Review | Rocket Girl: the story of Mary Sherman Morgan by George D. Morgan

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I really was excited to read Rocket Girl. It seems like the kind of thing that’s right up my alley. Lady scientist? Check. Historical timing? Check. Not too long? Check.

Mary Sherman Morgan was born to a poor farming family in North Dakota in the 1920s. She ran away from her family’s farm after finishing high school in an attempt to gain her degree in chemistry. Before she could finish, her life was diverted by World War II. In the next few years, she would go into the job field testing explosive chemical cocktails, leading to a major contribution in the creation of rocket fuel. Her work would be pivotal to the United States efforts to put a satellite in space following von Braun’s emigration to the US and the USSR’s successful launch of Sputnik.

Mary Sherman Morgan has a very interesting life story. Her route to scientific contribution was far from the norm, including a non-traditional education and scandal.

Unfortunately, I think her story would have been better off in the hands of someone other than her son, George D. Morgan.

I wish I had known that the story was written by her son earlier, though. I didn’t realize until I’d started reading. The premise had been enough to hook me. I have a lot of problems with biographies written by family members. Mostly, family members are often not trained to do the research that makes for a thorough biography, but, worse, family members often tell the story they wish they knew rather than the one evidence supports.

George Morgan begins the story with the preface that his mother was extremely private. She didn’t keep records, didn’t tell stories, didn’t take photographs. This would make her story hard for him to tell. But, he states, he had a personal mission: to tell him mother’s story and give her the credit she never took for herself.

The story is told largely in a narrative form. This is one of my biggest problems. While writing Mary’s story, Morgan chose to place it in narrative, but didn’t integrate his citations into the narrative. So, scenes with narrative and descriptions often come off as being more imagined than factual.

The story seems rife with speculation and a kind of willful ignorance of what people were telling Morgan. Worse still, that speculation is often dropped, unsupported, or outright contradicted. At one point, Morgan speaks about his mother, wondering if she had some form of obsessive compulsive disorder. He claims that this explains her behavior towards him. His mother’s colleagues and husband all claim to have never seen any evidence of it. He relays that his sisters were rather dubious of the claim, but still says that his research into OCD matches with the behaviors his mother exhibited. He never says what these may have been or shows obsessive behaviors in her story. The book is riddled with things like this.

I was left wondering how much of his story was similarly unsupported and how much evidence was ignored.

Mary’s story is sandwiched between the stories of von Braun and Sputnik. This would have been great had I not already been fairly familiar with the history of space flight and if it didn’t absolutely dominate the text. Only about a third of the story was actually about Mary. Moreover, there’s a good deal of the story that is dedicated to Morgan’s process of getting a play he wrote about his mother to be produced. There’s very little about the company Mary worked for, how they became involved in the United States space missions, or how Morgan came to know, work for, and contribute to their experiments. It just was an absolutely unsatisfactory balance for me.

I do think that there’s a contribution here, though. Mary Sherman Morgan, by the accounts of her colleagues, contributed greatly to the development of the chemical cocktail used in rocket fuel. Perhaps by bringing her story to light, a more equipped biographer will pick up her story.


Review: The Martian by Andy Weir

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This book is a fantastically varied tale that is compelling and believable science fiction.

In Andy Weir’s The Martian, astronaut Mark Watney is one of the first humans to be on Mars, number 17, to be exact. His six man crew is supposed to land and stay on Mars for 31 days, but, on day 6, a massive sandstorm forces an early evacuation and termination of the mission. The crew scrambles to leave, and Mark gets knocked out. His life sign monitors flat-line, and the crew is forced to leave Mark’s body on Mars. There’s just one problem:

Mark isn’t dead.

He’s now left to try and survive alone on Mars until the next mission to Mars lands, over four years later.

The Martian by Andy Weir

There’s a lot going on in this book, so first things first. Let’s talk about Mark. A very big chunk of the book is Mark’s mission logs, which he starts taking when he realizes he’s stuck and is deciding that he can, in fact, survive for a rescue mission. The logs read much like a personal journal, and we get a sense for Mark’s personality. Mark, we’re told, deals with much of his stress through humor. The first chapter or so makes sure we’re aware of this aspect of his personality. To be honest, I was a little turned off by it at first. Weir lays it on a little thick. But, the more Mark focuses on his mission and survival, the more balanced his voice becomes.

Mark is a very creative thinker. Sometimes it was a little disappointing that we didn’t get to see his brain working through the problems he faced. Instead, the reader sees a lot of the post-idea formation. The actual thought process doesn’t really make it into his logs, but, hey, that’s what a log is for: recording the actions and reasons behind them for future review. We do, however, get a lot of Mark’s reactions to his survival missions and problem-solving attempts. That’s probably where some of Weir’s best work is. Mark’s records where he is panicking are very believable.

The story is counter-balanced by third-person narrative interludes of what is happening in the NASA control centers. Because they can’t always communicate, the NASA employees who find Mark and work to rescue him are often bustling. Weir very often shows the organization’s thought process and how different it is, at times, from Mark’s. What is very cool in this is that we get to see the way that the thought processes, though different, often come to similar conclusions. It also provides a contrast between the more organic self-preservation attempts Mark is making and the rigid institutional attempts that are working to bring him home. This results in some clashes, but the frustration is on both sides and their cooperation is that much more valuable for it.

The only thing I occasionally didn’t like was the quick problem-resolution sequences that occurred. It sometimes seemed that there were very quick solutions to the problems Mark had. When he was looking for a food supply to augment his provisions, the solution was straight forward. Surprisingly there were very few hiccups with implementing the solution. I expected more sustained problems. Another instance of this was when Mark is travelling. There are some very serious issues with his travel plans, some of which, we’re told by the NASA narratives, he couldn’t see coming until it was too late. It felt like there were a lot of times that Mark’s problems were overblown in their presentation. That being said, the story is very fast paced and we see a lot of creative thinking (on both Mark and Weir’s behalves).

As far as “realistic” science fiction goes, this isn’t just enjoyable, it’s very well presented. The characters are likable, there is a sense of urgency, and the story is compelling. A solid 4 out of 5.

Andy Weir talks about how he wrote the story here:

I received this book for free for an honest review via Blogging for Books.