The Red Planet: A Natural History by Simon MordenThe Red Planet: A Natural History of Mars by Simon Morden

The Red Planet: A Natural History by Simon MordenSimon Morden’s The Red Planet: A Natural History of Mars (2021) is a detailed look at the history of Mars’ geology, and there lies both its appeal and, for some, perhaps, its lack of appeal. As fascinating as much of the book is, I confess it sometimes got a little too deep into the weeds (or the rock formations) for my own preferences, though having “too much information” is hardly a major indictment for a non-fiction work. And certainly the questions about how much water Mars had and when/for how long are fascinating, as is their connection to the possibility of life on the supposedly “dead” planet.

Morden begins, well, at the beginning. Or technically, if we’re talking about Mars, before the beginning, starting instead with the formation of the solar system and then explaining how the various planets, including Mars, formed and then ended up where they are today. Or, at least, he explains the best theories behind those events. Early on he’s explicit about how “we stand on uncertain ground [as] there are different routes Mars could have taken to reach the same point … but we don’t know which one … or even whether it traveled just one.” It’s why he calls Mars an “unreliable narrator.” He’s also upfront about how when faced with “alternative explanations … I may pick my favorite.”

Once Mars has formed, Morden divides the planet’s history into large epochs, and then methodically explains the creation — and sometimes the disappearance — of some of the planet’s major features, such as Olympus Mons (second tallest mountain in the solar system) Valles Marineris (a canyon the length of the United States), the Great Dichotomy (the vast difference in the altitude of the northern and southern halves of the planet), and the Medusae Fossae Formation (source of all that dust), along with the formations of craters, ice caps, rivers, oceans, and more. The author also periodically intersperses more imaginative second person chapters placing the “you” on the planet, allowing for some more vivid language and description, though Morden also turns his descriptive skills to a few other events described in the more prosaic chapters.

As noted, The Red Planet: A Natural History of Mars goes into a great wealth of detail, a bit too much so for me and perhaps for others, though not so much that one can’t work their way through it (or, if you’re a skimmer, you won’t be forced to skim too much). And while it’s dense, it isn’t particularly technical or arcane, so comprehension is never an issue. At the end, Morden considers the possibility of human exploration and/or colonization. He makes a number of good points and, in fact, I wish that section had been longer and ironically, more detailed. Guess you can’t please everyone all the time.

Published in September 2021. The history of Mars is drawn not just on its surface, but also down into its broken bedrock and up into its frigid air. Most of all, it stretches back into deep time, where the trackways of the past have been obliterated by later events, and there is no discernible trace of where they started from or how they travelled, only where they ended up. As NASA lays it plans for a return to the moon and, from there, a manned mission to Mars, there has never been a better time to acquaint ourselves with the dramatic history and astonishing present of the red planet. Planetary geologist, geophysicist and acclaimed SF author Dr Simon Morden takes us on a vivid guided tour of Mars. From its formation four and half billion years ago, through an era of cataclysmic meteor strikes and the millions of years during which a vast ocean spanned its entire upper hemisphere, to the long, frozen ages that saw its atmosphere steadily thinning and leaking away into space, Morden presents a tantalising vision of the next planet we will visit. With a storyteller’s flair, piecing together the latest research and data from the Mars probes, the most up-to-date theories of planetary geology, and informed speculation as to whether there has been life on Mars, The Red Planet is as close as we can get to an eye-witness account of this incredible place


  • Bill Capossere

    BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.