Book Review: ‘For the Love of Mars,’ by Matthew Shindell

FOR THE LOVE OF MARS: A Human History of the Red Planet, by Matthew Shindell

When we trace it back to its etymological origins, a planet is, literally, a wanderer — a point of light that strays. Usually, it moves in the same direction as the stars, but sometimes it halts and reverses course. This retrograde motion, which occurs when Earth overtakes a planet in its orbit, is hard to square with a geocentric model of the universe, but it was full of meaning for cultures that looked to the heavens for messages. The systems of knowledge that slowly evolved into the natural sciences arose from the study of omens, abundantly provided by the planets.

Apart from Earth, no planet has received more attention than Mars, where this apparent wandering is the most pronounced. As Matthew Shindell notes in “For the Love of Mars,” however, this wasn’t always the case. For most of history, Mars — a less spectacular object in the sky than Venus — was rarely singled out for special consideration, and we learned to love it only after the invention of the telescope. Observations by European astronomers, which coincided with printed accounts of the New World, encouraged people to see Mars for the first time as a place that might be visited one day.

Shindell, a curator at the National Air and Space Museum, describes his book as “the history of human ideas about Mars,” and he thoughtfully follows its winding path through religion, literature and pop culture. In the prologue, he explains that he initially conceived the project as just one chapter in a general study of Mars exploration, and he occasionally strains to justify the expansion. The first chapter is devoted to societies — including ancient Babylon and the Han dynasty — that were interested in Mars as merely one cog in “the cosmic state,” which searches the sky for endorsements of the ruling class.

The story gains momentum in the Scientific Revolution. Shindell glances, perhaps too briefly, at Johannes Kepler, the first scientist to make a major discovery — the elliptical orbits of the planets — by analyzing Mars specifically. In the 19th century, astronomers identified networks of lines on its surface that were taken by many as evidence of an alien civilization.

Shindell writes that the Martian “canals” were exposed as an optical illusion, but he misses the chance to recount one of the more charming experiments in the history of science. When schoolboys were told to copy a model of Mars that was hung in the classroom, students in the front row produced accurate drawings, while those toward the back connected real features with imaginary lines.

Despite an abundance of material at his disposal, Shindell makes some surprising omissions. In his discussion of Mars in literature, he never mentions that Jonathan Swift described a pair of Martian satellites in “Gulliver’s Travels,” whose relative accuracy generated widespread excitement after the discovery of two actual moons, Phobos and Deimos, in 1877. (The orbital periods and distances of Swift’s moons are within an order of magnitude of the true values, in what seems to have been a lucky guess based on the astronomy of the time.) Shindell dwells instead on more obscure authors like Swift’s contemporary Miles Wilson, a Yorkshire clergyman who published a mystical travelogue of the solar system, including Mars, on which an angelic guide points out, in Shindell’s words, “nine million red, sexless intelligent beings growing like trees.”

A more familiar voyage occurs in the 1880 novel “Across the Zodiac,” which features a spaceship called the Astronaut — most likely the first recorded instance of the word in English. Mars generally figures in early science fiction as the home of intelligent life-forms, sometimes advanced enough to take on the British Empire, as in “The War of the Worlds,” or as a backdrop to the planetary romances that Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote for John Carter.

When it comes to more recent stories, Shindell spends more than three pages on “Total Recall,” but he alludes to Kim Stanley Robinson’s ambitious “Mars” trilogy only in passing, and he omits “The Greening of Mars,” in which James Lovelock — best known for the Gaia hypothesis — and Michael Allaby laid out a crash program for terraforming the red planet on a budget.

When Homer Simpson was told that men were from Mars and women from Venus, he responded, “Oh, sure, give me the one with all the monsters.” In fact, as Elton John sang, Mars turned out to be decidedly hostile to life.

Instead of astronauts, exploration has been left to robots, which attract passionate fans of their own. An outpouring of emotion greeted the last transmission of the Opportunity rover, freely paraphrased by the science journalist Jacob Margolis as “My battery is low and it’s getting dark.” This tendency to anthropomorphize rovers makes it easy to forget that their every move is decided by people, like marionettes on millions of miles of invisible string.

While Shindell acknowledges the “magic” of Mars in securing support for the U.S. space program, he spends less time on its appeal to authoritarian personalities who thrive on big but empty promises. Donald J. Trump’s sporadic infatuation with a mission to Mars — “of which the moon is a part,” he once confusingly tweeted — might not have seemed worth mentioning, but it feels strange that Shindell devotes just a few lines to Elon Musk, who has benefited enormously from the perception, correct or otherwise, that he represents our best shot at a Martian expedition. As Shindell observes, a trip to Mars “always seems to be two or three decades in the future,” allowing policies in the present to be justified or forgiven indefinitely.

To his credit, Shindell persuasively argues that Mars is most instructive when it sheds light on how we see ourselves. Proposals for Martian colonies are often tangled up with the language of capitalism and privilege, treating the planet as an escape hatch that minimizes the need to solve problems on Earth. It fills the same imaginative role today that America once did for Europe, which underlines the danger of exporting old assumptions to an undiscovered country.

“If Mars belongs to humans, then it belongs to all humans,” Shindell concludes. “Discussions of what to do with Mars should include as many voices as possible.” This may be hard to imagine on Mars, but no harder than it sometimes feels much closer to home.

Alec Nevala-Lee is the author of “Inventor of the Future: The Visionary Life of Buckminster Fuller.”

FOR THE LOVE OF MARS: A Human History of the Red Planet | By Matthew Shindell | 238 pp. | University of Chicago Press | $27.50

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