Brett Williams's Reviews > Billions & Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium

Billions & Billions by Carl Sagan
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did not like it

Sad ending to an exceptional life.

Sagan ushered in a new opportunity for science - to be comprehensible and uplifting to the masses. The power of science was made manifest by Sagan through his ability to write well. His "Demon Haunted World" is nearly peerless in clarity, importance of ideas and a warning every American should read to comprehend what is happening to us in the present.

But "Billions" opens with a chapter describing numbers and yawns through several more sections of similarly simple concepts told a thousand times by Sagan and others, then begins to turn ugly, as not his science and insights are revealed, but Sagan's politics comes forward. He claims "cosmic justice" that light skinned people suffer skin cancer at rates higher than dark skinned because "lights" invented CFCs. He justifies Japan's ruthless aggression to "protect" oil supplies during World War Two, then rebukes America for doing the same. (That the United States is a wasteful energy glutton is not debatable, but sixties era double standards raise suspicions of truthfulness for careful readers.) After having ignored effective German U-boats off New York in those "vast and impassable oceans protecting" America, Sagan disregards fear generated by Soviet betrayal of Potsdam, blockade of Berlin, the "iron curtain," Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, their work on nuclear weapons and Stalin's murderous record as initiators of the arms race - "We had nothing to fear," he writes. "So we built nuclear weapons and their delivery systems. We initiated [the arms race]..." But as Ann Druyan later states, truth was what mattered most to Carl. Sagan's half-truths make this a paradox.

Finally, in the last five pages preceding the Epilogue we taste the Sagan of old in a pleasant survey of science. In the Epilogue written by Druyan, we witness Sagan demonstrating such strength in confronting his fate that admiration for him soars. Her description of their love makes reading this section unlikely without interruptions for composure. "As we looked deeply into each other's eyes, it was a shared conviction that our wondrous life together was ending forever." Amongst the wreckage of love in our modern era, who could not feel empathy, and envy, for these two lovers at the end of a life as rich and stratospheric as Sagan's?

Sadly, Sagan's last book is a poor reflection of his talents and one this reader hopes he will not be recalled for. As I read I kept referring to glittering reviews on the inside cover, wondering what book the New York Times and others were referring to?

The non-fiction reader is always on guard, comparing, challenging and reconciling, but rarely does one find themselves so suspect of every line, or simply sedated. I wish Sagan could rise up from his grave, pulling every copy of this book back with him, wiping its memory from the minds of those who suffered through it, such that the better image of Sagan can remain unsoiled.

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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
September 17, 2014 – Shelved

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