Marianne J. Dyson

Review of Remnants, The Mayflower Project (Book 1 in series of 14)

Reviewed by: Marianne Dyson, November 18, 2003

Even though this book has been out for several years, I decided to review it for scientific accuracy because the series has become quite popular.

I want to say up front that I enjoyed reading this book. It was well-paced, had believable characters, and told a fascinating story. However, it contained a lot of inaccurate science and engineering.

The basic plot is that in 2011, an asteroid is about to destroy Earth, and 80 people, the "remnants," are given a chance to survive via launch on a specially outfitted space shuttle. The asteroid's approach is kept secret, but a 12-year-old genius named Jobs figures out what's going on. He and his family and his best friend Mo Steel are on the list to be saved. His would-be girlfriend is not. The bad guy is the older of two brothers not on the list who plans to make room by force. Jobs fails to save the girlfriend, and then watches her die on national TV as an early asteroid fragment hits. The bad guy kills the pilot and is killed. Other characters, who are to become major characters in later books, are introduced. The shuttle launches, and the Earth is destroyed. The book ends with Jobs waking up in some unknown place.

The idea that an asteroid could hit Earth is nothing new. It is generally accepted that an impact either wiped out the dinosaurs or was the last straw in their demise. The author states the "Rock" is 26 miles in diameter. This is huge for an asteroid - bigger than Ida! Its existence (because of its gravitational effects) and approach would be well known and anticipated. Yes, a few rocks have whizzed past at lunar distances without warning, but these were small! And by 2011, the tracking network should have found all the big ones. In the book, a reporter is given space on the shuttle for his family in exchange for keeping quiet. This might work if the shuttle is launching a year in advance of the impact, but certainly not a week ahead! By that time, people would be able to see the Rock for themselves with a small telescope.

The book begins with Jobs riding in a self-controlled robotic car in California. I'm willing to believe that this technology could be available in less than ten years. It is much less believable that Ford or the state of California or parents would allow such a car to take children for drives alone. Ford would not want the liability, the state would not be able to outlaw old hippies who insisted on driving their antique cars in ways unpredictable to AI's no matter how smart they are (we ARE talking about California drivers!), and parents could never afford the insurance even if they could be convinced such a car were safe. So although this is a fun idea, I don't consider it very plausible. Still, it is not impossible, and that's all that's required of the science and technology in science fiction.

The next technological device introduced is "The Pipe," a 3.8 mile-long tube slide whose purpose is apparently to show us that Mo is a fearless adrenaline junkie. Again, although it is possible that such a thing could be built, with regulations preventing even "dangerous" merry-go-rounds at playgrounds today, I think the chances are slim that a 12-year-old would be allowed to get a ticket and risk injury or death speeding down it at 70mph.

Both of these technical innovations were put to excellent use in showing the personalities of the two main characters and establishing that this was a world of the future.

The planned means of escape for the remnant is a converted space shuttle called the Mayflower. As a former shuttle flight controller, I hardly know where to begin to explain all the reasons why this thing would never fly. Supposedly, they have stripped off the thermal tiles which makes no sense at all. The book claims they aren't needed because there will be no entry. Why send people to another world if they will burn up trying to land? How is the temperature of the vehicle controlled in space? Besides, tiles weigh almost nothing, so wouldn't help compensate for the added weight of the modifications.

The inside of the shuttle payload bay doors contains the radiator panels. The doors must be opened immediately after reaching orbit to provide cooling. (A water system is used for launch, and water is heavy!) Pods on the wings would interfere with the doors, even if the extra weight didn't cause the wings to break off during launch. Even without pods or cargo, the shuttle is too heavy to make it to the moon, let alone leave the solar system. The US government has no engines powerful enough to lift that kind of mass beyond Earth orbit. But assuming that some new engines are invented in the next few years and the shuttle got to the moon, it could not land. The shuttle needs an atmosphere for braking, enough gravity to deploy the landing gear, and a smooth surface to land on. It would make much more sense to have the passenger module deployed in Earth orbit and attached to a booster/plasma engine.

This story is set in 2011. Where is the International Space Station? Have the Russians, who have been launching rockets longer than anyone else, given up their space program? What about the Chinese and Europeans and Indians and Japanese? Surely, other countries would send up rockets with supplies in trade for slots on the shuttle and Soyuz spacecraft. It is just not reasonable to think that in a world that has automated cars and other technological advances that the only means of reaching space is one old US shuttle.

The cargo bay is filled with berths for putting people into some sort of suspended animation. It is nice to think that NASA might someday invent this technology, but there isn't even any funding for closed-life-support systems right now. But assuming that it does exist, the tanks will require power to circulate fluids and maintain temperature. Where will this power come from? The shuttle uses fuel cell batteries for power. These batteries turn hydrogen and oxygen into water. Without constant new supplies of hydrogen and oxygen, they stop working. The shuttle would not have enough energy to keep the lights on for more than a few weeks even without the extra drain of 80 tanks of people. A giant solar array could solve this problem - but it would take up the whole cargo bay.

The solar sail in the story is a propulsion system, not an electrical system, and would have to be miles and miles across. Otherwise, it would be like trying to move a multi-ton shuttle with the equivalent of a kite. Also, using a solar sail to fly towards the sun and then outward is a very tricky navigational problem.

Why head out of the solar system when the Moon and Mars are both available for homestead and/or temporary shelter? Even at a million miles an hour (the books says they will go this fast via the sails), they'd only cover about 9 billion miles in a year. It would take them 2,000 years to get to the nearest star. Without replacing parts, we can't even run most cars for more than a few years. The obvious answer to survival is to send bunches of unmanned rockets with supplies and survival gear to the Moon or Mars and follow with colonists.

An interstellar journey would be a sure way to kill off the remnant, either through lack of power, food, water, equipment malfunction, or radiation. The books says the tanks have a lead radiation shield. I guess we can blame the dentists for the common misperception that lead stops radiation. Lead stops X-rays, not solar protons or cosmic rays particles that cause the most damage to biological tissue. X-rays are a danger in space, but also serve as an early warning system for solar flares because they move at the speed of light. A solar flare's x-ray burst doesn't last very long, and is most likely survivable. Protons follow a few hours later. Some of these pass harmlessly through the body. Others crash into bone and cause cell death and mutations that may cause cancer later. If too high a dose is received too quickly, the body is overwhelmed and dies. When protons hit lead, they slow down and create a cascade of particles that can cause more damage than the original particle. What stops radiation best is water, and dirt is a good second choice - both vital to growing plants. Besides, lead is heavy. The shuttle would never get off the ground with a pod made of lead!

The finale of this book is the asteroid's impact with Earth. The author would have been better off sticking to a generic emotional description of this doomsday asteroid instead of giving it a specific 26-mile diameter. While it is true that much smaller objects have caused terrific damage, most scientists accept that Earth survived a strike by a planet half its size. (Earth's diameter is about 8,000 miles.) That impact (with a 4,000-mile diameter object) splashed a mere 2% of the mass of the Earth into space. 1% of that fell back to the surface, and the rest formed the Moon. A 26-mile asteroid has a mass about 60 million times less than Earth. It would wreck havoc on the surface, but no way would the planet break apart as described in the book. I don't think it would make any change to the rotation at all, but if it did, it would be as likely to speed it up as to slow it down (the book claims it comes to a stop!). The collision that formed the moon sped up the Earth's rotation from about 24 to around 5 hours. (It has since slowed because of tidal tugging.)

One plot point that made me angry was having the shuttle commander kill himself. I suppose the author needed to have the adults out of the way to set up the next book, but there were other ways to make that happen. I've known a lot of astronauts and pilots in my life, and no matter what happens - even if the Earth really did split apart - a mission commander will do his duty. His skills (the tricky navigation I mentioned earlier, plus maintaining systems on the ship) are vital to the survival of the passengers, and in this case, the whole human race. He would never jeopardize their survival no matter what he had to suffer personally. I find it deplorable to let children think that any astronaut or ship captain would ever commit suicide.

My major complaint with this book is that by using the shuttle, a particular year, and a specific asteroid size, the book seems to be based on real or realistic science and technology. Yes, this book is fiction. But it leaves kids with wrong ideas such as that lead stops radiation and that large asteroids can sneak up on us unawares and split the Earth into pieces. It is the author's and publisher's responsibility to check these things before stating them as if they are facts.

I give this book no points for plausibility, 1 point for clarity of description, 1 point for a new perspective on the old idea of an asteroid impact, 1 point for readability (the dialog was great), no points for science because so much of it was incorrect, and 1 point for interesting characters. Total: 4 points. Remnants is a fast-paced adventure with interesting characters set in a very unlikely future. Rating: Okay.

Title: Remnants, The Mayflower Project (book 1 in series of 14)
Author: K. A. Applegate
Ages: 9-12
Number of Pages: 178
Format: paperback
Publisher: Scholastic
Date: June 2001
Retail Price: $4.99 ($1.99 version at grocery)
ISBN: 0590879979

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