Thad Roberts is the perfect subject for Ben Mezrich’s creative non-fiction work Sex On The Moon: The Amazing Story Behind The Most Audacious Heist In History. Roberts starts the book as a gifted, ambitious young man who decided he wanted to become an astronaut, then managed to get into NASA’s intern program. From there, he fell in love, both with a fellow co-op and with the idea of stealing moon rocks. Although the theft succeeded, his lazy attempt to sell the rocks led to his arrest.
Mezrich is most famous for writing The Accidental Billionaires, the basis for David Fincher’s film The Social Network. Roberts is a fascinating mirror image of both the book and film portrayals of Mark Zuckerberg: Both men are brilliant and driven in ways that separate them from other people and society’s imposed norms and morals. They feel they’re smarter than everyone, and that the world doesn’t work the way it should. But where Zuckerberg created Facebook, which builds new kinds of social interactions while breaking down boundaries, Roberts’ criminality is a much less ambiguous legacy.
From the acknowledgments and the form of Sex On The Moon, it’s clear that Roberts was Mezrich’s primary source. He’s portrayed as building himself up to the heist, doing the wrong thing, then ruining his life, all as a sort of game. In that game, he isn’t the villain, he’s simply taking rocks that have been officially discarded. And that can’t be bad, right?
Sex On The Moon is written and structured like a novel, which gives it much of its narrative drive. The creative non-fiction style gives the book more eloquent prose and a direct view into the characters’ minds, but it can be slightly off-putting in a book nominally based on real, recent history. But the advantages far outweigh the quibbles—the access to Roberts and re-creation of his motivation and personality are Sex On The Moon’s best qualities.
The book’s main tension is derived from Roberts’ confused identity construction. Roberts opens the book by being kicked out of his fundamentalist Mormon community; he rebuilds his identity at the University Of Utah, then at NASA. There, he becomes the social dynamo of the student community, equal parts prankster, adventurer, and leader. But there’s always the caveat that “this isn’t him,” as though he has some core, internal personality that exists apart from his actions. This disconnect and sense of doing justice while breaking the law seemingly led Roberts down his criminal path. Sex On The Moon appears to have a very narrow focus, but its universality means it could easily be subtitled How Smart People Do Dumb Things.