English science journalist Morton reconstitutes the Mars myth for the Net generation, showing how our mapping of the Martian landscape has brought into focus the “blotchy but beckoning” planet observed by 19th-century astronomers.
Morton, who covered the failed Mars mission in 1999 and has reported on the informal network of enthusiasts known as the Mars Underground, takes a retrospective look at the mapping of the Red Planet. While the televised face of Mars exploration is well known, he notes, the public has never accorded the glory it deserves to the process by which exploratory probes have provided data for more and more exact maps of the planet. Upon this cartographical substratum, Martian sciences (whether of geology or speculative astrobiology) have erected their hypothetical structures. Mariner 9 in 1971 and subsequent missions, as Morton details, gave rise to many controversies, which range from whether the atmosphere is colored yellowish gray rather than the popular pink to how much water remains under the Martian surface. Parallel to the science of Mars is the science fiction of Mars. Enthusiasm for Mars among SF writers waned in the 1970s as it became apparent that the landscape had been shaped by geological forces that essentially stopped billions of years ago, but interest revived as the initial shock of a barren Mars gave way to a more complex vision of the planet. As geologists began to trace faint remnants of what could have been an ocean, SF writers, led by Kim Stanley Robinson, have been constructing a new, more sober Mars meticulously congruent to the landscape revealed by the maps. The final sections report on such Mars Underground luminaries as Bob Zubin, a Martin Marietta engineer who has created a prototype for a direct mission to Mars.
Not for beginners, who will find William Sheehan’s The Planet Mars (1996) a better place to start. But for enthusiasts: this will be the Mars book of the year.