on 21 February 2011
As early as the third page (Preface p.viii), Keay Davidson cautions his readers of the dangers of 'scrutinizing Sagan's life in detail'. Fortunately, like Davidson, I found myself liking and respecting Carl Sagan more at the end of this book rather than less but sadly, the same cannot be said of my feelings for the author.
The problem with this biography is that it is little more than a salacious exposé of Sagan's oft-cited character flaws rather than a balanced account of his life and (significant) achievements. Davidson paints Sagan as a social and professional climber who, in the gratuitous pursuit of celebrity, allowed his ambition to sour marriages, professional collaborations, and friendships alike.
As evidence of the 'serious flaws' involving his personal relationships (p.viii), Davidson cites Sagan's three marriages and throughout the book, holds Sagan unilaterally responsible for the breakdown of the first two. Conversely, Davidson's treatment of Lynn Margulis (Sagan's first wife) is far less judgemental despite her being divorced exactly the same number of times as her first husband (p.394)! This lack of even-handedness pervades Davidson's work; for instance, whilst he is content to infer that Sagan's ambition was a corrosive vice, Margulis' professional aspirations are characterised as enviable virtues (p.71). The biographer even lampoons his subject's curriculum vitae (p.383), seemingly dismissive of Sagan's contributions to over six-hundred scientific papers, twenty popular science books, a novel, a major television series, and a Hollywood film. Doubtless there were some trivial entries in Sagan's resume, but is that not true of most CV?
Clearly, it is entirely reasonable for a biographer to make judgements and form opinions about his subject and it is obvious that Davidson had extensive access to people that were close to Sagan. Undoubtedly, Keay Davidson's judgement of Carl Sagan is better informed than my own, but it seems to me that, by focussing on Sagan's shortcomings rather than his prodigious achievements, Davidson misses an opportunity to celebrate Sagan's contribution to science and society.
on 22 September 2000
What an interesting book! There's a lot in here that might disturb the die-hard Carl Sagan fan, especially the bits where Carl is portrayed as having such an intense interest in his career that he forgets to devote enough attention to his family.
It's a superb read though - if you want to find out more about the man who popularised science for millions of people, then this is the book, warts and all.
on 29 October 2014
I have never been one to see my heroes as Whiter-than-white. And in any good, balanced biography there is always going to be many "man behind the mask" revelations.
Unfortunately, I cannot reasonably call this a "balanced" biography. "Unintended Hatchet Job" may be more of an apt description. Page after page I look forward to reading Sagan's accomplishments, his successes and positive traits. Yet page after page we are treated to criticism after criticism (by those interviewed rather than the author I must add) to effect that with a dull weariness you know that is probably coming next. Even his family do not escape - Was there any reason to waste a paragraph describing an incident between Sagan's mother and Isaac Asimov for example?
The author has certainly done a huge amount of research and really got under the skin of his subject. Its just a shame he is likely to get under the reader's skin too. A point in question is that the continual finger pointing that Sagan was more of a showman than scientist. Well, yes, he was a great showman, and no doubt there were better scientists. But please, shouldn't Sagan's showmanship be celebrated? He brought Science to the masses. How he did that is the biography I want to read.