Sunday, August 14, 2011

"Sex on the Moon" by Ben Mezrich

Sex on the Moon is the true story of Thad Roberts, a NASA co-op intern who orchestrates a Mission: Impossible-style heist to steal and sell lunar rocks from the organization at which he works. Even though I was born long after NASA's pinnacle with the moon landing, I'd say I still have a healthy sense of awe and admiration for what they do. There's something noble in an organization devoted to exploration and discovery.  It's that view of NASA which colors Mezrich's story in Sex on the Moon and makes it all the more fascinating.

Sex on the Moon is told from Thad's point of view, and he initially comes off as a sympathetic character.  After being disowned by his Mormon parents for having pre-marital sex, he decides he wants to be an astronaut, and he puts in enormous time and energy taking the courses and extracurriculars necessary to be an appealing candidate to NASA. He lands a prestigious co-op at the organization, where he flourishes, making contacts with noted scientists and being invited to participate in important experiments.  He's a man who is going places; he's well-liked by his peers and colleagues, and he seems to stand a good chance of being hired by NASA after graduating.

Then, everything changes.  He begins to become obsessed with stealing lunar rocks, first thinking about it--he claims--only as a "thought experiment" and then becoming more dedicated to the idea.  This is where I lost him as a character.  Why would he risk everything he had for the heist?  Thad quickly dissolves into an unstable man.  He begins having an affair with a 20-year-old fellow intern (his wife is back in Utah) and decides he's completely in love after knowing her for a few weeks; he's convinced selling the rocks will allow them to do anything, even though he's intending to sell for a rather measly $100,000.

It's hard to see whether Thad's behavior is a result of psychosis or youthful obliviousness.  He's obviously an intelligent man, but he's also incredibly stupid.  A man who's triple majored and impressed NASA scientists, who invents a crazy heist and manages to steal lunar rocks, also tries to sell the rocks by randomly emailing members of European mineral societies! (it's illegal to own lunar rocks in the U.S.)  It's this act that becomes his undoing, when one member of the Antwerp society contacts the F.B.I.

If I had a hard time understanding Thad's actions, I had an even harder time understanding why his girlfriend and confidante also decide to take part.  It doesn't appear that they were interviewed for the book, so their rationales are completely missing.

Mezrich seems to sympathize with Thad more than Thad deserves, though that choice does have an interesting effect on the reader.  I began the book liking and cheering for Thad, but at one moment I had to stop and realize he had completely lost my sympathy--he was greedy, selfish, and deluded, and he betrayed the trust of people who sincerely wanted to help him succeed.

The story is fascinating and keeps a relatively quick pace, though the heist itself takes a much smaller portion of the book than I imagined it would.  It's a completely engaging story, both for its inside look into NASA and for the crazy character study it offers.

The audiobook version of Sex on the Moon is narrated by Casey Affleck, which was fun, though he sometimes added a reflective tone that wasn't necessary.  Nonetheless, this is a great car trip book that kept my interest.

(Lastly, because it relates to nothing else: One complaint I do have is Mezrich's frequent use of the term "coed" to refer to female college students. Absolutely no one uses that term in real life, and it certainly wouldn't have been in use when the story takes place in the late '90s and early 2000s.  Its sexist connotations made me cringe whenever I heard it--let's all agree it can definitively be retired.)

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