Book review: ‘4th Rock from the Sun: The Story of Mars’ by Nicky Jenner

A ‘wannabe space explorer’ brings us an engaging review of our enduring fascination with the Red Planet.

If ever a planet could be flavour of the month it would have to be Mars. On BBC Radio 4, programmes on Mars are almost as common as the shipping forecast. The audience of one live feature had no difficulty identifying the vegetable grown by Matt Damon’s character in ‘The Martian’, which suggests that Mars is truly part of our culture (or that Radio 4’s audience is mainly gardeners!).

Yet ‘the story of Mars’ has fascinated audiences for over a century now, since Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli thought he saw ‘canali’, or channels, on the surface. Unfortunately, a mistranslation led American astronomer Percival Lowell to think that ‘canals’ implied intelligent life... and the rest is history. Indeed, Lowell could almost have been a publisher’s agent, considering the subsequent cultural impact across the years, from ‘The War of the Worlds’ to ‘Spiders from Mars’.

In ‘4th Rock from the Sun: the story of Mars’ by Nicky Jenner (Bloomsbury Sigma, £16.99; ISBN 9781472922496), we have a cultural compendium of our continuing fascination with Mars. It begins with an analysis of ‘Mars Fever’, asking “Why do we want to visit Mars so badly?” and “Is Mars really so special?”. The author, who calls herself an “avid wannabe space explorer”, begins by explaining why Mars is so hostile to humans and wouldn’t make much of a holiday destination. “The trip there would be thumb-twiddlingly boring,” she says, although she quickly regains her ‘wannabe’ stance with the observation that Mars is potentially the best place to find extraterrestrial life.

One chapter covers the colour and name of Mars in society, mythology, astrology, palmistry and pretty much anything else that ends in a ‘y’. We all know that the colour red is “often naturally linked to sex”, but did you know that Mars is named Mangala in Hindu astrology “after their flame-red god of war” and that Mangala rides on a ram, the zodiacal Aries “ruled by the planet Mars” and associated with fire? It may be a long way from potatoes, but it shows how long we’ve been hooked on Mars.

Most of us would be able to conjure up a handful of cultural Martian references – from Edgar Rice Burroughs to Captain Scarlet – but you’ll find your memories revived by the fire-hose volume of examples in this book. For me, the book represents an eclectic mix of Martian memories, from science and technology to science fiction and belief.

Having hooked her audience in the early chapters, Jenner gets down to the serious science of Mars and its moons and our continuing exploration of them. The chapter heads – such as ‘Robot Cars on Mars’ – may be sensationalist, but the content is engaging and accessible. It’s not a serious academic source, but it’s high on the list of the first books to read about Mars.

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