Books read: July 2010

Books read: July 2010

Footprints in the Dust: The Epic Voyages of Apollo, 1969-1975, edited by Colin Burgess. The People’s History of Spaceflight series gets more disappointing with each volume. For the period from Apollo 11 to Apollo-Soyuz, this volume assembles chapters from different contributors, with mixed results — the Apollo-Soyuz chapter reads more as the author’s memoir of watching the launch than as a history of the mission. Particularly patchy about the period’s Soyuz missions and Skylab, and reveals very little about Apollo 11 through 17 that is not already covered in A Man on the Moon by Andrew Chaikin (still the book on Apollo:,

Shatnerquake by Jeff Burk. A novella in which all the characters William Shatner has ever played are sucked into our universe with the mission to destroy William Shatner. The Guardian’s Damien Walter calls it “a comparatively mild example” of the bizarro fiction genre, an underground genre focused on the weird — “literature’s equivalent,” says Bizarro Central, “of the cult section of the video store.” Concerning Shatnerquake: truth be told, the concept is a lot more awesome than the execution; the writing was weak and there were a lot of missed opportunities to do something more with the material. Bizarro fiction intrigues me, but I’m now wary of the quality.

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Buying a Piano by Marty and Jennifer Flinn. Yes, I already have a piano — a digital Roland I bought more than two years ago — but this book was still worth reading. While I don’t regret what I purchased, and where I purchased it, even after reading this guide, boy do I wish I had it back then: it’s really useful intelligence for potential piano buyers who would otherwise go unarmed against marketing bullshit, and it sets out the differences between pianos, what to look for, and what not to worry about. Bought remaindered.

Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime, by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin. Truth be told, I’ve always been a junkie for inside baseball of the political kind, and this book, which when it came out was the talk of Washington, provides me with that hit. With the revelations about the inner workings of the campaigns — the disaster that was the Clinton campaign, Edwards’ self-destruction, and McCain’s failure to properly vet Palin — it’s abundantly clear that the best-run campaign won. I wonder if that’s a truism. E-book bought through Apple’s iBooks.

Cod by Mark Kurlansky. Short but expansive history of the Atlantic cod, which went from insanely plentiful on the Grand Banks to commercially extinct in five centuries. I skipped over the recipes and wanted more history (the Basques, Massachusetts, the slave trade, the Icelandic cod wars, the collapse of the Newfoundland fishery); it could easily have been three times as long and still too brief.

Beethoven: The Universal Composer by Edmund Morris. Short biography of my favourite composer; looks like a good starting point before tackling longer, more serious biographies; light on the works themselves but provides good context. E-book bought through Apple’s iBooks.

Footprints in the Dust ed. by Colin Burgess
Shatnerquake by Jeff Burk
The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Buying a Piano by Marty and Jennifer Flinn
Game Change by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin
Cod by Mark Kurlansky
Beethoven: The Universal Composer by Edmund Morris

The cost of a trip to Neptune: $4 trillion

Neptune (Voyager 2) How much would it cost to send a manned mission to Neptune before the end of the 21st century? About four trillion dollars. That’s the estimate of a study examining the question of manned missions to the outer planets (PDF), which used Neptune as a case study. The basic premise is to send six people, in living quarters roughly the size of the International Space Station, to and from Neptune within five years — it can’t be longer because of cosmic radiation, and then you’d have to add more shielding (to say nothing of additional consumables). Essentially, interplanetary travel much beyond Mars and the asteroids is pretty much a non-starter barring the development of ridiculously efficient methods of propulsion and preposterously lightweight radiation shielding. Via io9. (Image credit: Voyager 2 image of Neptune, NASA/JPL.)

Ambassadors from Earth

Book cover: Ambassadors from Earth The fifth volume of the University of Nebraska Press’s Onward Odyssey: A People’s History of Spaceflight series, Jay Gallentine’s Ambassadors from Earth: Pioneering Explorations with Unmanned Spacecraft is intended as a history of the exploration of space using unmanned space probes from the Explorer and Sputnik programs to the Voyager program. Like the other two books in this series that I’ve read, it’s largely based on interviews with the key people involved. This is, in other words, an oral history rather than a definitive account. Also like those other books, it gives a vivid, behind-the-scenes look at how these programs were developed, in all their improvised, chaotic and bureaucratic glory.

There is much of interest here, but Gallentine’s coverage is surprisingly patchy: for example, it covers the early Luna, Mariner and Venera probes in some detail, but omits the later craft, as though the early failures were more interesting than the later successes. Much attention is given to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory: the development of the Grand Tour — what eventually became JPL’s Voyager 1 and 2, is described in loving detail, but only passing reference is made to Pioneer 10 and 11 (Ames projects), and the Viking program (run from Langley) is barely mentioned at all. A substantial amount of attention is given to Mike Minovitch’s campaign to be recognized as the “inventor” of gravity-assisted spaceflight — a bit of dirty laundry that did not warrant so much detail. Gallentine may well have been a prisoner of his source material: not enough on some subjects, too much on others, and reluctant to throw away or to winnow out what he has.

Nor is the book improved by Gallentine’s style: I’m a big fan of informal writing, but Gallentine’s prose is not only too casual, it’s purple, and verges too far at times into the smart-assed or chuckleheaded; the result is a jarring sense of bathos.

Ambassadors from Earth by Jay Gallentine

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