Mapping Mars - Oliver Morton

Reviewed for Usenet (or see Google's archive).

Mapping Mars
Science, Imagination and the Birth of a World
Oliver Morton
Fourth Estate Publishers
ISBN 184115668 (Amazon link)

Summary: non-fiction, well-written and wide ranging account of man's efforts to map Mars. Covers a lot of fascinating history, and discusses a lot of related SF, but a book about map-making really, really needs more illustrations... B+

Mapping Mars is a non-fiction, popular science book. I've decided to review it here mainly because there's frequent reference to works of SF and it's likely that the hard-SF crowd will find this book to have cross-over appeal. (Yes, I know, it's still off-topic, but I don't think this is lowering the S/N any more than most of the threads...)

Mars is a fascinating planet, but it can be hard to write about in popular science, as opposed to SF, books. After all, despite all the talk and public expectations, there has never been a manned mission to provide the drama of Apollo (Aside: I cannot recommend Andrew Chaikin's A Man on the Moon highly enough. It's one of the best non-fiction, no, it's one of the best books I've ever read. Period.), the robotic missions have either failed en route or provided rather dull TV once there... Once most people have seen one red rock, they've seen 'em all. When you get down to it, we know remarkably little about Mars; many of the big questions are still wide open, and I don't think there's any doubt that the first geologist to get there in person may well expire from happiness.

Oliver Morton's splendid book is called Mapping Mars for a reason, this is very much a book about maps, map making, and the difference between locations and places. This is a useful distraction technique as, really, making maps is rather dull to discuss... what's on the maps is more interesting. I don't know about most people here, but to me, half the appeal of Mars lies in the wonderfully exotic and eclectic names scattered across its topology. (Turns out that the naming of features has a convoluted history.) The geology is equally interesting, and this is a topic that occupies quite a portion of the latter half of the book. In particular, much time is given to the vexing question of whether Mars had water, and if so, how much? None of this geology can be investigated with maps, but even the most detailed maps available are a tease, for real geology needs to pick rock up, examine it, look at the landscape in its full 3D complexity. Even when mapped to high accuracy, Mars retains its mystery.

So, the science then is mostly historical to start with - the history of Martian cartography - and the geology in the later section mostly speculative. So why did I enjoy it so much? The writing style is conversational, and liberally peppered with asides about those who have mapped Mars, those who campaign and plan to go there, and, most importantly with this group, about those who write about being there.

I did feel there was a big of an attempt to avoid boring us with pure science history - I could feel the publishing house looming the background hoping for mass sales. There are a few asides I personally didn't care for (if he's going to talk about the cheesy art, then for gawd's sake at least show us pictures!), but then I'm a physicist by training, and was enjoying the historical astrogeology - but I didn't mind the introduction of sections on SF about Mars. (One of my favourite shorts is referenced as the opening quote for part 5 - Walter M. Miller Jr.'s Crucifixus Etiam.)

For example, the discussion of landing places, once done with discussing the inevitable politics involved in the 'scientific' debate, enlivens the topic by talking about the landing sites in Frontera by Lewis Shiner, Voyage by Stephen Baxter (a great book, but I've never forgiven Baxter for Titan), Mars by Ben Bova, Voyage to the Red Planet by Terry Bisson, Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson etc. The author clearly likes his SF and is enthusiastic on the topic.

Naturally, as you might expect, Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy gets a lot of coverage, with the author relating several discussions he's had with 'Stan'. I personally couldn't get through the Mars novels, but then, I had problems with the stories on several levels - I can't really fault his research into Mars that much. (Those windmills though... bah.)

So, Mapping Mars is worth reading if you have an interest in our nearest planetary neighbour. It's not heavy science, though it makes few gaffes and covers the topic fairly. It's not overly popularist or biased in terms of whether we should launch manned missions - indeed, I enjoyed the summary of what robotics missions have gone, which died, why, and what followups are on the way. (Three in the next year I believe, though I can't find the cite now. Beagle 2 launches tomorrow for example. Beagle 2 is very SFnal - a UK craft, mainly driven by one man, launched in Russia, with commissioned artwork on the side...)

For the hard SF fan, this is an interesting way to pick up new novels - the bibliography has just as many SF entries as pop (or not so pop) science references. There's only one problem, and it's a big one. This excellent book is marred by one serious omission - nowhere near enough maps! I know the price would have gone up, but huge sections of the book are about the geography, or the maps. Rather hard to appreciate either based on textual descriptions... The colour plates are nice, but there's only a few, and for my taste, far too many are speculative. I appreciate that people are fascinated by Mars, and moved to draw it, and yes, the parallels to the art of the American frontier are interesting, but I really wanted more from the MOLA maps for example.

Posted: Sun - June 1, 2003 at 01:30 AM