Book Review: Mapping Mars (2002) by Oliver Morton; Mars Trilogy (1993-1996) by Kim Stanley Robinson

by Shi-Hsia Hwa

15.1_Mapping_MarsAs I write this, a rover bigger than a Kancil is puttering around Gale Crater on Mars. The presence of a large, charismatic robot able to send back high-resolution photos has sparked a minor revival of interest in Mars. However, not many of us know what happens with the data that is sent back: non-specialists are generally happy to glance a few cool pictures. In Mapping Mars, Oliver Morton tells the story of what happens with these reams of data sent back by the few dozen missions to Mars over the past half-century, from the low-resolution Mariner images until Mars Global Surveyor of the early 2000s (when this book was published). This contains two parallel histories: the history of humanity’s knowledge of the Red Planet, and models of how Mars’s own history could have created what we see today.

Mars occupies a unique place in human imagination, and as our closest neighbour we have far more detailed images and knowledge of it than any other. However, mapping another planet is not a simple matter of taking photos and recording coordinates. Creating maps is a complex process of interpreting the raw data and placing it in context. Mapping also unveils the story of the planet, showing the age of a surface from how many times it has been bombarded over the millennia, and strange highlands and valleys where its crust may have rotated en masse. This book does a wonderful job weaving together the stories of many individual efforts from engineers, astronomers, geologists, physicists, cartographers and artists into that of a tremendous interdisciplinary accomplishment.

Morton describes the people mapping Mars with humour and sympathy, making individuals stand out from a huge cast of characters. The reason for artists among the USGS (US Geological Survey) astrogeography staff is that a plethora of low-resolution, monochrome images taken from various angles and in variable lighting cannot be readily composited into a coherent image, especially not with the lower graphics processing power of the early days of Mars fly-bys. Thus the first maps of Mars were made by airbrush, by artists whose job was not mere copying but interpretation of blobs into features. Over the past decade, more precise data have been obtained from the laser altimeter onboard the Mars Global Surveyor, but the old manual map still compares favourably. These two, in addition to other beautiful maps and photographs, are shown in colour plates,along with some of the paintings mentioned below.

Even though Mars as a whole is smaller than Earth, its geological features are the opposite to an extent that is difficult to grasp, bigger than any terrestrial analogues. Morton’s imaginative descriptions turn to other scale bars to convey this – for instance, Olympus Mons (one of the tallest mountains of the Solar System) is so large that a flight across California could fit through it. To us Terrans, Mars is both ancient and raw. In an unfolding story, the timeline of the planet’s formation and deformation is presented in parallel with the accumulation of our knowledge of it. This book would be worth reading for this elegant history alone.

15.2_Mars_TrilogySome of the biggest ongoing debates about Mars surround water: How much does it have? Was there ever significant surface water? Where did it go? Various leading theories are presented as to how erosion-like features could have formed as well as several models for what kind of water cycle could exist on Mars. Living as we do on a planet with abundant surface water and yearly seasonal cycles, the idea of water cycles lasting millennia, with planet-scouring outbursts of flood is staggering. The presence of water has a huge bearing on whether Mars is colonisable by humans, and here is where we enter the realm of science fiction. The last section of the book is a mixture of science and speculation on the future interactions of humans with the Red Planet.

Somewhat unusually for even a popular science book, Morton devotes a large number of pages throughout to literature and fine arts. Being our closest neighbour, Mars has long been a subject for the imagination. However, the author focuses on those painters and writers who have made some effort to let the planet shape their fantasies, not H.G. Wells’ creepy monsters and their ilk. A comparison is also made with similar art forms such as landscape paintings of the American West. Among the science fiction novelists, pride of place is given to Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy.

Science fiction novels, almost by definition, revolve around technological or socio-political futuristic concepts, the setting often suffering in comparison. Robinson’s trilogy earns its definitive moniker because the planet is no mere backdrop but a central force, described in sharp-edged detail. The landscape drives the story, shaping the human society as it evolves from a small band of colonists to a thriving civilisation – the utopian communities living in lava tubes (such things do exist on Earth in smaller form), rebels hiding under the southern polar carbon dioxide ice cap, the space elevator at Olympus Mons.

Robinson intimately describes the colonisation of Mars as it unfolds, from the microcosm of personal relationships to mountain ranges stretching thousands of kilometres. You can feel the terror of a group of fugitives racing a flood down Valles Marineris as well as the rage of a flood storming down the longest valley in the solar system.

Like Morton, Robinson makes it clear to the reader that the usual rules do not apply here. This is reflected even in the language used by the colonists, who use the prefix areo- where we would use geo- or terra- in a similar context. A biologist and her followers even develop an artificial but native quasi-religion, chanting the various names of Mars in a bonding ritual called the areophany. Many children are named after Mars as well, such as Nirgal (Babylonian) and Huo Xing (Mandarin Chinese).

As the volume titles suggest, this is the story of Mars’ transformation from a world of rock and dust to one with plants and water. The journey is not a smooth one, as the colonists fight among themselves over ideological issues such as conservation versus terraforming, as well as against an Earth controlled by giant multinational corporations. Again, Robinson manages to craft emotional dramas on both the sweeping scale of civil war as well as personal passions. Eventually, Mars itself becomes the springboard for humanity’s great diaspora to the rest of the solar system and even the stars, as the surviving characters settle down and come to terms with one another and the reborn planet. While readers may find the pacing unrealistic in some places – a few decades seems awfully short to create a breathable atmosphere, for one – the author’s vision of the future is contagious.

Regardless of issues which may be a matter of opinion, this trilogy has more than earned its place in the canon of Western science fiction. And because knowledge and imagination share a horizon, Morton’s Mapping Mars is a highly recommended companion book – by reading it, one can understand where Robinson found this captivating world waiting to be filled with people


Shi-Hsia Hwa is an analytical development scientist for Inviragen, a vaccine development company focusing on human viral diseases. She received her MSc from the University of Wisconsin’s comparative biomedical sciences programme for making chickens glow in the dark. Her previous work includes an internship at the USGS National Wildlife Health Center. She can be contacted at [email protected]. Find out more about ShiHsia by visiting her Scientific Malaysian profile at