Book Review: Curiosity: The Story of a Mars Rover, by Markus Motum

Available in bookshops nationwide.

motumIn August 2012, Nasa succeeded in landing the Curiosity rover safely on the surface of Mars. But who, or what is ‘Curiosity’? Glad you asked. Curiosity is a car-sized rover, or robot vehicle, designed to explore Gale Crater on Mars as part of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission (MSL). Curiosity was launched from Cape Canaveral on November 26, 2011, at 15:02 UTC aboard the MSL spacecraft and landed on Aeolis Palus in Gale Crater on Mars on August 6, 2012, 05:17 UTC. The Bradbury Landing site was less than 2.4 km (1.5 mi) from the centre of the rover’s touchdown target after a 560 million km (350 million mi) journey.

Part of Curiosity’s mission is to investigate the make up and behavior of the Martian climate and geology and, more importantly collect evidence that Gale Crater may have been suitable to foster microbial life. Essential to that, of course, is the presence of water. Now, the question arises: could Mars be suitable for human exploration?

Curiosity’s early efforts were so successful that in December 2012, the original two-year mission was extended indefinitely. On the 5th of August 2017, NASA celebrated the fifth anniversary of the Curiosity rover landing and related exploratory accomplishments on the planet Mars.

To celebrate Markus Motum has created a wonderful book aimed at kids, but not exclusively. Parents who enjoy clean, vibrant graphics and short punchy bites of information will also enjoy this book, although their eyes may glaze over with some of the facts. But don’t worry, their kids will get it. Motum is clever. He personalizes Curiosity, possibly using other models like Wall-e. Curiosity talks directly to you, the reader and takes you on the journey with him. Along the way Curiosity explains about space travel and the development of space exploration, especially of the rover series. We learn about the labs, the experiments and the Kennedy Space Centre. When I was a kid, one of my favourite books was Mike and the Modelmakers, about the making of Matchbox toy cars. This book reminds me of that one. The art is the same and the way the facts and the information are presented is the same, too.

One of the tools Mokum uses is space. He ensures there’s plenty of gaps between his planets or paints a large sky that dominates the page, giving a feeling of awesomeness across the universes he’s painting. This is also emphasised by the size of the book – it’s about 30x25cms, so not a small package. One of the best images is the NASA control room, with an illustration that covers both pages – 60cms across. It gives a real widescreen feel. And another is a two-page spread of a rocket taking off. The art is clean and simple but very effective.

Later in the book there’s a time lapse image of Curiosity landing, with comments to help understand the stages as it descends through the atmosphere to the surface of Mars. The accompanying information tells us that the pod that delivers Curiosity used a ‘sky crane’ to lower the vehicle safely. This is just one example of the level of detail Mokum includes. It’s details like this that show that Mokum never compromises or patronises his readers. He wants them to use this book as a source book for their own projects. I tried Googling these facts and really had to search them out. It wasn’t easy, so for the keen reader the value in this book is endless. This is a really special book and a bit of a treasure. The internet is not always the solution. Sometimes books are better. Here’s a great example of that.

Reviewed by Tim Gruar

Curiosity: The Story of a Mars Rover
by Markus Motum
Published by Walker Books Ltd
ISBN: 9781406374681


Book review: Seveneves, by Neal Stephenson

Available in bookstores nationwide.

cv_sevenevesI am still looking sideways at the moon, making sure it is all there, after finishing this epic space-borne read from Neal Stephenson. I have read pretty well everything Stephenson has written, and if there is anything I have learned from it, it is that he has an uncanny sense of what the future holds. Unsurprisingly, he is currently Head Futurist at Magic Leap, a 3D wearable visual technology start-up. I wonder if the staff on the International Space Station have a copy each of Seveneves, just in case?

This is not just another post-apocalyptic novel. This novel takes you from the moment that apocalypse comes onto the cards, thanks to the Moon breaking into seven pieces, through to the dawning of a new race of women and men, once all is said and done.

The characters are selected to carry the science, and there is a lot of it in there. Science is the holy grail. Dinah is the first person we encounter, and it is through her story we are introduced to the International Space Station, Izzy for short. She lives there with 12 others, as the resident robotic scientist. She has a large team of robots which she is programming, as the moon explodes, to work out how best to mine the asteroid tied to the front end of Izzy, which is called Almathea. The second voice we encounter is Doc Dubois, an astrophysicist and TV personality, who is watching as the moon explodes, and is the person who, a few days later, has to inform President Julia Bliss Flaherty, that the world is going to end imminently.

Quite a large proportion of the first two-thirds of this book is taken up with the narration of astrophysical logistics. If this is your thing, you have certainly come to the right place. I found myself intrigued, but occasionally in need of a nice clear diagram, as gravitational physics is not my field of expertise. It looks as though there are some diagrams in the e-book edition.

For all that, the story makes for compulsive reading, and the thought experiment is fascinating. It takes in the psychology of being responsible for the future of the human race, the impossibility of saying goodbye to just three or four among the 7 million people who are inevitably going to die, and the logistics of creating a floating world – a Cloud Ark – based around a space station originally only designed to hold, at its maximum capacity, tens of scientists.

World leaders coordinate a world-wide drawing of lots, to select two young people – a man and a woman – from each country to be sent to space, so the diversity of the world is maintained when the earth can be re-populated. One of the first people sent to Izzy upon the disaster is Moira, a geneticist, and a specialist in maintaining heterozygosity in black-footed ferrets through artificial gene splicing. Her role is to be the caretaker for the future generations of every life-form on earth, which are to come from her store of DNA sequences, and embryos, as well as from the ‘Arkers’ – those who are chosen to be part of the space community.

The meaning of the title of the book only becomes significant in the third section of the book, as we encounter New Earth – 5000 years after the Moon’s dissolution, which caused the ‘hard rain’ which destroyed the earth – through the actions and voice of Kath Two. Kath is ‘Survey’, a member of the space community sent to New Earth to check how re-seeding has gone, and see how habitable segments of the Earth are. The technology described in this part of the book is fantastical, and the breadth of Stephenson’s vision of the space-based future is awe-inspiring.

The story ends rather suddenly, and after burning through the final section in a matter of a day or two, I was left wanting more. This is no mean feat when you have been carried by the sheer power of the author’s storytelling through 850 pages. I even read the acknowledgements, and learned that Stephenson had the idea for this novel circa 2006, while working part-time at Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos’ private aerospace programme.

Seveneves is long, and complex at times, but extremely compelling. I recommend it for fans of Stephenson’s work, and anybody who wants the hard science (fiction) on what might happen if we were faced with a future in space. If you want an introduction to Stephenson’s work, try Diamond Age: or a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer, and follow it up with Cryptonomicon.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

by Neal Stephenson
Published by The Borough Press
ISBN 980008132521

Book Review: The Martian by Andy Weir

The biggest buzz in international sci-fi book circles at thecv_the_martian moment is The Martian, by Andy Weir: Robinson Crusoe on Mars. Set in the foreseeable future, astronaut Mark Watney is alone on Mars, left behind by crewmates who believe he’s dead, with no way to communicate with Earth and only limited supplies of food, water and oxygen.

Cue a fast-paced, warm-hearted, sci-fi action movie romp. Critics have complained that The Martian is too heavy on the technical detail and too light on philosophical meatiness, and these are fair points. There are many entire paragraphs that read like maths exam questions: “Let’s call the volume of the airlock two cubic meters [sic]. The inflated EVA suit probably takes up half of it. So it took five minutes to add 0.2 atmospheres to 1 cubic meter. That’s 285 grams of air (trust me on the math). The air in the tanks is around 1 gram per cubic centimeter, meaning I just lost 285 milliliters.” There is a lot of jargon and elaborate use of acronyms, many of which are confusingly similar (MAV, MMU, MDV, VAL).

Many times I wished for an index, or explanatory notes – often I caught myself skimming over the surface of descriptions of technical high-jinks, watching out for plot points. And the solitary protagonist’s soul-searching is so perfunctory as to be non-existent: “Mankind reaching out to Mars to send people to another planet for the very first time and expand the horizons of humanity blah, blah, blah.”

But the sheer verve and good-natured bounce of the story make up for all that, and more besides. Weir’s lifelong enthusiasm for all things space-geekery shines through every sentence. And if protagonist Mark Watney is a fairly transparent exercise in authorial wish-fulfillment, he is also a genuinely endearing hero we cannot help cheering along.

Weir’s prose is open and confident, and The Martian is excellently plotted, with tense, page-turning pacing – no mean achievement for seasoned authors, let alone a software engineer turned debut novelist. As well as a cornucopia of one-liners (“Hell yeah I’m a botanist! Fear my botany powers!”), there are also moments of genuine comedy: “[At NASA] Teddy swiveled his chair and looked out to the window to the sky beyond. Night was edging in. ‘What must it be like?’ he pondered. ‘He’s stuck out there. He thinks he’s totally alone and that we all gave up on him. What kind of effect does that have on a man’s psychology?’ He turned back to Venkat. ‘I wonder what he’s thinking right now.’ [On Mars, Mark’s POV] Log entry: Sol 61. How come Aquaman can control whales? They’re mammals! Makes no sense.”

Overall, then, The Martian takes a decent shot at being that rarest of beasts: ‘hard’ sci-fi that also appeals to the general reader. Despite its faults, I came away completely seduced by its puppy-like charm. I look forward to the inevitable film.

Review by Elizabeth Heritage