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Oxygen by Olson & Ingermanson1.5 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsOxygen is a Christian SF novel. That alone should tell you whether or not you care to read it. But even though I freely admit to being an unbeliever, this is not the reason I’m panning it. Some of SF’s most feted work (Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, the original novella of Blish’s A Case of Conscience, among others) has dealt with religion in one form or another. And Oxygen, for a Christian novel, keeps its religious content to a bare minimum, avoiding the sledgehammer evangelizing of the infamous Left Behind series.

No, what’s wrong with Oxygen is that, despite a handful of tense scenes, it’s mainly a by-the-numbers potboiler, awash in movie-of-the-week melodrama and predictable action. It’s no surprise the authors repeatedly reference the film Apollo 13 in the text (when they aren’t referencing Star Trek, that is). This is the story they’ve essentially tried to rewrite, with Mars substituting for the moon, a couple of women added to the flight crew, and sabotage standing in for plain old equipment failure. Unfortunately, the results here don't recall the popular Tom Hanks film so much as they do the much cheesier Mission to Mars.

Authors Olson, a biochemist, and Ingermanson, a physicist, have patterned their writing after mainstream McThrillers rather than hard SF by respected genre luminaries. Thus the book is written in the frantic, staccato style of a supermarket bestseller (“Bob checked his watch again. 10:55. Almost showtime.”), with the kinds of corrugated cardboard characters you’d expect from same. Sure, it’s readable as all git-out, and once our crew actually gets into space there are some dramatically effective scenes in which the very real dangers of space flight, both technical and psychological, are depicted believably. But there’s a lot of silliness you have to plow through as well.

Let’s itemize. We get the nasty NASA bureaucrat who only cares about his career and doesn’t give a damn about dying kids in wheelchairs (so of course he must be an atheist). We get the gruff but good-hearted mission commander who says things like “As long as I’m commander on this mission, you’re my number one mechanic. Got it?” We get foreshadowing delivered with all the subtlety of a kick to the jewels. We get chapter headings that include, X-Files-ishly, the date and time. We get the obligatory mismatched hero and heroine who, of course, are destined to fall for each other. And let’s not forget the Dark Secret From The Past that our heroine hopes never gets out. If you used a Hackwork for Dummies guidebook you couldn’t come up with a more comprehensive package of clichés.

Still, scientifically, Olson and Ingermanson know their stuff, but it hardly compensates for the eye-rolling characterization or poor plot logic. The protagonist is one Valkerie Jansen, a microbial ecologist who is brought onto the Ares 10 mission because she’s supposedly the one person in all the world who can settle the Martian microbes issue once and for all. We meet her in an absurd opening scene in which she is choking to death on the slope of an Alaskan volcano that’s venting sulfur dioxide (surviving only by breathing the air from her jeep’s tires!), because somehow she wasn’t bright enough to bring proper breathing apparatus. Are we quite sure this is someone qualified to fly to Mars?

There are about eighty pages of TV-movie story set-up that follow. Bob Kaganovski, the mission’s engineer, is wary of the unusually high security, and, nosing around, even finds evidence of stolen explosive material. Yet, astonishingly, he doesn’t report this because he’s afraid the bad publicity will only provide ammo for a crusading anti-space senator who wants NASA shut down altogether! Let's see: bad press vs. getting blown out of the sky. Hmm....Bob, you need to get your priorities straight. (Okay, it’s true Bob comes upon this information through some illegal hacking, but still, even the worst jail cell in the world is preferable to disaster in outer space. Hasn’t he heard of leaving an anonymous tip?)

To be fair, once the voyage gets underway, the book improves somewhat. There is a sense of place that makes the danger feel tangible. And when the bomb goes off, leaving our crew to face the possibility that there’s only enough oxygen for two of the four of them, the authors keep a suspenseful edge. Still, this whole time, you’re saying to yourself, “Apollo 13Apollo 13Apollo 13.” The book’s a knockoff, pure and simple, right down to the NASA chief on the ground who shouts “Failure is not an option!” Evidently, neither is originality.

Followed by The Fifth Man.