Book Review: Futures – 50 Years in Space, The Challenge of the Stars

Much like an art gallery, this book is all about its illustrations. Most of these fall under the same spell. There is a foreground view of a planet’s surface (or other such body floating in space). Sometimes the landscape is littered with human artifacts or other alien artifacts. However often it is devoid of life altogether, much like a graveyard. ‘Above’ the surface, orientation of course being very relative, swirls a supernatural ether. ‘Day’ time views (again time being relative) have ghostly perspectives of familiar or quite unusual planets and asteroids whispering into or out of the ether. Night views are clear, without an obfuscating atmosphere, but don’t expect to see recognizable constellations. For example with Alpha Centauri in near proximity, patterns of other stars are quite original. Though the authors use this same spell to weave their magic many times over, each resulting visage is compelling and intriguing in its own right.

And with the universe as the subject matter there is no lack of material. In a similar manner to most astronomy books, this one starts with views of the Earth’s moon and then it soars out. Mars has extensive coverage. Following this are the remaining planets of the solar system and/or their asteroids. Most astronomy books don’t include pictures of surfaces hereafter as even Pluto hasn’t had any significant imaging done of its surface. But here is perhaps where Hardy and Moore excel. Rather than restricting themselves to well known visages, they push a reader into the unknown. There is an Algol-type binary where a small blue white star can be seen scavenging material from its neighbour orange giant. Or, one can see a city which is lit up at night by the glow resulting from a nearby globular cluster. Perhaps no images like these exist anywhere, but perhaps they do, and this speculation adds to the impact of each artwork. Maybe in hundreds of years such an image will be viewed by people or by a robotic probe. Until then we will have to rely on the skills of imaginative seers like Hardy and Moore to bring us such pleasurable treats.

The title itself is a bit misleading, but no deception is intended. The theme of this book is to provide images of what might be seen by future travels, hence futures is in the title. Hardy and Moore first conceived the idea of making an illustrated book of space art in 1954. Hence 50 years is in the title. They did complete a similar venture in 1972 and again in 1978. However, for the most part, this book contains original space art based on up to the date (mid-2003) space science. The final phrase of the title, that is, the challenge of the stars, is not the challenge of making the illustrations, but more the challenge to send people to view them. Here lies one of the main reasons for the authors to prepare another space art book. That is, they wanted to further encourage people to explore space. They believe that there is a real chance that our current opportunity may slip out of our grasp and not return for a very long time. And there is no deception on their belief in this.

There are a number of pleasantries for me, in reading this book. It is non-partisan. There are no flags, no corporate logos and no sales pitch. I also like the author’s ability to step outside the box of predefined life systems. For instance, one sees oxygen-filled sacs that are alive and congregate into rafts or mature into free floating spheres. All imagines have annotations and fall within a chapter of related prose so you always know the subject of the image. Missing however, is a description of how they translate hard scientific data into images. This information would have lent authenticity to the displayed views.

Allowing an artistic mind to travel the realms of space should always result in surreal results. With David Hardy driving the illustrations and Patrick Moore co-piloting via the prose, a reader gets a visual treat that is not so much a trick as just a well thought out gallery of space art. If you are curious about what an asteroid might look like at the moment it strikes the Earth’s surface or see the birth pangs of a new star, then Futures – 50 Years in Space, The Challenge of the Stars is for you.

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Review by Mark Mortimer