Review: 438 Days: An Extraordinary True Story of Survival at Sea

I think this is a much better book than my rating gives it credit for. There’s always something intensely subjective about a review, something that often has nothing to do with the quality of the text itself, that goes into the final “what do I rate this” decision. It could be the reader’s mood that particular day, it could be the juxtaposition of what else the reader is working on at the time, or it could be the phase of the moon or Saturn being in retrograde, or whatever.

I know that I personally tend to read in cycles, where I’ll focus on a particular topic or subject at a time, read through a few books, then move on to the next one. I haven’t really been in a survival story mood lately, which begs the question: is that my fault or the books? I leave it to you to decide.

Regardless, there’s a lot to like here. Franklin has an excellent writing style and keeps a firm grip on the direction of the narrative (ironically the opposite of how survivor Alvarenga’s boat drifts aimlessly across the ocean). There’s nothing worse in a nonfiction adventure story than an author who insists on inserting him or herself into the text, which can work if it’s done well . . . but it’s usually not done well. Franklin has a style like a good investigative journalist, interested in getting the facts and the truth as much as possible, but without editorializing on the subject.

My biggest problem with the story comes from the fact that one’s world becomes very, very small when one is adrift at sea. This is a huge revelation, I know, so bear with me. There are plenty of details to keep things go; tropical storms, whale sharks, water spouts, and the perpetual struggle to survive, but at some point when you’re adrift, the cycle settles in: food, water, fatigue, despair, sunburn. At some point, we’ve gotten through the fact that you have to eat some pretty disgusting things to survive and it’s hard to keep your hopes up.

Overall, if you’re hungry (heh) for a good survival at sea story, I think this book will deliver on exactly what you’re looking for. Or if you want to meditate on “how much worse can it get” for a person struggling to survive, this book is for you. If you’re not a survival story kind of reader, though, I think you can drift on.

To The (Potential) Spacefish Of Titan; Alas, We Hardly Knew Ye

Titan is my favorite moon. Well, okay, aside from our moon. There’s a lot to appreciate about our moon. It’s very pretty to look at and we do sort of owe it our existence as terrestial-based lifeforms, what with its role in creating the tides and all. So I do owe the moon quite a bit, as much as one can “owe” a celestial body.

But there are other moons in our solar system and of those non-Earth moons, Titan is my favorite.

It’s a moon with its own atmosphere! It has lakes of liquid methane on its surface! Its particular combination of dense atmosphere and low gravity means that a human on the surface of Titan could strap on a pair of wings to one’s arm and fly. You know, assuming the intense cold and/or toxic atmosphere wasn’t instantly fatal.

It’s also the most distant object we’ve ever landed a man-made object on! We have a picture of its surface!

The surface of Titan, courtesy of the Cassini-Huygens lander.

Admittedly, this is not the most impressive picture ever taken. It’s downright lame when you consider the beautiful shots that the Curiosity Rover is posting to its Twitter account!  This picture kinda sucks . . . unless you consider what it really represents.

This isn’t Mars. This is a moon in the outer solar system. It might be smudgy, it might be low res, it might be a picture of a field of rocks but this is the most distant land we’ve ever laid eyes on.

When talking about moons, the hot topic these days is the potential for life. We know that moons like Europa (around Jupiter) and Enceladus (around Saturn) have sub-surface oceans that might be just suitable to support life.

I’ve always held out hope that Titan, which also is believed to have a giant sub-surface ocean, might end up being the one, the first place in the solar system outside of Earth where we encounter life.

If I’m very, very, very honest and I admit that I’m allowing myself to dream, we’ll land a rover and find little spacefish. I realize that it’s much more likely the first definitive proof of alien life will be little microbes.

It seems a new report may have knocked Titan out of the running as a candidate for life, much to my dismay:

New research casts doubt on the possibility of finding life as we know it on Saturn’s moon, Titan. The giant ocean believed to exist below the moon’s surface has long been thought a place where life could exist . . . In a paper published earlier this month, NASA researchers say they have found evidence that the ocean could be “as salty as Earth’s Dead Sea.”

It’s possible that Titan might have had life in the past and there will be cool remains to discover. Even if there isn’t any life to be found, it’s still an endlessly fascinating place.

But if it’s as salty as the Dead Sea? There’s a reason why we call it that, after all.

And yes, I realize that even the Dead Sea does have trace amounts of microbial life. It’s still not the same. I want Titan’s oceans to be filled with crazy spacefish and weird star-plants!