Planet Mars with its moons Phobos and Deimos

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

Image credit: Hannu Viitanen/Dreamstime

A smart and informative – though not Earth-shattering – little book, recounts the history of humankind’s relationship with Mars.

It could be fairly said that there are enough books about Mars out there already. In ‘For the Love of Mars: A Human History of the Red Planet’ (University of Chicago Press, £20, ISBN 9780226821894), however, historian Dr Matthew Shindell takes a distinct approach to the subject. ‘For the Love of Mars’ is not so much about Mars itself as much as about how we have imagined, explored and been inspired by Mars for millennia: a human history of something utterly unhuman.

“Mars is an object that has rarely spoken for itself, although it has at times been treated as animate. It has been with us from our earliest written records, and it will likely be with us until our end. But what it is, what it has been, and what it will be, are not necessarily the same thing,” says Shindell. “The Mars I am interested in is Mars as we have known it, as we have described it, and as we have defined its importance to our world and our lives.”

‘For the Love of Mars’, then, is more than a scientific history. In examining Mars in the context of changing ‘world systems’, it could almost be considered a broad human history which uses Mars as a lens to explore shifting ideologies and power structures.

We begin with the ancient Mayan, Chinese and Babylonian skywatchers – and to understand the significance of Mars to these civilisations, it is important to consider not just astronomy but also astrology, which, for much of human history, was practically its conjoined twin. From here, Shindell capably guides the reader through the rest of history via the Scientific Revolution and the Cold War, emerging at our present wavering on the brink of preparing crewed missions to Mars.

This has come to seem to be the natural next step for humanity (“there is a strong temptation, reaching back to the very dawn of the space age, to set Mars as a goal for human spaceflight”), but Shindell adds his voice to calls for caution when it comes to claiming Mars as the next frontier. Why colonise Mars? Who benefits?

Mars is the ideal case study for exploring our relationship with space, being an embodiment of all that inspires and frightens us about it. But perhaps this is too big a story to tell comprehensively in such a limited space (under 200 pages). The sheer scale of this history means that Shindell is sometimes forced to open chapters with sweeping introductions catching the reader up with the entire state of the world since we last checked in. A more episodic structure – which, for instance, tells the human history of Mars through in-depth stories of half a dozen individuals, or texts, or events – might have been more appropriate.

‘For the Love of Mars’ does not present a novel argument or any exciting new research, but more than justifies itself as ‘another book about Mars’ in exploring the planet from a distinct and thought-provoking perspective.

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