Book Review: The Book of Mars by Stuart Clark

Review by Duncan Lunan

Fig. 1. Stuart Clark, ed., The Book of Mars, November 2022

Stuart Clark, ed., “The Book of Mars”, hbk, 896 pp., £30, Hive Publishing, 2022.

(First published in ParSec #5, November 2022.)

“This is not a small book”, I was warned by ParSec’s editor, and indeed he was right.  Stuart Clark has brought together 100 pieces of writing about the planet Mars, in just under 900 pages, and of those, the last 60 are acknowledgments and credits.  The list of Contents alone would take up more space than we have here;  the full tally of material consulted must have been gigantic.  His publishers unashamedly call it ‘the very best writing about the Red Planet’, and his intention is to ‘chronicle the evolution of cultural and scientific thinking about Mars over the last 150 years’, with an extensive chronology of both at the start.  To achieve that, he has split the book into six themed sections:  Dreams of Mars, Observations of Mars, Exploring Mars, Fears of Mars, Life on Mars, and Colonising Mars.  The fiction and nonfiction in each are published in chronological order, and I have to say that on a first read, I found it confusing to be jumping back to the 19th century each time I felt I had the timeline clear.  It would be better to read the book a section at a time, and parts of it would repay much more intensive study. 

Fig. 4. Arthur C, Clarke, The Sands of Mars, 1951

Clark’s starting point was three great Mars novels:  H. G. Wells’s The War of The Worlds (1897, Fig. 2), Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles (1950, Fig. 3), and Arthur C. Clarke’s The Sands of Mars (1951, Fig. 4).  The material of The Book of Mars is almost entirely literary, with film references mostly in the later sections – and a full review of those would have been a book in itself.  As well as extracts from the three novels above, there are more from Edgar Rice Burroughs  (A Princess of Mars, 1912, Fig. 5), Olaf Stapledon  (Last and First Men, 1930), C.S. Lewis  (Out of the Silent Planet, 1938, Fig. 6), Percy Gregg  (Across the Zodiac, 1880), Andy Weir  (The Martian, 2011, Fig. 7), and Philip K. Dick  (Martian Time-Slip, 1964), in that order, with chapters from the three ‘greats’ dotted among them. 

Notice how even the novel extracts jump about in time.  Short stories printed in full include Stanley Weinbaum’s ‘A Martian Odyssey’  (1938), Roger Zelazny’s ‘A Rose for Ecclesiastes’  (1969), Jerome Bixby’s ‘The Holes Around Mars (1954),  H. Beam Piper’s ‘Omnilingual’ (1957), and Randall Garrett’s ‘The Man Who Hated Mars’  (1956) – again in that order, along with many more which were new to me, but all interspersed with nonfiction contemporary with them, before in the next section we jump back and start again.  Reading the book from front to back, it’s disconcerting to be reading about recent Mars exploration, with related fiction, and then suddenly go back to Hugo Gernsback, H.G. Wells and Percival Lowell  (Fig. 8).

Fig. 8. Globe of Mars by Emmy Ingeborg Brun (1909), based on maps drawn by Percival Lowell

That said, the range of nonfiction extracts is excellent:  in rough chronological order, Camille Flammarion, Alfred Russell Wallace, Lowell, Wells, Gernsback, Walter Maunder, Nikola Tesla, Marconi, Alexander Oparin, Wernher von Braun, Robert Zubrin and many more.  The most fascinating sections, to my mind, are the most recent ones  (‘Exploring Mars’, ‘Life on Mars’ and ‘Colonising Mars’), the ones that I feel I must go back and read again.  Stuart Clark more than opens the door to the possibility that there is still life on Mars today, giving Gilbert Levin his head with ‘I’m Convinced We Found Evidence of Life on Mars in the 1970s’ (2019, Fig. 9).  There isn’t space to discuss the arguments here, but this chapter and related ones want to be read along with the chapter on the Phoenix lander in Rod Pyle’s Destination Mars: New Explorations of the Red Planet, (Prometheus Books, 2012, Fig. 10), and those aren’t the only arguments that the Viking lander results may have been misinterpreted, leading the search down the wrong path for decades. 

The chapters on space law, on preventing interplanetary contamination  (either way)  and on the flaws in NASA’s plan for crewed missions to Mars, all call for careful reading.  Of all the reprinted essays, though, perhaps the most fascinating are the ones about attempts to simulate Mars settlements on Earth, in Biosphere 2, for example, and in NASA’s HI-SEAS project, at the Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station, on Devon Island in Baffin Bay  (Fig. 11).  Kate Greene’s chapter on ‘Astro-gastronomy’, as a result of her experiences there, heavily underlines the point which I’ve made to the Scottish Branch of the Mars Society more than once:  of all the factors affecting the viability of even a temporary settlement on Mars, diet is going to be by far the most important.

Fig. 11. Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station, Devon Island

There’s a real need to avoid a ‘cowboy book review’, listing the choices I might have made for this book instead of Stuart Clark’s.  I’ll mention only Patrick Moore, Willy Ley and Carl Sagan, none of whom are here;  and in the section on the hazards of flight to Mars, for fiction counterparts I really felt felt we needed the Mars chapter from John Wyndham’s The Outward Urge, and the Arthur C. Clarke story ‘Transit of Earth’.  But within the limits of 100 items in less than 900 pages, Stuart Clark has done a fine job of touching most of the bases.  As he says at the end of his Introduction, “Let us hope that sometime in the twenty-second century, some future author will curate a new Book of Mars to chart the next 150 years of our relationship with the Red Planet.” 

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