Book reviews: An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth and Zoo

Chris Hadfield – An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth

Non-fiction again, this time the autobiography of recently retired Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield. Hadfield is certainly experienced, with three spaceflights under his belt: after making two trips on the Space Shuttle, he was most recently commander of Expedition 35 to the International Space Station, where he found Internet fame by making a music video of ‘Space Oddity’ actually in space. I was particularly eager to get this book as, while I’ve been interested in space travel for years, I feel that in many ways, I know more about the sixties and Project Apollo than I do about more recent spaceflight. Maybe that’s because going to the Moon seems more exciting than hanging around in Earth orbit (though Earth orbit can in fact be very, very exciting, as this book proves); maybe it’s because it’s far easier to keep track of six Mercury, ten Gemini and eleven Apollo flights than 135 Space Shuttle missions with far larger crews. So I got this book hoping that Hadfield would fill me in.

And he did, but not quite how I expected. The story is not really linear; Hadfield starts off with the events that led to him becoming an astronaut, but the next section covers different events scattered over a long period of time, before finally becoming mostly linear again when describing his time on the ISS. I had hoped to get more detail on Hadfield’s two shuttle missions in Part I, akin to Michael Collins’s descriptions in Carrying the Fire; but that part is still a very satisfying read. Part I paints a vivid picture of the modern astronaut – the sheer amount of information they have to take in, the qualities they have to possess to do the job and make sure they don’t die doing it. But Hadfield wants to do more than that; as the title suggests, he takes the lessons he’s learned from his unique career and tries to help the reader apply them to life on earth – things like working towards your dream but not hinging all your happiness on achieving it, instead finding happiness in things you do each day; or “aiming to be a zero” (that is, impacting a situation neutrally, as opposed to a plus one, who improves things, or a minus one, who makes things worse – trying to be a plus one right from the start often doesn’t end well).

Parts II and III, talking about Expedition 34/35 and the ISS, are more traditional – Hadfield sums up five months of time in space very well, with lots of interesting details, from scientific experiments to food to his efforts to communicate what he was doing to the public. Again, it creates a detailed idea of what it’s really like being in space these days, to the point that you can easily imagine being there yourself. I was particularly interested to learn about all the problems that occur; just reading brief summaries of Space Shuttle missions makes them sound smooth and flawless, but in fact they are often anything but. Hadfield himself saw important sensors failing during a crucial manoeuvre on his first Shuttle flight, and was practically blinded in the middle of a spacewalk on his second. As he puts it, on his first flight, “nothing went as we’d planned, but everything was within the scope of what we prepared for.”

I’m going to go ahead and say this book is essential reading for anyone interested in space travel, along with Carrying the Fire and Andrew Chaikin’s A Man on the Moon. Chris Hadfield is a fantastic storyteller, getting across a great understanding of what it’s like to be an astronaut, and teaching you things that may make you view life a little differently as well. Rating: 5/5!


Zoo – James Patterson & Michael Ledwidge

Having been spending my bus rides to and from work listening to the audiobook of Zoo, I thought I’d write a review of it, as I have quite a lot to say about the whole thing.

Zoo is about a PhD dropout named Jackson Oz who has noticed something disturbing about the natural world: animal attacks on humans appear to be increasing dramatically. Oz fears that this phenomenon – which he dubs H.A.C., for Human-Animal Conflict – is the start of a global disaster, but since he just sounds like a typical conspiracy theorist, he has trouble getting people to listen. We follow Oz first as he heads off to Botswana, where he almost comes a cropper at the paws of a pride of crazed lions, then as he works on trying to understand why this is happening, and how to stop it.

If you take this story as just a simple, fun thriller, then it’s entertaining enough – the action is well paced and exciting, and the concept itself is interesting. Ultimately, however, it’s a bit of a wasted opportunity, as the story has a lot of flaws.

  • The characters aren’t the best. There’s not really anything to dislike about Oz, but there’s not that much to like about him either – he’s just neutral. Chloe, the love interest, is supposed to be a genius scientist in her own right, but we rarely see any examples of this; she has a weak personality and is mostly just there to provide emotional support. No other character is really worth speaking about.
  • The science in the story definitely needs improvement. Towards the beginning, Oz says, “Biological life was falling.” Biological life? As opposed to what, chemical life? Astronomical life? It is also mentioned that lions use vocalisations “to co-ordinate defence against predators”. What predators? Lions are top of the food chain (apart from humans, I suppose). There’s also a scene where a pod of dolphins are taken by the killer instinct and kill a group of fishermen, even though (spoiler) the H.A.C. phenomenon turns out to be linked to scent – and dolphins have no sense of smell.
  • There’s a repetitiveness to the writing: a lot of things, like explanations and theories for H.A.C., get mentioned over and over again unnecessarily. There’s also some aspects where it would be good to have more detail, like how Oz noticed this phenomenon in the first place, or what’s happening in the world and society as a whole as the animals attack, rather than isolated incidents described in detail. (This would be possible within the narrative, as the story alternates between Oz’s first-person narrative, and third-person descriptions of scenes where Oz is not present.) I also noticed at least one continuity error: when heading for Botswana, Oz mentions that he has packed his red woolly hat – yet it is later seen in his apartment while he is gone.
  • There are quite a few things that are brought up, then dropped and never mentioned again. (This is the audiobook version, but it is apparently unabridged.) Oz and Chloe, while asleep together, have the exact same dream where they are attacked by bears – this is never explained. When Oz first meets Chloe, she explains that she is studying a dramatic surge in migrating bird populations – this is also never explained. When Oz becomes indirectly responsible for somebody’s death (and he certainly blames himself at the time), the story cuts to five years later and there’s no indication that this incident has had any lasting impact on him, because he never brings it up. (Also, by the nature of this death, you’d think Oz would face criminal charges – again, this is never addressed.)
  • I didn’t like the ending, but I won’t spoil it.

All in all, Zoo is fairly entertaining, but could have been much better than it actually is. Rating: 2/5.

About R.J. Southworth

Hi there. I've been blogging since January 2014, and I like to talk about all sorts of things: book reviews, film reviews, writing, science, history, or sometimes just sharing miscellaneous thoughts. Thanks for visiting my blog, and I hope you find something that interests you!
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