canal, was every bit as good, and by then I didn’t care what people thought quite as much, so I reviewed it. Earlier this year, I read and reviewed Spook, Roach’s wry exploration of the paranormal.

To explain Mary Roach, the best start is to say that she is the least squeamish person imaginable, she has a very, very dry and deadpan sense of humor, and an inability to resist following the rabbit trails of the bizarre whenever investigating a subject. I mean, she even uses pictures of cockroaches on her website. There is literally nothing too gross or ridiculous for her, as far as I can tell. Attend a training for psychics? Of course! Investigate fecal transplants? Why not! Volunteer for research that required her to have sex with her husband on MRI? Yes, even that.

And, in the case of this book, she went up on a zero-G flight (aka the “Vomit Comet”) and wrote extensively about motion sickness, discussed in detail the problems of body odor on spaceflights, practiced positioning on the Shuttle toilet, researched cubed food (and worse), observed the Japanese program for identifying suitable personalities for astronauts, examined the results of tests of survivability of impacts, and much more. And made fart jokes whenever appropriate. No, this book is not for the faint of stomach. Which is pretty much the disclaimer for all her books.

The best thing about all this, though is how amazingly deadpan her writing is. To paraphrase a famous line, the sarcasm is strong with this one. There is no good way to describe it, other than to recommend you read her books. Or at least look up one of her TED talks or other interviews.

Just as a small example, when she takes her zero-G flight, she notices the sign on the door says “Reduced Gravity Office.” She imagines that inside all the items are flying around randomly. And then she decides that every bit as likely is that it is a place where nothing is taken seriously. Which is very much the sort of remark I would make.

I wish I could remember more exact lines, but it is hard to write them down while driving.

Equally delightful in this book, perhaps even more so than in her others, are the many interviews she did with astronauts and other people who work or worked on the space program. She also quotes plenty of more serious books on her subjects - then follows up on any juicy stories to find out if they are fiction - or fact.

The best part of the book, though, in my opinion, is the sheer wealth of intimate detail about the realities of space travel. This isn’t the heroic aspiration, the supermen and -women and the triumph of the human spirit and all that. (Although Roach clearly admires the space program and those involved.) Rather, it is the everyday, mundane challenges that are the primary challenges of humans in space. The fine detritus of dead skin that floats in the air. The difficulty of spending weeks - or months - at a time in close company with other humans, with no personal space or privacy. The crazy ways our human bodies react to motion and acceleration, and deprivation of what our psyches need.

Roach’s willingness to ignore taboos and ask the questions most of us would hesitate to ask enables her to go deeper into the truly human dimension of her topics.

Like her other books, this one is an excellent read, provided you aren’t easily grossed out.



This particular audiobook was read by Sandra Burr, who did a decent job. However, if you can, find one where Roach reads her own books. I would never be able to do it without cracking up, but she pulls it off.


  1. "Ever since I read Bonk (not reviewed - I was too chicken to review a book about sex back then"

    Well, review it now, then... :-)

    1. It's been 5 years, so I would have to go back and re-read to find all the good lines again.

      My wife and a friend took it on a girl's weekend away, and laughed the whole way. It's hilarious.

    2. It sounds hilarious. Clearly Roach's husband isn't exactly squeamish either...

    3. Indeed. If you want, you can check out her video interview about this.

      Also, any of her TED talks are good.