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Mapping Mars by Oliver Morton

July 31, 2005
Red Planet. Photo by Alpoma.

I got this with the Mars Reports I ordered from Amazon to fill out the order to £19 for the free shipping. It’s tempting to simply copy the quotes from the back and leave it at that.

“A brilliant, sustained achievement which presents not just our changing representations of Mars, but the developing map of humanity’s consciousness through science, technology, culture and art. Oliver Morton is a superb writer who has made a specialist subject enthralling and universal.” – Irvine Welsh.

“A remarkable book… to read this book is to become infected with a fascination I hadn’t realised Mars held.” – James Hamilton-Paterson, London Review of Books.

“The best book on Mars that money can buy.” – Charles Sheffield, New Scientist.

I don’t know about the last one, I haven’t read every Mars book, but it is extremely good. I bought it because I though the concept of mapping Mars was quite a niche subject. Well, I’ve been proved comprehensively wrong. Morton uses maps to open up the human experience of Mars.

The book is split into five sections, Maps, Histories, Water, Places and Change.

Maps and Histories both obviously have historical relevance. There’s a charming story arc to Maps. It traces the mapping of Mars from its terrestrial origins and Airy’s transit disc, which set the prime meridian for Earth. As mapping improves so the need to accurately define features on Mars increases, which ends with the prime meridian of Mars being defined by Airy, a circular crater. Histories takes the human story and examines the attempts through analogy and art to reconstruct the Martian environment.

Water probably marks the apogee of the book in terms of archaeological relevance, which is not to demean it in any way. It covers the continuing search for the substance that might transform Mars from a planet to a world. I mention the lack of archaeological relevance because Places is directly relevant. It comes as a shock, but the issues that Morton discusses like what forms a place, how we interact with environments and our motivations for doing so, are exactly what spatial archaeologists talk about.

Change is the concluding section and it draws many of the threads that weave through the book together, the importance of symbolism, Mars as a mirror of Earth and the ethics of encountering the truly other.

I got the book, and I plan to get more books because I’ve decided I’m reading magazines like fast food, and books might be textually healthier. I’ve also heard that reading good writing is an excellent way to think about improving your own writing, in which case Mapping Mars is a green salad. It is not simply well-written, it’s enthusiastically written and engagingly written. Reading the book immerses you in Morton’s passion for Mars. It’s also a very human book. A book on the science of desert planet could easily be dry, but Morton interweaves the science and the culture of Mars exploration without diminishing or trivialising either.

In terms of my own thoughts on producing a small project on the archaeology of Mars, it poses a serious challenge. Morton has shown that there are definitely interesting cultural questions to ask, but he’s also shown it has to be done well. If wrote something half as good as he has I’d be pretty happy. Or at least I’d pretty happy presenting it to archaeologists who’d be unlikely to have read the book.

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