Non-Fiction Reviews

The Book of Mars
An anthology of fact and fiction

(2022) Stuart Clark (ed.), Head of Zeus, £30, hrdbk, xix + 870pp, ISBN 978-1-801-10931-4


I should have reviewed this for the last edition but it arrived early in December and I simply did not have time to go through this offerings near 890 printed pages. Yet it was clear from the start that this anthology of non-fiction and fiction was something really special.

As stated by the title, this is a mix of science fact and science fiction and so is something that shouts for the attention of SF² Concatenation regulars. And of course, again as given away by the title, all the science and the fiction relates to Mars.

I suspect that most of our regulars will have heard of many of the contents' authors. On the fact side these include: David Catling (well you may not have heard of this one but he's an Earth system scientist and I'm a fan), Hugo Gernsback (after whom the Hugo Awards were named), Percival Lowell (astronomer and Martian canal mapper), Marconi (radio pioneer),Walter Maunder (astronomer), Wernher von Braun (rocket pioneer), Nicola Telsa (electrical engineer), Alfred Russel Wallace (co-developer of 'Darwinian' evolution), H. G. Wells (in science writing mode), plus many, many others.

Meanwhile on the fiction front we have: Martin Amis, Ray Bradbury, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K. Dick, C. S. Lewis, Roger Zelazny, Hugo Gernsback (again, but this time in fiction mode), H. Beam Piper, Andy Weir, H. G. Wells, plus many, many others.

This is a tour d'force of Martian science fact and science fiction: well, when I say Martian science fact and science fiction, I mean Earth science and SF about Mars (no Martians contributed to this volume).

There is a brief, four-page introduction from the editor before we leap of with a chronology of developing perceptions of Mars from 1500AD through to the first Mariner 4 fly-by of the planet.

It is divided into five parts: 'Dreams of Mars'; 'Exploring Mars';  'Fears of Mars';  'Life on Mars';  and 'Colonising Mars'.

The the number of chapters are too many to cite them all but here are a just a few that particularly caught my attention:  Hugo Gernsback's non-fiction article (1909) 'Signalling to Mars';  the interestingly dated 'Mars, By The Latest Observations' (1873);  'Mars and its Canals' by Percival Lowell (which I had seen referenced loads of time and so it was good to read even though this was not illustrated);  'The Mars Project' by Wernher von Braun (a bitter-sweet read as during World War II it was his rockets devastated blocks of houses in London where I have worked for many decades);  'Water on Mars: A literature review' (I have a fairly good academic science library – several thousand papers – but this caused me to add a couple of extra papers); 'The origin of Life' (1924) which would have been boring were it not for being so comically dated;  and 'Who Owns Mars' (2018) co-authored by Elon Musk was disturbing.

As indicated, there were several inclusions of work by SF authors and these were largely excerpts from their Mars-related novels, such as Dick's The Martian Timeslip. I suspect most SF book buffs would, like me, have read nearly all of these but they were good to see and indeed read as a nostalgic toe in the water. A few I had heard of but not read and so these too were a treat. A couple I would have ditched: past SF² Concatenation contributor Colin Greenland's Take Back Plenty for example. Colin's book features an imaginative and entertaining, science fantasy take on Mars and while that is great as a science fantasy read, I felt that this anthology really warranted harder SF contributions. For example, Harry Turtledove's A World of Difference (1998) envisages a present-day Mars but one that formed larger than our Mars and was similar-sized to Earth. And, personally speaking, if I wanted a more fantasy Martian novel excerpt I would have gone with Larry Niven's Rainbow Mars as that brings together a number of classic Mars portrayals by genre grandmasters.  I would also have made more of Arthur Clarke's The Sands of Mars excerpt emphasising that the 1951 novel was firmly based on that time's science understanding of Mars.  But what do I know?  This is Stuart Clark's show and it is a remarkable one at that.

One of the themes that comes across in nearly all the non-fiction (science and popular science) items is an undercurrent of enthusiasm for humans to personally explore, if not colonise, Mars. I know I am almost certainly in the minority of this book's likely target readership, but this is something I really do not want to see happening, at least certainly not for a long time until our species attains at least a basic level of competence so as not to undertake an act of biological gross vandalism. It was therefore a huge relief to see an article on 'Planetary Protection in the New Space Era' (2020), though even so I did feel that we will not (currently) see proper compliance…

I must stress that the above is a far from complete list of the contents.  There are 80 science and/or SF contributions excluding the introduction and appendices!

This is a formidable anthology and must have taken a fair bit of effort to compile and secure copyright. I am therefore not surprised that most of the chapters must have been scanned with the original copy edit. And so we get varying quality of copy edits and proof reads. For example, some chapters correctly refer to the planet 'Earth' (proper noun) while others relegate it to 'earth' (a common noun actually meaning 'soil') but them's the breaks as they say.

Most SF fans will enjoy the science along with the genre contributions. I say this with some authority as SF² Concatenation site regulars will be aware that our seasonal news page has, for well over a decade now, been listing the annual SF Worldcon science programme and divide this into two groups: astronomy/space science and then all the rest of science (biology, information science, chemistry etc.). Most Worldcons see roughly half their science programme items being astronomy/space science and this suggests that this is the most popular science for them. (Though it does mean that the rest of us from all the other science disciplines have to squeeze into the other half of the science programme.)

Many astronomers will also enjoy the genre contributions along with the science: albeit anecdotal (not strict quantitative), the majority of astronomers I have met seem to enjoy SF.

I would therefore not hesitate to recommend this to astronomers, especially amateur astronomers. Indeed, I received my copy of The Book of Mars early in December (alas too late for me to read and review before our last seasonal edition, posted in January). But I did get it in time to recommend it to the wife of an amateur astronomer friend as a Christmas present. I'm sure a properly focussed marketing campaign will see a fair number of sales despite the cover price of £30 (2023 money).

Jonathan Cowie


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