In a previous Amazon review of another Mars-related book I said "This is the only Mars book you'll ever need." Well, I was wrong. If you've an interest in Mars - a serious, interest mind, not just a passing one - then you need this one, too.
At first glance MAPPING MARS looks very dry and "wordy", with only a few pages of illustrations buried in its centre. In all honesty, it's not a title that jumps at you off the bookshelf while you're browsing the astronomy section. But this is a remarkable book in many ways, a real "labour of love" which portrays Mars - perhaps for the first time since Lowell's ground-breaking book - as a real, rounded world, a world with its own unique cultural history, not just a geological and scientific one.
But it's not a "general" book, a book for everyone, oh no. If you want lots of statistics, cold geological field notes and accurate-but-yawn-inducing science background, the look further along the shelf, or further down the Amazon page. This is a book which deals with how Mars has been seen and portrayed by artists, writers, poets and philosophers, not just scientists. It's a deeply thoughtful - and thought-provoking - work, describing how the Red Planet has acquired a unique place in mankind's culture, how - and more importantly, why - it has fascinated and hypnotised us for all these long, yearning centuries. It eloquently and elegantly describes how the desire to conquer Mars mirrors the earlier desire to conquer and tame the Wild West, how we have - consciously or subconsciously - moulded Mars and its landscapes into a new "Wild Frontier" for the 21st century. Also, it easily and comfortably mixes historical science with speculation about the future, and provides insightful (and refreshingly honest, warts and all) character sketches of almost everyone who is, or was, anyone in martian research.
But I know, I know, there must be lots of other books which do those things too, right? Well, yes, there are, but none of them do it as well, and this one is different in a very important way.
The way it is written makes it different. Reading MAPPING MARS is like having a course of personal, one-on-one lectures by a teacher whos elove and passion for their subject comes across with every word. Oliver Morton loves Mars, is in love with it, he can't hide it, it's there on every page, and this book is so personal that reading it I really felt like I was sitting with him in his study, beside a crackling fire, sipping a warm brandy, just listening to him talk. Some parts really are pure poetry, quite lovely to read.
The book may be called MAPPING MARS, and yes, that area of study is very well covered; everything you could want to know and more about martian cartography is in here. But this book is so much more than a martian version of "LONGITUDE" It's the story of the birth, evolution and, ultimately, destiny of a world, and every turned page rewards the reader with a new, previously-unsuspected aspect of Mars and the planet's history.
Perhaps the book's biggest delight is the way it leads the reader off in totally unexpected directions. I lost count of the number of times I put the book aside to rush to my PC, go online and Google-search for websites with more information about a writer, poem, poet or painting referred to in the text; thanks to MAPPING MARS I now know about the beautiful paintings of Frederic Edwin Church, which is almost worth the price of the book alone...
That's not to say the book is without fault. There aren't enough illustrations for a book which deals with such a visual subject. And the cover is rather less than inspiring too (*I* know better than to judge a book by its cover, but in this commercial, visual-impact age many don't, and first impressions count) even tho to be fair it does accurately reflect the book's theme. And, being a Red, I would have liked more debate too about the ethics of terraforming... but these are just minor and personal quibbles.
Coming to the end of the book I wondered how I could sum it up for the people who would, inevitably, ask me what I thought about it. I decided there was only one way to do it: this book deserves to be more than a book, it deserves to be made into a TV series one day, on the scale of HBO's "FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON", maybe narrated by Tom Hanks himself. If it ever is then maybe, just maybe, people "out there" will finally appreciate Mars for the incredible world it is. And maybe then it will finally become a place where people want to actually go, instead of just read about... in beautiful books like this.