Mapping Mars

Oliver Morton

Read September-October 2005

Every planet should be so fortunate as to have a chronicler like Oliver Morton. I must confess I never quite understood the title of this book: though parts of it were about the creation of geological maps of Mars, significant tracts of it weren't; by about half way through, I concluded it was really more about cognitive cartography. No matter: this was a paean, and I was hooked.

Morton's book suffers a little from expecting too much background of its readers. It feels almost like it was written for the Mars-or-bust crowd, those who have an actual opinion on whether to land in Gusev or Meridiani, or those who avidly read that classically American frontiersman, Robert Zubrin. Again, no matter: I went out and bought myself a map of Mars, and returned to this book with renewed vigor. It's that kind of infectious.

Morton's also rambles over a great deal of territory. Ostensibly about maps, it's also about painters, about the role of humans in Martian art and the relationship to the Hudson Valley school (in one of the more clever references in the book, the ``Martian'' landscape on the cover is from the work of...Frederic Edwin Church), about legendary graphic novels such as Watchmen, about how early Mars missions should really be credited with creating digital photography, and much else. Morton asks us to consider whether Mars is Earth-like, leaving it to us ponder the real question: Is the Earth Earth-like? This book makes you ask such questions. Only near the end, when the book becomes laden in science fiction, does all this content really begin to drag.

The book has a good bibliography and extensive index. The index is, sadly, marred by some mistakes. As two representative examples, it misses references to Peter Schultz on pg. 189 and to Jim Head on pg. 204. But it's hard to hold that against an author who is so obviously having so much fun as to conjure up the footnote on pg. 213.