Oxygen by John Olson and Randy Ingermanson is a novel of an attempt by NASA in the near future [originally published in 2001 and set in 2012-2014 it is easy enough to imagine it being in the near future still] attempt to make it to Mars. There will be SPOILERS in what follows.
The story is intense from the beginning to the end. A mission to Mars is something that would be stressful no matter what, but the characters set the stage for the suspense early on. The story basically goes from the recruitment of Valkerie [not Valkyrie] for the mission through trying to ensure budget cuts don’t sink it, to launch, some major and nearly catastrophic accidents, and finally to landing on the surface of Mars.
All throughout there is an undertone of intensity built up from suspicious of terrorism, sabotage, and more. The book as a whole is intensely character driven, with much of the action taking place alongside lengthy conversations and internal dialogue. However, this never seems to slow the story down or impact the pacing in a negative fashion. The dramatic interactions of the crew members and others is always interesting to read and it all feels intensely “human.” There is something that is just thoroughly real about these characters Olson and Ingermanson have created that makes them entirely believable.
The journey of the characters is also worth pursuing as they go from trust to suspicion after an apparent bomb turns the trip to Mars into a race against the loss of oxygen. The way this develops over time is, again, completely believable because of the way the characters have been developed so well. Then, as they pull together towards the end, it is again completely in character. I can’t emphasize enough how much these characters feel like “real” people.
There is also plenty of neat near-future science fiction in there too, from what it would be like to try to get funding for NASA to get to Mars–including the politics and media circuses–to the accounts of action surrounding the launch and traveling of the rocket and ship.
Alongside all of this there are some quiet undertones of faith and the intersections of Christianity and science. Some people picket the training ground of the Mars mission, arguing that the whole thing was just an attempt to “prove evolution.” The main characters–particularly Bob and Valkerie, have their own perspectives. Bob, a Roman Catholic, takes evolution largely in stride. Valkerie, a “born again” Christian, has struggled quite a bit in her Christian walk. Too often, she argues, people portrayed science as the bane of religion and viewed her training as a scientist with deep skepticism. She almost lost her faith due to this, but was carried through by a deep relational experience with God.
The way the authors–each with PhDs in science (Olson = biochemistry and Ingermanson in theoretical physics)–portray these brief but insightful discussions is deeply appreciated. I’m not sure if it is reflective of their own experience, but it certainly is a reflection of mine, and I’m not even a scientist! My own faith has been called into question–and even called apostasy!–simply for not adhering to certain perspectives on creation. Would that more Christians would find themselves called to insightful, genuine dialogue on this topic, like the characters of this book, rather than compelled to shout each other down! For those who’d like to read more on this topic, please check out my other site’s page on the Origins Debate.
Overall, Oxygen is a simply fantastic read, all-around. I enjoyed it immensely and recommend it highly to my readers.
+Suspense is constant throughout the novel
+Feels incredibly “human”
+Real sense of mystery
+Interesting insight into science and faith issues
-Some questions about how it treats men and women
Grade: A “A fantastic character-driven thrill ride to Mars.”
Overall, Oxygen reminds me quite a bit of a Ben Bova novel (a very positive association) with less discussion of the science/universe and more character development. I enjoyed it enormously.
J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” in which I discuss many topics in theology and philosophy, including the science/faith debate. I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!
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John Olson and Randy Ingermanson, Oxygen (Colorado Springs, CO: Marcher Lord [Now Enclave] Press, 2011), second edition.