Thursday, 1 April 2021

Books & Stuff (NS, No 14) - Reading in Mar 2021

For March I set myself the task of reading about Mars.  I didn't really think this through beforehand and if I have a theme month again (and I might), I shall prepare beforehand and stock up on books.  Despite that, I had more books than I read, and there were several I meant to read that I didn't quite get to.  I also didn't quite make the balence between fiction and non-fiction I wanted.  

In these respects Mars Month was a bit of a failure, as it didn't work as a deep-dive into my shelves.  One reason for that is (almost by defination) a lot of the books I have is quite dated; to get up-to-date info on Mars exploration I turned to the Internet and also listened to dozens of hours of podcasts.  This lead to a little 'Mars burn-out' and meant that at the end of the day I just didn't want to pick up a book on the subject.  I also significantly undersetimated my ability to absorb technic data - it's a long time since I had to do any 'homework'!

The lesson to me is that a themed month is OK, but it shouldn't be at the exclusion of everything else.

If any of you are tempted to ever have a Mars Month, there are a couple of useful Wikipedia pages on Mars in Fiction and Mars in Culture.

Here they are in the order I read them (do persevere through the lengthy discussion of The Red and Green Planet).

H G Wells, The War of the Worlds

I started with the grand-daddy of all 'alien invasion' books.  

I've always enjoyed the economy of Wells' writing and War of the Worlds gives an account of the invasion without any fat (even down to the fact that very few characters are named).  Despite that, it remains a very powerful story.

Of course, I'm of the age that when I read certain passages of this, I hear the voice of Richard Burton or David Essex.  Given the comments on my previous post, it seems that a number of you are too!

Thunderchild's Last Stand by Scot Andrew Bailey

Hubertus Strughold, The Green and Red Planet

The first thing that must be said is that this is the product of a shameful chapter in the history of science.  For me, at least, this makes it uneasy reading.

Strughold was a German physiologist who took an early interest in aviation medicine and, in particular, high-altitude flight.  From 1935 to 1945 he served as director of the Research Institute for Aviation Medicine in Berlin (from 1939 part of the Luftwaffe).  At the end of the war he was initially sought as a war criminal due to his complicity in experiments carried out on inmates of the Dachau concentration camp (it later emerged that he had also carried out oxygen-deprevation experiments on children scheduled to be killed as 'mentally unfit').  However, he was one of those scientists deemed by the Americans to be too useful to face justice and - as part of Operation Paperclip - he was relocated to the United States where he worked for the US Air Force and, later, NASA.  He died in 1986, lauded as the 'Father of Space Medicine'.

All of which is why I'm going to give a lengthier than normal justification of why I have the book on my shelves and have bothered to read it.

The Green and Red Planet is one of the first (if not the first) to give a popular account of the new disciplines of astrobiology and planetary ecology.  It was published at an interesting time (1954) and should be seen as part of a movement promoting the scientific exploration of space as a national goal for the US - von Braun and others had published their 'Man Will Conquer Space Soon!' articles in Collier's in 1952 and their Disneyland TV series would appear in 1955.  There is no doubt that this popular movement was influential in the Eisenhower Adminstration's decision to estabish NASA in 1958 and move rocket and satellite research out of military hands.

The first half of the 96-page book gives an introduction to astrobiology before moving on to Mars.  He gives us a planet where atmospheric pressure is the equivilent of 55,000ft above sea level and temperature ranges don't vary much from those found on Earth.  Of course, we now know these figures are wrong, but this is the definitive statement of the optimistic side of the argument for life on Mars as it was pushed until some of the basic assumptions on things like surface temperature and atmospheric conditions were proven wrong by the Mariner fly-bys of 1965 and 1969.  As such, it is a useful tool when reading pre-probe literature on the planet.

'Robinson Crusoe on Mars' (1964)

Isaac Asimov, The Martian Way and Other Stories

Only the title story of this collection is about Mars, but that's good enough to hit this month's theme.  Even that story isn't mainly set on the planet.  Ostensibly it's about solving the problem of lack of water there, but really it's about what John Wyndham called 'the Outward Urge' and Turner's (pretty much discredited) Frontier Thesis, both of which are major themes in Asimov's writing.

Asimov always gives good value and the other stories are worth reading.  The best of the lot is probably 'Sucker Bait', a very Asimov-y tale.

John Wyndham and Lucas Parkes, The Outward Urge

This is Wyndham's account (Lucas Parkes was one of his pen-names) of the human drive to populate the solar system, told through several generations of one family who happen to be present at crucial events.

It has an interesting chronology which allows for stories at 50-year intervals: - space stations in 1994, the first Moon landing in the 2020s, the first Mars landing in 2094, the first Venus landing in 2144 and mining the Asteroid Belt in 2194.

Charles Cockell (ed), Life Beyond: From Prison to Mars

The results of a colaboration between the UK Centre for Astrobiology at the University of Edinburgh and the Scotish Prision Service, whereby inmates took part in short courses focussing on the problems of human colonisation of Mars.

Note that this is 'colonisastion' rather than 'settlement' - the starting point is 50 years after the establishment of the first base.  As such, it is 'Red Sky' thinking and glibly throws around assumed technology such as fusion reactors and the availability of graphine for construction.

Given that the plans here are the products of laymen's after only a few weeks' work, they're excellent pieces of work.  A subsequent series of courses look at living on the Moon, also producing a book (I may get that at some stage).

Ray Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles

A lyrical classic which I've never read (I tried Bradbury as a teenager, but was put off by the lack of rayguns).

Perhaps the opposite of the Frontier Thesis I mentioned above.  Here the frontier doesn't serve as a catalyst making mankind better, it just serves to show that where-ever we go, we just bring along the same old baggage.

What I didn't read...

As I said, I had several books lined up which I didn't get round to.  Some I might read in future months.

As far as fiction goes, I've never read Edgar Rice Burrough's Barsoom Series - I've only read A Princess of Mars (to be honest, I think I would need a good reason like a theme month to launch into it).  For light relief between heavier books I had a couple of Heinlein juveniles - Red Planet and Space Family Stone.  Also to be re-read as relief (because I always enjoy it so much) was Any Weir's The Martian.  And for slightly less light relief was CS Lewis' Out of the Silent Planet.

Non-fiction wise, I think I should have started by re-reading Oliver Morton's Mapping Mars, which is the best book I've read on the subject, and Patrick Moore on Mars.  I had hoped to get around to a book I have on the Beagle 2 probe and Colin Pillinger's autobiography My Life on Mars, which are still firmly on my to-read list.

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