Explorers: The Most Exciting Voyages of Discovery -- From the African Expeditions to the Lunar Landing

by Andrea De Porti

Published by Firefly Books

184 pages, 2005

Buy it online




Fatally Flawed Beauty

Reviewed by Aaron Blanton


I fully expected to like Explorers: The Most Exciting Voyages of Discovery -- From the African Expeditions to the Lunar Landing. The topic is certainly interesting and the presentation here is flawless.

Explorers is a lush and brilliantly executed coffee table book. The large pages are heavy with wonderful photos and -- an added and unexpected bonus -- those big pages fold out to provide the reader with generous page upon page of information and illustration. Explorers is beautiful. Unfortunately it is also fatally flawed. I don't know much about Roald Amundsen and the Northwest Passage or Teobert Maler and his uncovering of the Mayan civilization -- just two of the many "Exciting Voyages" covered here. However, I do know a thing or two about NASA's Apollo program. I know enough, that is, to spot the errors that litter the pages of Explorers dedicated to that subject.

Just for starters, a photo seemingly purporting to be of "Neil Armstrong in the Sea of Tranquillity" is actually of fellow Apollo 11 moon walker, Buzz Aldrin. That alone is unsurprising. Who ever remembers the second person to do anything?

There is a large and beautiful spread entitled "Apollo 13 and the moon" that I found misleading. The photos under this heading are of various moon-based activities: moon walking, moon buggy riding, moon sample gathering and other things that took place on the moon. While the photos are not attributed to Apollo 13 astronauts, on a fast read through, it would be easy enough to think so. And Apollo 13, of course, did not complete its mission. The layout is lovely, but misleading.

Beyond the realm of misleading and right into erroneous, however, is this statement about Apollo 1:

Only two accidents marred the entire Apollo space program -- the death of the whole crew in the flames that engulfed Apollo 1 at the moment of liftoff...

The crew of Apollo 1 did, unfortunately perish, but it was certainly not "at the moment of liftoff." In fact, it was during an entirely routine -- but ultimately fatal -- launch pad test that the crew of Apollo 1 was lost.

More erroneous information. The text says that while Aldrin and Armstrong were traveling to the moon in Eagle, aside from Michael Collins -- who they'd left back on Apollo 11 -- they were the only humans "within a thousand million miles." This, of course, is ludicrous and even contradicts the dek to this piece that says: "On July 20, 1969, the lunar module Eagle, in the climax to a journey of a quarter of a million miles landed on the surface of the moon." A quarter of a million is the correct number. And it's nowhere near the "thousand million miles," stated elsewhere.

All of this in a book with a grand total of six pages devoted to space flight.

So here's the problem: those few -- and some would say slight -- errors compromise the reader's trust of the whole book. And that's a shame because, as I've already said, in many ways this is a glorious work. But did David Livingstone really spend his career on an obsessive search for the "missionary road" in the middle of the 1800s? Could be. I'm not sure. And there was so much wrong with the Apollo stuff, I don't know that I want to trust what's written about Livingstone in Explorers.

What about "tragic hero" Vittorio Bottego? Was his life really as "short and intense" as portrayed here? And what of Alfred Wegener's passion for meteorology? Did he really start his career in Berlin in hot air balloons or is something missing from this picture?

Author Andrea De Porti has a passion for science and is currently the art director of Alumina, a magazine about books and manuscripts. He has a background conducive to getting this stuff right and there's probably more in Explorers that is correct than that which is incorrect. All of that said, however, I was disappointed that a book that could have been -- should have been -- so good was, for me, spoiled by a few incorrect -- and easily checked and corrected -- details. And that's really too bad, because the things that are good about Explorers are many and wonderful. | October 2005


Aaron Blanton is an expatriate Kentuckian writer and musician living outside of the United States.