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Book review: “Philip’s Essential Guide To Space”

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Note: book does not come with sleeping cat.

At this time of year, hoping to grab a piece of the Christmas gift market, publishers are releasing books faster than Donald Trump can post paranoid nonsense on Twitter, and Philip’s is no exception. They have just released a new astronomy title, called rather grandly, “The Essential Guide To Space” (hereafter just going to be referred to as “The Guide” ok? I’m not typing out its full title every time!), written by science journalist and Society for Popular Astronomy stalwart Paul Sutherland. So, is it “essential”? And with soooo many astronomy books being published, is there enough new and different in it to make it “the perfect gift for Christmas” as they say in the ads nowadays?

Firstly, in the interests of full disclosure, I should say that I know the author. I work with Paul on the SPA Council and on the SPA Facebook page, etc, but this review is going to be neutral and honest, just as he’d want it to be. No point doing it otherwise!

Ok. So, The Guide is a good old fashioned “hefty” space book, heavy and very well made, the kind that sits comfortably on the shelf in a school library’s “science” section and almost displaces the fabric of time and space as you lift it. Inside, as you would expect from a modern astronomy title, it is packed full of beautiful photos and artists impressions of stars, planets, astronauts and space probes. And, refreshingly, almost all of them are bang up to date, the very latest images available from modern telescopes and space missions as the book was being put together; there are only a few of the “old favourites” that every astronomy book seems to use, such as the artist’s impression of astronauts on Mars on page 185, which was surely painted just after the Big Bang…

The photo quality is excellent throughout, and the layout of the book is very crisp and clean too, though I have a few issues with some of the design choices made. The font used for each section’s title and elsewhere in fact boxes etc is horrible, some weird kind of grunge/graffiti design which doesn’t look “spacey” at all and is visually at odds with the aforementioned “crisp and clean” look of the pages. And there is a lot of black, which I personally think makes it a bit dark in tone as well as visually, and makes it feel a little “cold”. But that’s just a thing for me; I know it makes sense for a space book, what with space actually *being* black and all.

However, I do think that in some places the black is over-used, such as the spread of pages 86-87 which has a beautiful landscape image from the Mars Pathfinder mission spread across it, at the bottom, but there is none of Mars’ beautiful salmon pink/butterscotch-hued sky visible, which looks stunningly beautiful on the original image. Instead the designers have cropped off the sky and just pasted the landscape onto the black page, which might suggest to some readers that the sky on Mars is black…

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But really that’s a minor design niggle. The main thing is that the book is, as I said, bang up to date, with gorgeous images taken by the most recent “celebrity” missions such as ROSETTA and  New Horizons, which are covered very fully in the book. This is sometimes at the expense of covering other, older missions with the respect I felt they deserved – the amazing achievements and discoveries of the Mars Exploration Rovers “Spirit” and “Opportunity” are somewhat glossed over – but I understand that there’s only so much room available on a page, and it’s only fair that newer, more recent missions are given the spotlight.

I keep going back to all that black though…. brrrrrrrr.

On the plus side, something I was very glad and relieved to see: there are none of the migraine-inducingly garish and confusing “false colour” 1970s and 80s images of the planets that STILL crop up in astronomy titles today…!

The book’s main strength, I feel, is its text. Reading the book is like listening to a really good presentation by an experienced Outreach speaker, and that for me is one of the signs of a good reference book, whatever the subject. As with all astronomy titles, The Guide isn’t meant to be read from cover to cover; it’s a book to dip into, to learn about a certain planet, mission or field of astronomy when you want or need to. And each section really is like a short illustrated talk by a good Outreach educator. The writing is clear and concise, but not dull and dry, and there’s a natural flow to the writing, with long, conversational paragraphs,  which makes it very easy to read – unlike some astronomy titles, which are written in soundbite sentences like a James Patterson novel, or just coldly list facts and figures that make them read as if they were written by a robot.

Take, for example, this section from the introduction…

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That’s really nice isn’t it? Space exploration can seem very cold and inhuman sometimes… all that black, you see…. but images like that show that there’s another side to it, a richer, more romantic side, which many ridicule these days but I think is still very important, especially in such dark times as we find ourselves in now.

So, to go back to the questions I posed at the start of this review – is this book “essential”? No. No astronomy (or science) book is that, not in this internet age when space exploration and the science of astronomy moves so quickly that every book is out of date the moment it is sent off to get printed, and mission websites contain more detail and information than a book ever could, and can be updated within hours of a new discovery being made. What this book is is a very effective snapshot of what we know now, looking back at what we have achieved to date and looking ahead to what we are hoping to do in the future.

And is there enough new and different in it to make it “the perfect gift for Christmas”? Well, that depends who it’s bought for. It’s not suitable for anyone younger than a teenager, I think, unless they are a real “space cadet” kid who has been devouring this stuff for years already. I think it would be a great gift for someone a little older who has just become interested in space exploration and wants to catch up with things, maybe a teenager who has just discovered how fascinating “space” is at school, or an adult who has seen a TV programme about Pluto, or Mars, and who wants to know more. If you know someone like that I would definitely recommend you buy them this book for Christmas if you haven’t sorted them out with a present yet.

It’s a book I would have loved to have been given when I was a teenager.

PHILIP’S “THE ESSENTIAL GUIDE TO SPACE: ISBN 978-1-84907-419-3

£14.99

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