[Book Review] Voyager, by Stephen J Pyne

Summary: If you want to learn about the Voyager mission, then this is not the book for you.

Review: Being a Voyager fan, I really had high hopes for this book. Unfortunately, it isn’t the book I thought it would be.

I was hoping that this would be a definitive book describing the Voyager mission in detail and talking about its goals, the troubles and triumphs it encountered as it travelled through the solar system, the new discoveries it made and how they revolutionised planetary science (and how it captured the imagination), as well the people involved in the Voyager project.

What I got instead was a lot of meandering, historical waffle comparing Voyager’s exploration of the solar system to past historical ages of discovery, with a few little nuggets of actually Voyager-relevant detail thrown in. I’d say that about 80% of the book is historical waffle, and 20% of it is actually about Voyager. After a while I was actively skipping pages of the historical stuff (which I really wasn’t interested in) to get to the Voyager “meat”, but in the end even that couldn’t hold my attention because there just wasn’t enough of it. The descriptions of the planetary encounters contain very little actual information and a lot of the really cool stuff is glossed over as if it was a distraction to the real purpose of the book. This is surprising given that the book is divided quite methodically into the various phases of the mission (e.g. Cruise, Asteroid Belt, Cruise, Jupiter flyby, Cruise, Saturn flyby, etc) – it’s not as if there isn’t enough science or stuff happening involving Voyager itself fill up those chapters! I got through about half of the book before giving up, because it turned into a very frustrating read – had I continued I think I would have thrown it against the wall in anger! And skipping through the rest of the book, I didn’t really see any change for the better later on either.

To be fair, its subtitle is “Seeking Newer Worlds in the Third Great Age of Discovery”. That being the case, I was expecting a little bit of historical comparison, maybe a chapter at most at the start… but the author scatters this throughout the whole book, breaking off a perfectly good narrative about Voyager itself and veering off on vaguely related tangents about Vasco Da Gama, Magellan, Cook, and Darwin’s expeditions. Even when it’s on topic, it hops randomly back and forth between Voyager itself and the politics and history of what was going on at JPL on Earth, which is somewhat jarring and more annoying if you just want it to focus on Voyager. The reviews on Amazon raise the same issues as I’m describing here, and in retrospect I really should have read them before picking this up. Oh well.

I suppose that if you were actually looking for a book that was low on actual science and high on the author’s opinion about comparisons between planetary discovery and exploration and the historical exploration of new lands on Earth then this book probably has a lot going for it in that regard. Even then though, the author wanders around all over the place with his discussion, and expounds and opines and waffles on with annoyingly flowery language that rapidly grated on me. In the end, I don’t really think it rightfully belongs in the Science section of a bookstore, but rather in the History section instead.

Maybe I’m being overly harsh, and I’ll admit that my negative review is in part because I was expecting the book to be something different to what it actually was. But even then, I think it still lacks focus and that it isn’t actually very well written either.

In short – if you want to learn more about the Voyager mission itself (rather than its historical context), I can’t recommend this book at all. I am searching for a better book on the subject, and I have it on good authority (from the Voyager2 twitter feed itself!) that “Voyager Tales” by David W. Swift or “NASA’s Voyager Missions” by Ben Evans are much more like what I hoped this book would be (the latter looks particularly promising).

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