The Sirens of Mars is partly the history of science about Mars, and partly about the author’s relationship with Mars. That’s a bit of a trend in popular science, and to be honest, I’m starting to really dislike it — at least when it veers from the writer’s career and things they worked on (pretty relevant) to things which are not really relevant (giving birth to a child). It’s not supposed to be your autobiography; it’s billed as a book about Mars.
Despite finding that aspect frustrating, I mostly enjoyed this. It is a touch biographical about scientists like Sagan as well, but at least that told me things I didn’t already know (e.g. I hadn’t known about Sagan’s struggle with achalasia). There were some details of the Mars missions and the people around them which were new to me as well — I didn’t remember anything about Phoenix at all, totally overshadowed by Curiosity in my memory, I suppose!
What we know about Mars has been filled with missteps where we dreamed more than we could actually detect, like the canals and Sagan’s dream of fast-moving creatures that we wouldn’t capture with a camera. This book is an interesting, if slightly meandering, recounting of that journey and where it has brought us. It might be unsatisfying to some that there’s still a lot of science left to do on Mars, and we don’t have solid answers to some of the questions Johnson discusses. I love the idea that we always have more to learn, though.