Nerding out About Mars: Sirens of Mars Review + Under an Ochre Sky Event!

This post is going to be a little unusual as it is probably going to serve two functions.

The first function will be pretty standard to anyone who’s followed this blog. It’s a review of Sarah Stewart Johnson’s The Sirens of Mars. The only anomaly here is that I typically don’t write reviews about non-fiction, generally preferring fiction, and never feeling like I have enough time to read it all. However, this book caught my eye, as it is relatively recent (2020) and on a subject I don’t know much about, but have generally been interested in.

The second motive for reading is also the second function of this post, which is to attend Science Friday’s event Under An Ochre Sky: Writing The Sirens of Mars with Sarah Stewart Johnson.

I’ll start with the review, and discuss the event afterward. If you’re more interested in any info or insights gained from the event, please go ahead and skip on down. In the mean time, the review . . .

Read The Sirens of Mars?

Yes! To put it succinctly, this book blew me away. Sarah Stewart Johnson’s prose are skillfully crafted and beautiful to read. She does not shy away from technical terminology, but the text is not loaded down with it either. It is clear to me (especially when she drops the names of books and authors she’s read in the past) that Johnson is a poet as much as a scientist, and this book really shows her ability as a writer.

The second thing that stood out to me while reading this book, was just how strange and convoluted our conception of Mars has been. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I had a vague idea that early scientists (which I did not know the name of) believed that Mars had canals, and that this had inspired science fiction authors like Edgar Rice Burroughs who wrote about a habitable Mars (called Barsoom), with its own beings, and civilization etc.

After learning more modern ideas about Mars in school (and let’s be honest, watching shows like The Expanse or reading Andy Weir’s The Martian), such ideas as Burroughs suggested seemed laughable. Perhaps they still are, but I had never attempted to look at the evidence as it was gathered with the technology of that time. Johnson explains everything, giving context to each new discovery in a way that was both fascinating and understandable why they had drawn the conclusions they did. You can tell the deep respect she has for past members of her field by the way she never makes outdated ideas seem silly, only just another block on which the foundation of modern ideas were built on.

I’ll admit, I’m almost a little disappointed those visions of Mars (from scientists Percival Lowell and Giovanni Schiaparelli, not Burroughs) have been disproven. I’m also hopeful for what we might still find in the future. This book feels skillfully written enough to have intended both of these sentiments, and I don’t mind a bit if I’ve been manipulated.

Finally, I’d be remiss not to mention that this book is as much memoir as it is history of Martian planetary science. Johnson seems to have lived an amazing life, and been to some truly incredible places. It definitely had me wondering if there was a way for me to switch careers this late in the game (alas I probably won’t as I have too many other interests I want to still pursue to add another).

I’ve rambled a bit, so I’ll get to the point. Please give this one a read. You won’t regret it. I learned so much, not only about the history of our conception of Mars, but of the planet itself (for instance I did not know it had blue sunsets), as well as our own history too. The Sirens of Mars was genuinely a delight to read.

Under an Ochre Sky . . .

Wow. Another fun and informative experience. Sarah Stewart Johnson was just as knowledgeable and eloquent in person as she was in the book. You can tell she just really loves what she does for a living.

Obviously, she was prepared to talk about the topics written about in The Sirens of Mars, but it seemed like many of the questions she ended up fielding for audience members were looking towards the future of Mars exploration, and where things will go next.

Interestingly, she compared human exploration (aka boots on the ground) of Mars to the discovery of fusion in that it seems like we are always in a state of being 10 – 20 years away from making it happen. However, she seemed hopeful that it would, and saw many possibilities for what would finally be the thing to actually send us. She cited SpaceX’s Mars program, and Elon’s goal of 1 million people on Mars as a colony as likely candidates. A Chinese Mars colony too. Of course, NASA has plans to go to Mars as well. It seems to be an exciting time for this field.

Of course this sparked a lot of questions like should we even send people to Mars? Will it be equitable? Looking at the effect humans have had on nature here on earth, would it be detrimental to any possible life that may be undiscovered on Mars for humans to go?

Johnson seemed to think there was definitely still a lot of work to be done with robots and rovers on Mars before sending people there. In her eyes, we’re “bags of biology” and everything we bring with us would certainly contaminate Mars and effect the search for Martian life. However, she felt that the mission to put people on Mars would likely not be halted by this fact, and admitted that having humans there could actually aid in their search for life on the Red Planet. She would trust a skilled/trained human paleontologist to find dinosaur bones here on earth over a hundred robots and rovers, so perhaps the same can be true for Mars.

She seemed to think that perhaps humans might even be able to HELP any microbes discovered on Mars flourish through some small terraforming etc. (I definitely find this idea fascinating). She also compared humankind’s interaction with Earth ecosystems as comparable to a bull in a china shop, but perhaps on Mars, we could be a bull in an open field, meaning perhaps it is almost a destiny for us to go there.

Finally, the talk started to come to a close, and given the book-club type feeling this presentation had, someone asked which books Johnson would bring to Mars if she were to finally go. She felt that Carl Sagan (talked about at length in her book) was a sufficient inspiration and influence on her career that she would probably bring some of his writings. And then everyone laughed that he’d envisioned Martian turtles. But it got me thinking . . .

That’s it folks!

Well, that’s all I have for this double feature. Will you read The Sirens of Mars? What’s the most interesting thing about Mars for you? Any of the questions asked pique your interest? Any that should have been asked but weren’t? What Mars related books would you bring if your ship left tomorrow for the Red Planet?

Leave your answers in the comments. See you next time!