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Mapping Mars by Oliver Morton (2002)

Mapping Mars by Oliver Morton (2002)

Mapping Mars is both a geographical and geological overview of the planet and the factual history of the attempts to map Mars, so for any science fiction fan, it should make a fascinating reference work with which to connect the dots between our changing perceptions of Mars and the way fiction has portrayed the Red Planet. It would make a very good companion piece for the Mars novels of Kim Stanley Robinson, both authors sharing a deep-rooted fascination with the rocks, dust and ice of Mars, the very stuff indeed of the planet.

Morton does a great job of fleshing out the history of Mars as seen through its map makers, particularly the way in which the incredibly evocative place names were selected and how national and even political considerations influenced the decision making process. Hence in 1867 the Englishman Richard Proctor (a writer of popular astronomy books) favoured the names of (largely British) astronomers in his maps, which in turn were somewhat internationalised in 1876 by a French astronomer named Camille Flammarion, though as the Franco Prussian war was under way at the time, this very likely prompted him to rename Proctor's "Kaiser Sea" to the "Hourglass Sea". Then of course there is Giovanni Schiaparelli, who romanticized the planet by choosing classical place names from Earths past such as Tharsis and Elysium. Not then finally to forget Percival Lowell, who imprinted on those names his ideas of a dying Martian civilisation, which in turn would come to life in The War of the Worlds.

However, the book is very much more than Maps. Morton does a great deal to explain the geography and geology of the planet; the history of robotic exploration and the way fact and fiction have become intertwined. It is an ambitious book and the structure as such tends to flip flop a bit from subject to subject, so what starts as a fascinating history then tends to stray towards a more tangled and less satisfying read in latter pages. However, Morton's passion for the subject shines through, and you come away from this book much the wiser and with a good understanding of the theories for Martian geological history that presently hold sway in the scientific community.

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