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Book review: “Living Among Giants” by Michael Carroll


Take even a quick look at my higgledypiggledy book shelves over there and you’ll realise I’m a big fan of books which combine good, hard science with speculation about the future. I have lots of them, probably dozens of them, some new, some old, and time and time again I find myself leafing through them and, through their fascinating text and beautiful space art, exploring the fantastic worlds Out There in our solar system and beyond. I have books containing the space art of such masters as Don Davis, David Hardy, William Hartmann and Pamela Lee, to name just a few, and cherish them.

Most of the books I have are, to be fair, pretty similar, and they show, mostly, the same places. They are full of gorgeous artists impressions of future astronauts exploring or settling the worlds closest to us, The Moon, Mars, maybe the moons of Jupiter at a stretch, which makes sense as they’re the places we have a chance of getting to in the relatively near future. So I have grown up with seeing astronauts standing on the edge of Valles Marineris and peering down at the clouds rolling across its floor far below, or kneeling beside antique 20th century landers covered in dust; I have drooled over countless paintings of settlements and research outposts on the Moon; I have smiled wistfully at paintings of men and women standing on Io and watching one of its sulphur volcanoes vomiting into the sky… I love them all, and when a new book comes out I devour that too, but even I have to admit that, sometimes, just sometimes, it would be nice to “go” somewhere new, somewhere different…

So when I read that one of my very favourite space artists, Michael Carroll, had written a book which offered readers a travel guide to the worlds and moons of the outer solar system, the off the beaten track worlds and moons which lie beyond Jupiter, I was intrigued and knew I had to read it. It struck me as quite a brave and challenging thing to do because, I think it’s fair to say, many… most, perhaps… space enthusiasts and amateur astronomers think that once you get past Saturn it’s all a bit, well, boring out there. They have their fans, of course – people who find beauty in their rushing winds and fish tank grit rings – but to the rest of us Uranus and Neptune are, basically, just big bland blue-green balls, with a few fairly interesting moons going around them –

Oh come on now, don’t look at me like that. Spare me your indignation and be honest with yourself: that’s how many of us think of them. We think so little of them that even when they’re in the sky we don’t swing our telescopes towards them but look at other things in the sky again, for the gazillionth time…

But the truth is the outer solar system is, effectively, a neglected second solar system. Once you fly past Jupiter and Saturn, and set out across that enormous gulf of space beyond them, you are heading towards a host of worlds and moons of incredible variety and a beauty all of their own, and in his new book Michael Carroll takes us by the hand on a tour of many of them, boldly suggesting that in the future human explorers will call them home, and find their landscapes, features and scenery every bit as fascinating and beautiful as those on Mars, the Moon and the Galilean Satellites.

And so, in this book we are thrust far into the future – an optimistic future with no budget constraints or idiot, short-sighted politicians strangling the spirit of human endeavour or the drive to explore – when there are brave, wide-eyed men and women living and working far, far beyond the often yawningly-familiar worn-down mountains of the Moon and the rust-red plains of Mars. Dipping into their history and the literature they have inspired Carroll explains in detail the science behind the atmospheres of the gas and ice giants, and the startlingly varied landscapes and geology of their moons, but in such an approachable way reading this book is like listening to a series of lectures by a scientist who is also a great communicator and public speaker. I learned a lot as I read this book, and it gave me a much deeper appreciation of the work of the planetary geologists

But for me the main appeal of the book is its beautiful illustrations. (I know, I’m shallow, guilty as charged!) As I said before Michael Carroll is one of my favourite space artists, and has been ever since I first came across his work in the pages of the astronomy magazines I bought when I was just starting out in the hobby, and so any book which features new paintings by him is always going to be forced into one of the few remaining gaps on those shelves, but this one is there by merit, not through loyalty, because some of the illustrations in it are wonderfully evocative and inspiring. P102 – a holiday resort cluster of domes on the equatorial ride of Iapetus; P128 – an astronaut standing on the shore of Kraken Mare, one of Titan’s methane seas, watching surf-edged waves creeping slowly up the shore; P152 – tourists posing for photos on the “steep walled cliffs at the junction of Korrigan and Pixie Chasmas” on Uranus’ moon Ariel…

My favourite of all is probably this one, showing a futuristic spacecraft skimming over Saturn’s glittering rings, heading for the tall, icy structures which jut up from it…


…but look what they did with it! They split it between two pages!! Which numptie thought THAT was a good idea???


One thing I really love about Carroll’s art is it is natural, and human and warm. He is an artist, not an illustrator. In one of the prefaces he states, proudly, that although a few incorporated modern digital techniques, he actually painted most of his illustrations in the book the old fashioned way, on canvas, with paint, and that is a joy. It makes such a difference. For example, today, just by coincidence, as I was killing time in my local bookstore I came across a new Star Trek book, an update of the old “Ships of The Line” book which features many of the beloved starships and spaceships from Star Trek’s series and films. And yes the pictures in it were all very striking, but they were almost all digital creations, and as clever as they were, many of them were just so artificial-looking, so cold, that they could have been created by robots. Too clean, too sharp, too artificial. But when you look at paintings like this, in “Living Among Giants”…


…you can tell a person, a living, breathing human being made it. He paints with the same love and human touch as people like Pamela Lee and the vastly under-rated Lucy West-Binnall (not heard of her? Google her right now, you can thank me later!). I have no doubt that if Michael Carroll went into space he would take an easel, a canvas and a box of paints with him and would be out of the airlock, set up and painting something before his lander’s engines had even turned off.

And you know what? I don’t care that it’s unlikely the future shown in the book will ever materialise, that’s not the point. The point is, this book will lift you off the face of our troubled home planet and lead you by the hand to some of the incredible worlds which lie out there, opening your eyes, and your mind, to the wonder and beauty which exist far from home.

Ok, so, to summarise, why should you buy this book? Well, here’s a contents checklist… Serious science? Check. Useful and educational diagrams? Check. History of astronomy and space exploration? Check. Beginners course in geology and comparative planetology? Check. Gorgeous space art? Check.

Another winner, Mr Carroll.

What’s next? 🙂



“Exploring and Settling The Outer Solar System”


ISBN: 978-3-319-10673-1