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The Fire of Distance

Beyond the Solar System

By Willy Ley 

16 Apr, 2023

Because My Tears Are Delicious To You


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1964’s Beyond the Solar System is a short non-fiction text by Willy Ley. Colour illustrations are by Chesley Bonestell.

I found a due-date slip pasted into the library copy I re-read for this review. This slip seems to have been glued to the book around 1970; most of the due dates stamped pre-date 1980. The last date shown: Jan 1995. Any checkouts after that may have been computerized. If so, we can deduce that the Queens library system was computerized in 19951. I also found a slip showing student names and IDs. I suppose they didn’t worry about identity theft back in the days of yore.

While the cover art might promise a thrilling discussion of interstellar travel, the text is devoted to astronomy as the field stood in 1964. Some details of stellar evolution seem unclear to Ley; either they had not been worked out by this point or he was a bit behind the field. Nevertheless, a layperson ignorant of astronomy could well find this a useful starting place.

Many readers may have appreciated the book not for the information therein, but for the illustrations. The book contains nineteen astronomical plates (all but one black and white) and there are thirteen colour paintings by Chesley Bonestell. Subjects include futuristic space craft

and other star systems.

Of particular interest to me was this illustration of the Beta Lyrae system, which could have inspired Niven to set his story The Soft Weapon” in that system.

Having not read this book since the 1970s, I was surprised how short the book was and how few the colour illustrations. I remembered Beyond the Solar System as a coffee table book, filled with more paintings than there actually are. Modern eyes might not be as impressed now as readers were decades ago. Grand astronomical photographs are just a mouse-click away. Nevertheless, revisiting the art was a pleasure. 

This text had more Wernher von Braun than I like in my astronomy texts. Otherwise, it was a pleasant trip down memory road.

Beyond the Solar System is out of print, although used copies don’t seem to be hard to find.

I’m going to put footnote 1 here, so you don’t have to scroll to the end of the review to find it.

1: Yes, UWaterloo computerized their libraries in the early 1980s but who can say how long it took Queens to embrace rudimentary electricity, let alone advanced mechanisms like computers?

And now for the contents.

Foreword by Wernher von Braun

A short foreword by SS-Sturmbannführer von Braun.


Ley explains that this is in its way a follow-up to his The Conquest of Space, published about 20 years earlier.

1: Voyage to Alpha Centauri

A brief discussion of scale; the planets of our Solar System; that Alpha Centauri is the Sun’s nearest neighbor; how long a trip to the Alpha Centauri system might take.

Ley knew enough about space travel as it existed in the early 1960s (before the 1969 crewed moon landing, but after the first rocket had reached the moon in 1959) to understand that interstellar travel would be even more difficult than sending a rocket to the moon. His discussion of just how humans might reach Alpha Centauri is rather vague.

2: Names and Shapes in the Sky

A short history of astronomy and the means by humans learn about the stars.

3: The Worlds of the Binaries

This is largely a discussion of the nature of stars as understood in 1964 (or at least, as understood by Ley), as well as the history of astronomy. Ley touches on various enigmatic systems, most notably the still mysterious Epsilon Aurigae.

I found it odd that Ley was puzzled by Sirius A and B. He speculated that that B differs from A due to differences in the composition of the regions of the nebula from which they formed. It seems intuitively obvious (to me at least) that B started off more massive than A and shed a lot of mass on its path to becoming a white dwarf. Ley didn’t see this. I wonder why.

4: The View from the Outside

A discourse on the nature and structure of galaxies and how humans arrived at their modern understanding of them.


The Names of the Constellations

Magnitudes and Luminosities


A surprisingly short bibliography.


A rather perfunctory index.