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The Red Planet - Simon Morden ***

I was so excited when I started reading this book - it felt like a really new approach to popular science. Simon Morden is a planetary geologist/geophysicist turned science fiction writer (see, for example, Gallowglass) and the book opens with a few short sections that seem to have brought the storytelling skills and narrative drive of science fiction to telling the story of Mars. In my notes, the first thing I wrote was 'Fascinating style'. 

What I was hoping for was not that Morden would continue with the same approach through the many short sections of the book - just the right length to feel you need to read another (and another), but rather to vary the approach, but always with that clear understanding that you need an engrossing story. Unfortunately, for about three quarters of the book we fall back to default geology (or, more accurately, aresology) popular science writing with far too much descriptions of rock formation and far too little that would grip anyone who isn't obsessed with rocks. The fact is that geology is by far the hardest science topic to make interesting to the general public, and moving the scene to Mars doesn't do enough to inject fascination.

It would have helped a lot if the book had been illustrated. Remarkable-sounding structures are described - but we never see a photograph of one. There is also considerable talk about maps - without including any maps in the book. There's a whole section on mapping Mars with no maps. Later on, Morden says 'Before we consider how Valles Marineris formed, we ought to look at a map of it'... but there is no map. Time and again it's really difficult to form a mental picture of what is being described.

The last few sections, the book comes back to life, as Morden talks about living on Mars, either as a scientific experiment or stressing just how many difficulties would get in the way of colonisation. But by then it was too late to rescue what had started as arguably the most exciting popular science read of 2021, but had then settled down to be a distinct disappointment.



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Review by Brian Clegg


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