Pocket, 1999, 385 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-01677-6
By now, you should know the rant: Some will argue that after decades of publishing fiction tightly segregated in marketing categories, enough is enough. Critics demand cross-fertilization! Authors are rebelling against the straightjackets of genres! Readers are picking books blindfolded! Everywhere, the crowd chants “Fusion! Down with genres! Mix’em up!”
I don’t think so, but that doesn’t preclude the odd good cross-over book from time to time. Tess Gerritsen’s Gravity is one such book, a medical thriller with one interesting twist… it’s set on the International Space Station.
Interestingly enough, you’d expect this crossover between medical thriller and science-fiction to be penned by an author previously associated with SF—if only because authors in other genres are usually reluctant to do research on space technology and associated material. But not so with Gravity and Tess Gerritsen, whose best-known previous novels are unarguably medical thrillers. (She also has nine romantic thrillers to her credit, but is now exclusively “marketed” as a medical thriller writer) Gerritsen has obviously done her research, and the space station segments are lovingly detailed with exactitude to rival the best and most obsessive hard-SF writers. (And, though it’s considerably incorrect to dwell on such details, her photo on the back jacket shows that she’s a real hottie. Ahem.)
The result of Gerritsen’s work is unusually invigorating, attacking a familiar SF premise with an abundance of hard-edged details that are real now.
And what a lovely premise it is: After a slight accident with one of the ISS’s biological experiment, doctor Emma Watson—newly sent up as mission medical specialist after an accident that befalls her predecessor—is helpless to prevent the contamination of her colleagues with a mysterious and deadly disease. After NASA decides to quarantine the station rather than bring back the virulent plague to Earth, well, it’s up to her to find a solution…
The real fun of Gravity isn’t in the premise, nor the overall story or conclusion: It’s in seeing the gradual tightening of the screws taking place in the first two-thirds of the book, where the claustrophobia of the ISS multiplies the creep factor of the disease tenfold, and all the possible options to save our protagonist are gradually stripped away.
This tension culminates with a memorable shuttle landing halfway through, and the revelation of the nature of the sickness killing off the ISS astronauts. After that, well, things are somewhat obvious. Paradoxally, tension falls as possible paths for survival are reduced to exactly one. It’s a small letdown, but not one serious enough to sink the book… though it definitely strips it of any superlative mention.
All the way through, Gerritsen manages to deliver an excellent mix of limpid writing and convincing details. It’s not easy to juggle both astronautic and medical jargon at the same time, but here she achieves both with an admirable deftness. (“Combines the tension of ER and APOLLO 13” raves the New York Post on the back cover. Amen.)
Gerritsen even goes back to her romantic literary origins by including a strong “estrangered couple” relationship in the mix. Have I mentioned the expression “genre fusion” in my introduction?
While it climaxes before impact and recycles elements that will be familiar to avid genre readers, Tess Gerritsen’s Gravity remains a wonderfully unusual thriller. Impressive research, good use of telling details and an exceptional initial heightening of tension should be enough to make you pick it up if you’re in the mood for this type of novel. I’m definitely curious about Gerritsen’s other novels now.