Sex on the Moon

Author(s): Ben Mezrich
Publisher: William Heinemann
Pages: 320
ISBN: 9780434020799
ASIN: 0434020796
Release Date: 14th July 2011


Thad Roberts will go down in history as the NASA intern who threw away the prospects of a glittering career potentially leading to becoming an astronaut when he stole 100 grams of moon rock from his employers. Roberts was a straight-A student from Utah of Mormon upbringing, talented yet lacking direction and living in the shadows of his elder siblings. He harboured a dream of becoming a placement student at NASA, yet despite his scholastic endeavours he had neither the vocational nor the interpersonal skills to make the grade. Through a programme of calculated re-invention he inveigled himself on to the payroll – this was sadly not to be the only occasion his bosses were to be hoodwinked.

Ben Mezrich is the journalist responsible for The Accidental Billionaires which tells the story of Harvard students who went on to develop the Facebook website. Here he creates a racy account of Roberts' crime which at time verges on hero worship. After Roberts completed his 100 months prison term he brokered a deal whereby Mezrich authored a tale almost wholly from Roberts' perspective. Given this starting point, it is hardly any wonder Mezrich's narrative is so skewed in Roberts' favour. We get intimate details on the NASA pool parties and Monday curry nights – events where Roberts, once the timid and shy schoolboy, ebulliently holds court to the entertainment of stalwart engineers and scientists. A young man with only one prior sexual partner had become the alpha male, the top dog with the magnetism to draw in the 'hard bodies' in their 'tiny bikinis' if we are to believe what Mezrich and/or Roberts is telling us.

This just doesn't ring true. Neither do the three relationships central to the plot. Thad was married to the love of his life Sonya. She was beautiful and had hopes of becoming a model. They were inseparable and hopelessly in love. She took additional manual jobs to fund his ambition to get to NASA. Yet despite this grunt work and devotion as soon as he moved to Houston she apparently lost interest in Roberts and spent her time attending vacuous model-type parties. Mezrich makes no suggestion that the marriage failed due to any neglect from Roberts. Then Roberts meets Rebecca, also impossibly beautiful and dutiful, and in the space of their four week relationship, was happy to be Roberts' accomplice in crime without question. Finally there is Sandra, a Roberts confidante and presumably wannabe girlfriend who was complicit and went along in the caper for the ride. All these characters are crafted in the book as two-dimensional and half-witted, but none contributed to the text, so the reader is left pondering how Roberts managed to coerce them, and how they tolerated the egotistical, arrogant yet naïve Roberts.

This leads to the book's biggest problem. There is no real analysis of Roberts' motivation. Sure he was broke, but so were his intern contemporaries, so his situation was no different from the norm. The idea that $100,000 (the fee he agreed to sell the rocks for) would solve his problems and provide a nest-egg for life is palpably ludicrous yet Mezrich fails to pursue this. The idea that Roberts with his supposed high intelligence would hatch a slipshod plan riddled with holes to sell the rocks over the Internet is jaw-droppingly stupid – don't forget the crime was committed not during the pioneering days of the Internet, but at a time when most users would have an awareness of audits and traces and IP discovery.

It appears that Mezrich has jettisoned any pretence of censure at the expense of pacey narrative flow in the grand traditions of airport novelists. This is the book's strength and its weakness – Roberts has weaved his elaborate web of deceit and charm, and Mezrich has fallen for it. Who knows, perhaps the bigger picture is the bigger picture and constructing this book was just an exercise in obtaining the movie rights. Perhaps Roberts will be playing himself.