Imagine pooping in a plastic bag about six feet away from a good friend. Now imagine doing it in space. Now imagine imagining scenarios like this one while packed into a train crammed with commuters you hope won’t notice the frequency of the word “feces” in the book you’re holding, and you’ll get a sense of how truly awesome it is to read Mary Roach.
I first got into Roach in freshman year of college, when her debut book, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, made me legitimately interested in what happens to our bodies after we die (no really, legitimately interested. I subsequently read Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Death, which was just as fascinating, though far less hilarious). Since then, I’ve read each of Roach’s three subsequent books within a month of their release: Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex and most recently Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void. The last of these I finally finished over the weekend (after realizing that the chances of my polishing off 550-page The Corrections in time for this week’s review were slim to none).
This review deserves a double preface: With nonfiction books in particular, I feel you should know how invested I generally find myself in truth versus, well, fiction. Which is to say that for me, nonfiction has always been a bit of a struggle. It’s not that I’m not interested by the “story” of real things, or that I don’t appreciate the last decade’s insistence on publishing entire histories on otherwise mundane topics (salt, oysters, bananas, toothpicks, etc.), but I read as a form of escapism, and it’s a lot harder to escape when what you’re reading about is real. There have definitely been books I consider nonfiction home runs—The Devil in White City, one of my first reviews on this blog, for one—but for the most part it’s hit or miss. With the exception of Mary Roach.
My second disclosure is a little stranger. See, I’m kind of …scared…of space. By this I mean both wide open spaces—it’s not without reason that I feel most at home in New York, where a 1,000-square-foot apartment is considered spacious—and outer space, like with the stars and the planets and shit. I still cover my eyes at planetariums (go ahead and laugh, but this is a vast improvement over my childhood, when I was downright terrified by them), get anxious camping and feel mildly uncomfortable when people (read: my space-obsessed friends) get lost in conversation about the infiniteness of the universe, and/or make me watch Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. I don’t know why, but the idea of outer space just freaks me out. Rest assured that when space tourism catches on, I’ll be the old lady who spends the holidays alone to avoid joining her family on an intergalactic cruise.
In any case, all of the above serves to explain why my enjoyment of Packing for Mars was particularly important. For the uninitiated, the beauty of Mary Roach’s writing is that you aren’t reading a book about cadavers/ghosts/sex/space, so much as going on a journey with Roach herself; learning as she does and laughing when she does. This latter point is particularly important: one thing many science writers seem to miss—and Mary Roach refuses to—is the awkward humor of scientific situations. In Stiff, a scientist walks casually through a field where dead bodies are left out to study phases of decomposition. In Bonk, a seriously courageous Roach convinces her husband to participate in a study on the physiology of sex, which means having sex in front of a scientist. In Packing for Mars, there are a few pages devoted entirely to the conundrum of farting in space, including transcripts from actual astronauts faced with said conundrum.
This isn’t to say that Roach sacrifices science, or learning about science, in the interest of cheap jokes. Her books are full of explanations, history, statistics, studies and quotes from (truly good-natured) experts. In fact, it’s the weaving together of scientific study and personal observation that makes Mary Roach’s books so unique. Truth be told, I suspect I would have taken a much greater interest in science as a child if these books were a part of my curriculum. (Really, who wouldn’t have killed for a textbook that included astronaut farts?) But better late than never.
If you haven’t read anything by Mary Roach, I’d start with Stiff, simply because I remember that book changing my entire perspective on science writing. But if you’re already a fan, or are simply interested in (and not terrified by) space, Packing for Mars is pretty awesome. As Roach explains, many of today’s technologies—bulletproof vests, artificial limbs, solar panels, invisible braces, Carnation breakfast formula—were born of aerospace innovation. We’ve long been fascinated by what happens to humans (or dogs, or monkeys) once they’re in space, but far less often do we ponder what exactly got them there. Who figured out how astronauts would eat, drink, sleep, kill time or shower? Who decided how they would live, or what they would wear? At the end of Packing for Mars, you’ll know all of the above and then some. In fact, fueled by a new appreciation for the bizarre intricacies of aerospace research, you may, you just may, try to bring up fecal matter in a dinner conversation. It’s okay, you’ll tell your shocked and mildly disgusted dinner guests as you outline the procedure for intergalactic pooping, it’s science.
TITLE: Packing for Mars
AUTHOR: Mary Roach
PAGES: 318 (in hardcover)
ALSO WROTE: Stiff, Spook, Bonk
SORTA LIKE: Bill Bryson meets Chelsea Handler
FIRST LINE: “To the rocket scientist, you are a problem.”