For the Love of Mars: A Human History of the Red Planet by Matthew Shindell
Mars has long fascinated us Earthlings, whether we were gazing up at it with eyes or telescopes, gazing down at it via orbital probes, or vicariously rolling across/flying over it via a slew of lander expeditions, several of which are still up there tooling around. That long obsession with the planet has prompted a huge number of books, fiction and non-fiction, centered on our red neighbor and now Matthew Shindell has added another — For the Love of Mars — which rather than focusing on Mars itself looks at our long-enduring but changing relationship. It’s a somewhat unbalanced book, and one that could have and probably should have (and this is something I rarely say) been longer, but still makes a worthy addition to the Mars library.
Beginning with the Mayans, the ancient Chinese, and the Babylonians, Shindell notes how they wove celestial observations deeply into their political/social/religious structures, seeing (with some variation) the skies as a “text” to read, either as messages from the gods or as a “mirror of human society.” The Mayans seemed to have a more neutral view of Mars as a marker of seasonal shifts while the other two saw it as more malevolent, a bad omen associated with fire and war amongst other ills. The ancient Greeks viewed the planets and stars less as messengers and more as influencers, “mov[ing] cosmology at least a half-step away from personification or deification” and toward a more logical, “mechanical” image of the universe.” Part of that mechanical view meant trying to explain what the heavens were made of (aether, a fifth element different from those on Earth) and how they moved (variations on spheres, nested spheres, prime movers, etc.).
Western medieval philosophers continued the idea of the planets influencing events and people on Earth, with everything connected and Mars usually presented as “maleficient” and associated with war and pestilence (including the Black Death). In the East, Arab scholars made a number of advancements: observational, practical (new instruments), and theoretical which eventually made their way to Europe via war and trade. It is in this medieval section that Shindell first brings in imagined voyages to Mars, in this case two allegorical journeys: Bernardus Silvestris’ Cosmographia and Dante’s far better-known Paradiso. In the former, Mars is “blood-red and terrifying” and home to the “Fiery Phlegethon” river. In Paradiso, where each planet is associated with one of the seven virtues, bright red Mars is connected to fortitude, home to Christian martyrs.
The explosion of printing and literacy and the development of new instruments eventually overturned explanations involving spheres and planets that orbit the Sun, but Shindell also thoughtfully explores the way the encounter with the “New World” changed things as well with “new contexts … new networks and institutions … a new empirical culture … [and] a shift … to useful knowledge … about how nature worked and how it could be exploited.” This change was apparent in the fictional journeys, as when Athanasius Kircher, in his Ecstatic Journey, depicted a Mars made not of aether but the same stuff as Earth, such as sulfur and bitumen, and with literal geographic features rather than allegorical ones: volcanoes, fiery lakes, mountains. Eventually, “a modern Mars”, one with a “shared origin and evolutionary path” would arise, incorporating new science (particularly Kepler and Newton), new technology (better telescopes, spectroscopes), and a god that was less involved, a clockmaker stepping back from the wound timepiece. Things really took off toward the end of the 19th century with the accurate observation of the ice caps (Mars has water!) and the illusory observation of the famous Martian canals. Meanwhile, fictional tales proliferated, with the addition of rocket ships, advanced civilization (later dying civilizations), with H.G. Wells work of course being the most famous of these. While Wells and others tried to present the science realistically, and often used their works for social criticism as well, the pulps — especially Edgar Rice Burroughs BARSOOM/JOHN CARTER tales — ushered in a whole new style of space romance/adventure.
From there Shindell jumps into the modern era, beginning with the Cold War space race and the early Mariner/Viking missions in the 60s and then detailing subsequent robotic fly-bys which filled in more and more details about Mars’ geology and atmosphere and helped slot it into theories of solar system creation alongside Earth is a kind of sister planet. These probes colored (some more than others) depictions of Mars in pop culture via the stories of Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein and others, along with TV shows like Cosmos and movies like Total Recall, based on a Philip K. Dick short story. The fly-bys gave way to the next stage of missions, the landers, which confirmed some findings and overturned or complicated others. Here Shindell presents both fictional depictions, such as Andy Weir’s The Martian and THE EXPANSE and non-fiction memoirs by those working on the Mars missions, such as Sarah Stewart Johnson’s The Sirens of Mars.
Finally, Shindell looks ahead to the future, looking at questions such as whether humans will stick to robots or send people to Mars, what might be the point of doing so, and whether or not we’ll bring out problems with us — inequality, despoilation of the environment, and others.
Probably the primary aspect that justifies For the Love of Mars as yet another book on the topic is the relatively unusual framing, which as noted above, is less concerned with the nuts and bolts of exploration (though he covers this) or the planetary science of Mars’ geology and other elements (though he dips into this as well) but how our systems of belief/thought affected the way we looked at Mars, the way we slotted it into those systems, and the way that entanglement shifted from era to era. It’s a relatively unique approach and an interesting one, though the early sections feel more than a little tangential to Mars, and I did wish Shindell had gone more in depth.
The book really takes off with its jump into the modern era, with much more detail and, subjective as it is, what felt like more sparkling, engaging writing. Shindell notes in an intro that Covid changed his plans for the book, and it does feel a bit like the sections on the fly-bys and landers is really where Shindell’s interests lie. Crisp and concise, this part moves apace and offers a good amount of information. Obviously, there are fewer facts in the future segment, which involves more speculation than recitation, but Shindell asks big, important, thought-provoking questions
I can’t say For the Love of Mars offered up a lot of new information, but I’ve read a lot of non-fiction Mars books (including the aforementioned The Sirens of Mars) and while those often had more information, what’s here is certainly adequate. What I did like was the different prism, the idea of looking at Mars through a telescope looking back at ourselves to see how our conceptual frameworks of the universe affected our understanding and presentation of Mars. That said, and this may be because of the change due to Covid, but I did want Shindell to slow down and go more in depth in discussion of philosophy, social/political structures, and fictional depictions. On the one hand, For the Love of Mars is nicely concise, but I think having it be a third again as long would have made for a more rich, full exploration.