Two beautiful space picture books by Michael Benson

Abrams is a publisher more typically known for its art books than its science books. So it should be no surprise that Michael Benson’s books Planetfall and Beyond feature enormous, beautifully detailed, colorful pictures on page spreads uncluttered by text.

Actually, Planetfall contains no text at all between the introduction and the endnotes. You’re left to appreciate the space images for their beauty alone. The pictures are presented on a white background rather than the black that’s more traditional for a space book, which is again, more typical of an art book than a science book.

It works because Benson has made exquisite photo choices. InPlanetfall, several Mars Exploration Rover panoramas spread out across three or even four fold-out pages, showing breathtaking expanses of Martian landscapes. There are dozens of pages spent on Saturn and its moons. That system contains so many possibilities for contrasts between serene globe and finely cut rings; tiny moons and large planet; smoky Titan and crisp icy satellites. There are lots of otherworldly photos of Earth, too, disorienting ones that make you wonder what is ocean and what is land, and what the scale is.

Most people will not have seen most of these images, since only very few of them have been released through public information offices. Most of the photos began as raw spacecraft image data that Benson processed. And though I am familiar with most of the raw material for the images in the book (as you might be if you’re a regular reader of this blog), seeing them printed so large and so well was a fresh joy.

The images for Planetfall were all taken between 2000 and 2012. Which means that you won’t find anything from Uranus or Neptune inside. You also will not find Venus, as the Venus Express images are simply not good enough to be included here. A stranger (to my mind) omission is Mercury, as MESSENGER has a very fine camera and Mercury some uniquely interesting landscapes. I think that at least some of the oblique shots across the Mercurian limb taken during the flybys could have been included here. Benson explains in the introduction that the places not included in Planetfall can be seen in his 2008 book Beyond, which was, in fact, intended to survey all of the solar system.

I’d seen Beyond before but I’d not seen the 2009 version, published by Abrams Books for Young Readers. It does not look like a children’s book; it looks like a coffee table book, big pictures but with more text than Planetfall. The text is a very readable introduction to the origins of astronomy and the fifty years of planetary exploration. Strangely, it traverses more than three centuries of astronomy separating Galileo Galilei and Sputnik in two paragraphs. It’d certainly be accessible to junior high school age science-loving kids, but would also teach plenty of adults a thing or two about space.

And again, the photo choices are fantastic. The photos here are not quite as large as in Planetfall, so Benson crams in more of them, and he surprised me with several selections that I hadn’t seen before. That’s in part because he presents many different photos of the same object, so that instead of the same photo of Eros you’ve seen in every publication, you see more than a dozen different views from different perspectives and distances. Instead of a single shot of the Galileo Earth-Moon photo, you see six views from the time-series.

Both books are terrific, and highly recommended! One warning though: Good luck finding space on a bookshelf for Planetfall. It’s the size of an atlas. You may just have to leave it out on your coffee table.

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