I was tremendously disappointed and frustrated by this book.
This is largely my own fault, because I went into it expecting it to be something it’s not. Had I read the description more carefully, I might not have had such a strong negative reaction (which was exacerbated by some outside stress when I first started reading it, so I put it aside for a few weeks, until I was less mad in general, and more likely to give it a fair reading). I’m actually somewhat hesitant to write this up at all, for a number of reasons, but after thinking it over a bit, I think I have sensible reasons for being disappointed in the book, and it’s probably worth airing them.
As mentioned in yesterday’s post about “Big Science”, this is a book whose central message is that we ought to be spending more money than we are on space exploration in order to boost science as a whole. And when I saw Tyson promoting this on either the Daily Show or the Colbert Report, I was excited by the idea. As anybody who’s been reading the blog for any length of time knows, I’m all in favor of bringing science to a broader audience (which is why I write books where I discuss physics with my dog). While I’m skeptical the space is the most effective tool for getting the job done, I’m prepared to hear a good argument for that, and Tyson seemed like just the guy to do that: to provide a clear and coherent vision of what space exploration ought to be in order to serve as a driver of science in general.
But this is not that book. Instead, it’s a collection of… stuff. Some essays, some speeches, some interview transcripts, a whole bunch of Twitter posts. Collectively, they’re all about space exploration as a general matter, and many of the individual pieces are as good as you would expect. But it’s not a sustained and coherent argument. And that’s a missed opportunity.
This is frustrating for a couple of reasons. First, a lot of it just feels kind of lazy. I read it as an ebook, and on the iPad at least its 360 “pages”; Amazon lists the hardcover as 384 pages. And really, whichever number you pick, there’s a really good 200-page book waiting to be made of this stuff. But a huge amount of what’s here probably shouldn’t be, at least not in this form.
There are verbatim interview transcripts. There’s a verbatim transcript of a Colbert Report segment. There are numerous speeches, many of them including the introductory “warm up the crowd” sort of material. The longer things are broken up with the inclusion of vaguely relevant tweets, done up like Twitter screen captures, and there’s one whole segment that’s nothing but a bunch of collected tweets about Space Shuttle missions.
All of this stuff works very well in its proper context, but it doesn’t work nearly as well on the printed page. I saw the Colbert Report segment that’s included here, and it was great tv, but the only reason it works at all is because I know what it should look and sound like. The same with the speeches, particularly the opening jokes– I can see how it would be great live, but in print…
This also makes for a very disjointed and repetitive read, even if you skip the bits that are total filler. Because each of the individual pieces was intended to stand alone, it has to be self-contained. But there are only so many relevant anecdotes and examples to go around, and as a result, they get repeated over and over, needlessly. By the third or fourth mention of how the flawed Hubble optics led to better cancer screening, I was gritting my teeth and muttering “Skip to the end” like Prince Humperdinck to the Impressive Clergyman.
There’s also a problem caused by the fact that these were all for different outlets, in different contexts. So, there are pieces that are somewhat critical of NASA, written for one set of outlets, but then there are speeches delivered at NASA events, which are much more flattering to the agency. There are pieces taking the view that robots are the best way to explore the solar system, and others going on about how robots are no substitute for a human presence. It’s a little hard to get a coherent picture of what he really thinks.
And this is a big problem, because Tyson is an extremely gifted communicator. So, when he’s pro-robot, I find myself nodding along, saying “yes, yes, of course.” And when he’s anti-robot, he sounds equally convincing that humans have to be part of space exploration. When you try to put the pieces together, though, they don’t always fit.
That’s what makes the book frustrating and disappointing. I would love to see what could’ve been made out of this, had he chosen to put his prodigious communication skills behind a single, sustained argument for some clear vision of space exploration. Even better, had he backed up the repeated discussions of the value of space exploration with something more than plural anecdotes. As it is, the well-argued parts don’t really make a coherent whole, and they’re surrounded by an awful lot of filler– very good filler, to be sure, but still.
As I said, I’m a little hesitant to write this, in part because I fear it will come off as sour grapes– I haven’t gotten on the Colbert Report, after all. And my feelings about it are undoubtedly colored by the fact that I’ve been working on something that would re-use ideas from the blog, but spending hours re-working those posts so that they fit together into a coherent whole, rather than just sticking together a bunch of independent pieces (both because I’m not famous enough to sell that and because it just seems like bad craftsmanship to do that for a book that purports to make a single argument).
But even taking that into consideration, and doing my best to be objective about the whole thing, I was sorely disappointed. It’s a perfectly fine book for what it is, but what it could’ve been with a bit more effort and editing would have been far, far better. And that’s a shame.