Three stars from the BBC

Sky at Night magazine August 2017I don’t often buy the BBC’s Sky at Night magazine, chiefly because of its ridiculously high cover price (more on which later). I do, however, regularly exercise my democratic right to browse through its contents in W. H. Smith’s. So I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the latest issue contains a prominently placed review of my book Destination Mars. I was less happy that the reviewer only gave it 3 out of 5 stars, but it was enough to prompt me to buy the magazine anyway.

Actually it’s not a bad review. The reviewer (who works for the European Space Agency, and hence presumably knows a lot more about the subject than I do) doesn’t make any really negative points – it’s more like one of my school reports that always seemed to say “could do better”. The three-star rating is defined as “average” – which I guess means 50% of all the books ever written are better than mine and 50% are worse. So I can’t really complain (though I like four star reviews better).

In any case, there’s no such thing as bad publicity. This is only the second time anything of mine has been reviewed in print, following the review in Fortean Times earlier this year. And the Sky at Night magazine has almost 10,000 more readers than FT (source).

There’s another point I ought to bring to your attention. The BBC magazine costs £5.20 per issue, which strikes me as extortionately high for something that only has 100 pages and is packed with advertisements. My book has 160 pages (and the only advertisement is for another book in the same series), yet its cover price is only £7.99. If you follow this link to its Amazon page, you’ll find that some sellers have it even cheaper than that.

Out now – Destination Mars

Destination Mars

My book Destination Mars: The Story of Our Quest to Conquer the Red Planet is published today. As mentioned a few weeks ago, it’s the first title in a brand new series from Icon Books called Hot Science, edited by Brian Clegg. Brian is one of Britain’s top popular science writers, and he gave me some really helpful pointers on the style and content of the book. Hopefully that means it turned out almost as slick and professional as one of Brian’s own books!

With a list price of just £7.99, Destination Mars is available from all good bookshops, as well the usual online retailers such as Amazon UK and

To whet your appetite, here is a quick summary of the book’s contents:

  • Preface: From Science Fiction to Science Fact
  • Chapter 1: The Lure of the Red Planet
    Our Solar System neighbour – Another Earth? – The Real Mars
  • Chapter 2: How to Get to Mars
    Rocket science – Action and reaction – The long way round – Landing on Mars
  • Chapter 3: Martian Robots
    Fifty years of Mars exploration – Lost in space – Anything a human can do?
  • Chapter 4: From a Small Step to a Giant Leap
    The race to the Moon – Mars is harder – Risk management
  • Chapter 5: Big Plans
    Visionaries vs politicians – Mars Direct – One step at a time – Roadmap to Mars
  • Chapter 6: Private Enterprise
    Commercial space flight – Making life multiplanetary – Human interest
  • Chapter 7: Living on Mars
    Colonisation – Martian sustainability – Terraforming
  • Chapter 8: The New Space Race
    The contenders – A wild card – Mars fever
  • Recommended Resources
  • List of Abbreviations
  • Index

Seventy years of UFOs

Fortean Times 355

Today marks the 70th anniversary of Kenneth Arnold’s seminal UFO encounter, on 24 June 1947. That was the event that gave rise to the term “flying saucer”, and kicked off a media frenzy that led to copycat sightings around the world … and a whole new subgenre of science fiction. As such I devoted several pages to Arnold’s sighting and its repercussions in my book Pseudoscience and Science Fiction last year.

The Kenneth Arnold sighting also provides the central theme of the latest issue of Fortean Times, pictured above (FT355, July 2017). To my surprise, I received three extra copies of this last week – something that puzzled me until I looked at the contents and discovered there was a six-page article by myself in it. I actually wrote this (and submitted it to FT) at the beginning of last year, before I’d even had the idea of writing the Pseudoscience and Science Fiction book. In fact it was while writing the article – about the pulp magazine editors Ray Palmer and John W. Campbell, and the way they blurred the boundary between science fiction and fortean-style non-fiction speculation – that I realized I could write a whole book on that sort of thing. Although the magazine article (called “Astounding Science, Amazing Theories!”) took such a long time to appear, it does fit the theme of this particular issue very neatly – including a couple of references to the Kenneth Arnold sighting and Ray Palmer’s role in publicising it.

The main Arnold-related article, however, is not mine but one by Nigel Watson. Called “Was it a bird? Was it a plane?”, this focuses on other potential explanations of the sighting besides the extraterrestrial hypothesis – in particular the possibility that the objects Arnold saw were saucer-shaped or flying-wing style military aircraft. Arnold was flying a light aircraft himself at the time, and Jenny Randles has a one-page piece in her “UFO Casebook” column about other similar aircraft-based UFO sightings. The Kenneth Arnold links don’t stop there, either. The magazine’s lead feature, by Brian J. Robb, is about the conspiracy theorist Fred Crisman – who had connections with Kenneth Arnold, Ray Palmer … and the hollow-Earth theorist Richard Shaver, who also features quite prominently in my own article. In passing I also mention L. Ron Hubbard (who started out as a protégé of Palmer’s upmarket rival, John W. Campbell) – and there’s a link there, too, since the “Building a Fortean Library” column in this issue happens to feature a classic biography of Hubbard.

So there are plenty of reasons to buy this month’s issue of Fortean Times – and my article is just one of them!

Hot Science

Hot Science - Destination Mars
Icon Books’ Autumn catalogue includes the first two titles in a new series called Hot Science. I’m very pleased (and honoured) that one of these is by me – Destination Mars, pictured above. The other title is Big Data, pictured below, by Brian Clegg.

As the catalogue says, “Hot Science is a new series exploring the cutting-edge of science and technology … for popular science fans who like to go that little bit deeper.”

Here is the back-cover blurb from Destination Mars:

When the Apollo astronauts walked on the Moon in 1969, many people imagined Mars would be next. Half a century later, only robots have been to the Red Planet and our astronauts rarely venture beyond Earth orbit.

Now, Mars is back. With everyone from Elon Musk to Ridley Scott and Donald Trump talking about it, interplanetary exploration is back on the agenda and Mars is once again the prime destination for future human expansion and colonisation.

In Destination Mars, astrophysicist and science writer Andrew May traces the history of our fascination with the Red Planet and explores the science upon which a crewed Mars mission would be based, from assembling a spacecraft in Earth orbit to surviving solar storms. With expert insight he analyses the new space race and assesses what the future holds for human life on Mars.

Destination Mars is published on 6 July 2017, followed by Big Data on 3 August 2017.

Hot Science - Big Data

Pseudoscience and Science Fiction

My most recent book was published by Springer a couple of months ago, although for some reason they’ve given it a copyright date of 2017. It’s called Pseudoscience and Science Fiction and it’s part of their ongoing Science and Fiction series. Aimed at “science buffs, scientists and science fiction fans”, the series encompasses both fiction and non-fiction, with the latter primarily looking at how “real” science is featured in science fiction.

But what about the pseudoscience in science fiction? I felt there was a gap in the market that needed to be filled, particularly given the numerous overlaps between pseudoscientific beliefs and popular SF tropes. I had great fun researching this, and Pseudoscience and Science Fiction is the result. Here is the publisher’s blurb (I had nothing to do with the last paragraph!):

Aliens, flying saucers, ESP, the Bermuda Triangle, antigravity … are we talking about science fiction or pseudoscience? Sometimes it is difficult to tell the difference.

Both pseudoscience and science fiction are creative endeavours that have little in common with academic science, beyond the superficial trappings of jargon and subject matter. The most obvious difference between the two is that pseudoscience is presented as fact, not fiction. Yet like SF, and unlike real science, pseudoscience is driven by a desire to please an audience – in this case, people who “want to believe”. This has led to significant cross-fertilization between the two disciplines. SF authors often draw on “real” pseudoscientific theories to add verisimilitude to their stories, while on other occasions pseudoscience takes its cue from SF – the symbiotic relationship between ufology and Hollywood being a prime example of this.

This engagingly written, well researched and richly illustrated text explores a wide range of intriguing similarities and differences between pseudoscience and the fictional science found in SF.

Pseudoscience and Science Fiction has its own page on the main website, but here are some Amazon links (the “look inside” preview is particularly generous, if you want to get a flavour of the content and style of the book):