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Onyx reviews: Gravity by Tess Gerritsen

Gravity is the latest medical thriller by former intern Tess Gerritsen, who is often favorably compared to Robin Cook and Michael Crichton for the accuracy and detail of her intricate novels.

The comparison is well-deserved. Gravity is The Andromeda Strain set on the International Space Station. The novel is one long rocket ride from the depths of the Galapagos Rift to the heights of a shuttle orbit. The book starts the adrenaline pumping on page two and relentlessly ramps up the excitement from there. It is a novel best read in one sitting as there are no convenient lags in the action where the reader might be tempted to set the book aside for the night.

Dr. Emma Watson is sent up to the space station ahead of schedule to relieve an astronaut whose wife has been critically injured in a car accident. Shortly after her arrival, another of Emma's fellow crew members is accidentally exposed to something from one of the on-board science experiments. When he falls ill, Watson has to try to make crucial medical diagnoses with the sparse equipment on the station. It is a test of her mettle with the whole world is watching. The pressure to make the right call is immense - evacuating the sick astronaut means either that the entire crew has to abandon the station in its single escape pod, or else a very risky emergency shuttle launch must be pulled together on short notice.

To complicate matters, Emma's counterpart at Mission Control is her soon-to-be-ex husband, Jack. After seven years of marriage, the couples attempt to negotiate a civilized divorce settlement had been unraveling just as Emma was called away for her six month mission.

The medical situation on board the space station worsens and fears of an incurable epidemic spread among NASA and other agencies. NASA soon finds its authority usurped by shadowy X Files government figures.

The title of the novel refers to the fact that in labs on earth, bacteria on a glass slide can only grow in two dimensions. Free of gravity in space, though, they can grow three-dimensionally, with unpredictable results. The scientific and medical detail of the novel is solid, believable and, at times, unflinching. The description of the hypothetical effects of a crash on the internal organs of an astronaut is vivid beyond imagination.

Local readers will enjoy reading sections of the book which are set in and around Johnson Space Center in Clear Lake. Gerritsen's research consultants included many NASA employees who helped her to create a very true-to-life rendition of astronaut training, life on board a shuttle mission and on the nascent space station.

Most of the characters, other than the Watsons, are little more than two-dimensional caricatures: the depressed Russian, the icy cold British astronaut, the genius adventurer whose invention plays a pivotal part in the novel's climax. However, the pace of Gravity leaves little time to worry much about character's feelings and motivations as crisis begets crisis. A shuttle loaded with infected astronauts is forced to make an emergency landing in the White Sands Missile Grounds after a crippling collision with the space station, reminiscent of recent events onboard the MIR station. The remaining astronauts on the station scramble to find a way to rid their claustrophobic living quarters of an increasingly aggressive disease which appears to be evolving as it spreads.

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