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Book review #3: “Drifting on Alien Winds…”


I have to put my cards on the table here (they’re behind the dalek, you can’t see them but they’re there) and admit that I’ve been a huge, HUGE fan of the work of space artist Michael Carroll for, ooh, as long as I can remember. As a teenager, in the paper-and-ink pre-internet age, I used to drool over his beautiful paintings in monthly magazines like ASTRONOMY and SKY & TELESCOPE. In those days Micheal – and other space artists like him – would illustrate articles featuring “the latest photos” from Voyager and other probes, taking those images and using them as inspiration for beautiful landscapes and portraits of the new, bizarre and bewildering places the space probes were discovering and seeing for the first time. Michael Carroll took me to the surfaces of Io and Titan, and into the churning atmospheres of Venus, Jupiter and Saturn, a lifetime before my first mouse click took me to NASA websites showing the latest raw images from GALILEO and CASSINI.

But for me, as many of you will know, it has always been about Mars, ever since I was knee high to a Jawa, and Michael Carroll’s artist impressions of Mars’ towering volcanoes, awesome canyons and rock-strewn deserts have excited, inspired and frustrated me since I was **this** tall. Today I can go online whenever I want and enjoy the latest images from the Mars Exploration Rover “Opportunity”, and see Mars’ boulder-covered, dust-drowned landscape for myself. I can, and do, stitch those raw images together to turn them into panoramas, or colourise them with image processing software to make them into visions of Mars as my own eyes would see it if I stood on its surface. I have many gigabytes of Mars images – real photographs – on my PC’s hard discs and god knows how many DVDs and USB sticks. My bookshelves over there groan beneath the weight of “Mars books”. But still, again and again, I find myself going back to those old, now faded copies of ASTRONOMY and SKY AND TELESCOPE to look once more at, and feel love for, Michael Carroll’s depictions of Mars’ polar canyons, pink skies and beautifully-desolate vistas…

So when I was given the opportunity to review a copy of his new book, “Drifting on Alien Worlds”, you’ll understand why I didn’t really have to think too long… 🙂

But to be honest, even if I hadn’t already been a fan, what space enthusiast in his or her right mind could possibly not be excited by a book that describes itself on its cover as “Exploring the Skies and Weather of Other Worlds“?

The squeeeeeee!ing Carroll-fan part of me simply wanted to get its grubby little hands on the book, just to be able to see the latest works by the artist, to feel that link with his images from the past. But another, more analytical part of me thought “Hmm, it’ll be interesting to see how his work has changed in this modern internet age…”

So. The book.

Firstly, it wasn’t what I expected. Not at all. In a good way, I hasten to add.

What I expected, to be perfectly honest – and would have been more than happy with – was a standard “space art book”, i.e your basic “does what it says on the tin” bound gallery of pretty pictures, with captions and a few paragraphs of descriptive, background text.

What I got was a very respectable science reference book, a book of very, very pretty pictures, with captions, of course, but used as illustrations for very deep, very informative chapters on a whole variety of subjects, chapters which give a very thorough account of the history of planetary exploration, and also feature interviews with and input from of the world’s most prominent and succesful planetary scientists. This isn’t the coffee table book of beautiful paintings of alien skies that many will expect from Michael Carroll, but a very useful and informed reference book, packed with science and stories, tales of triumph and failure, and as many questions as answers.

Flicking through the book – which is exactly what I did first, big kid that I am, in my impatience to see the pictures! – reveals page after page of striking images, many familiar from Carroll’s magazine work (p42 – there’s Carroll’s painting of GALILEO burning up in Jupiter’s atmosphere… p210 – the painting of a proposed “Mars balloon probe” which would have dragged a snake-like sensor package across the surface) but just as many new and original and, I think, published for the first time..? (p144 – a jaw-dropping depiction of Saturn’s ring-crossed sky seen from within its clouds… p188 – Triton’s geysers… p214 – an aerobot dropping sensor probes onto the shore of one of Titan’s lakes…)

By now many of you are thinking, I’m sure,  “This isn’t a very fair review; he’s not going to say anything bad about it because he’s such a fan of the paintings!” Well, you’re wrong. Yes, the writing is good (surprisingly good, in fact, really crammed full with shining nuggets of information and insight from many of the “big names” in planetary exploration), and yes, of course, it’s great for a fan like me to see new images from one of my favourite artists, but the book’s not perfect. Some of the black and white images are very small, so small you can’t really see the exquisite detail on them, and they’re waaaaaaaaaaay too dark too, like cheap photocopies (yes, MER martian panoramas on p77, I’m looking at you!). Other images (mentioning no names… *cough* p79 martian panoramas *cough* ) are just too small to be seen and enjoyed properly, while other, shall we say “less deserving” images are given a lot more space on the page. Some strange editorial and design choices have been made, I think. (Why, for example, is the magnificent HiRISE image of Phoenix descending past Heimdal crater reproduced just *this* big?)

And personally – as a fan – I’d rather have seen more of the author’s own work reproduced larger, and in colour. But yes, I know, that would have pushed up the cost of the book.

Those criticisms aside, this is a fantastic book, much more than people will expect it to be when they first hear about it or see it advertised. It’s not simply a book of or about space art; it chronicles the past, present and future of space exploration. It describes what we have seen, can see and will see in the skies of alien worlds “out there”, by taking us on a journey into the future through the imagination of an artist.

One day people – men and women in spacesuits, who journeyed there in spaceships – will see Titan’s lakes, Triton’s geysers and Mars’ volcanoes for real, they’ll see the landscapes of Michael Carroll’s paintings with their own eyes, but that day is many generations away. So for now we need space artists to take us to these amazing places, and if you want to see some of them, Michael Carroll’s book will take you there. And inbetween drooling over the gorgeous views, you’ll learn a lot of science too.


Springer Books

ISBN 978-1-4419-6916-3


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