A Traveler's Guide to Mars

by William K. Hartmann
paperback - 468 pages
from Workman Publishing

Vacationers often begin planning their next adventure with the purchase of a travel guide. If you believe in very advanced planning, you may want to pick up A Traveler's Guide to Mars by William K. Hartmann. The Guide to Mars is "hot off the press," timed to coincide with the publicity attendant on this August's perihelic opposition of Mars (our closest approach to the Red Planet in nearly 60,000 years) and the interest in three robot landers headed there.

The book's design is firmly anchored in the travel guide genre, with the standard dimensions, heft, and visual style of a guide to France (though without the wine listings). Fortunately it uses a larger font size and is far more readable than most travel guides I've seen. It is also quite well made for a paperback, with stiff covers, signature sewn for durability, a multitude of high resolution full color or cream-toned black and white photos, and one fold out map. While I would personally prefer a larger format to give more space to the gorgeous images, there is an inevitability to the logic of this style once the "traveler's guide" approach was chosen.

William K. Hartmann is probably the most qualified person on the planet to have produced this book. He is a noted researcher with the Planetary Science Institute, is part of the Mars Global Surveyor team, was the first winner of the AAS's Carl Sagan Medal for communicating science to the public, has written several popular astronomy texts, a science fiction novel about Mars, and a coffeetable book on the history and geology of the Sonoran Desert. He is also a noted artist and founding member of the International Association of Astronomical Artists with five published books of astronomical art.

A Traveler's Guide to Mars lives up to its title in every way. All of the centuries of Mars myth and speculation are jauntily dealt with in the first brief chapter and Hartmann gets right to business: a tour of the most spectacular, instructive, or mysterious features on Mars. But it's more than just a "gosh-wow" tour of the Seven Wonders of Mars, for Hartmann is the best kind of tour guide, one who knows how to separate the subtle wonders and true mysteries from the cheap, showy tourist traps. For a small world (just one quarter the surface area of Earth) Mars is extraordinarily varied and Hartmann includes hundreds of beautiful photos from orbit of the diverse landforms of Mars. He teaches us to see how the forces of vulcanism, asteroid impact, wind, and changing climate have created the grand panoramas of Mars, from the largest known canyon and volcano to vast dune fields, intricately filigreed dust devil tracks and "swiss-cheese" patterned polar terrain. He explains how flowing water, so notably absent on the surface of Mars today, could have shaped so much of its surface in ages past and why the polar caps of frozen water and carbon dioxide hint at ice ages and great thaws. He also points out the many real mysteries and puzzles that remain to be solved.

A Traveler's Guide to Mars admirably conveys the wonder and excitement of not just a geologic wonderland, but the very human adventure of scientists striving at long distance to make sense of a new and alien world. Hartmann enlivens his geologic tale with first hand accounts of the controversies (Was early Mars warm and wet or cold and dry?), tabloid frenzies (the "Face on Mars"), and his experienced personal views of topics such as the thorny relations between scientists and the press. The first arduous human expedition to Mars may not depart for decades, but William K. Hartmann will make you wish it were leaving tomorrow and that you could go along.