I dream of other worlds — Michael Benson is my kind of freak, and Beyond — official book website here — is my kind of book. Ever since I was small I was fascinated by things astronomical — one of my most valued books to this day is H. A. Rey’s The Stars. Yes, that’s the guy who did Curious George, but he also applied his talent towards a conception of the constellations that helped make the night sky clearer for me from an early age. Then there was the National Geographic Picture Atlas of Our Universe, a great end of the seventies ‘here’s what we know’ summation that was great for inquisitive kids like me (and hey, the cover rocked). Patrick Moore’s The New Challenge of the Stars, Timothy Ferris’s Galaxies, and of course Cosmos, which, book and series, remains one of those cornerstone moments of my life.

Beyond is a summation and celebration of what humanity — predominantly of the US and NASA-based sort, granted — has been able to do with probes and satellites and more over the past years. It’s as good a collection as could be assembled in a mass market version of what each of the major bodies in our solar system look like, taking advantage of the Internet, public archives and more besides. The book’s links page can serve as a good starting point for what you can do, if you’d like — the image gallery online for the book itself is the merest sampling.

It seems right I saw this book the day after I saw Hero, since both are triumphs of the manipulation of images for maximum impact. Benson takes the time to explain the nature of space photography and how color is not always what it seems to be in so many of the familiar and unfamiliar images. But you don’t need to know that information to be awed and calmly stunned by the results.

Actual images — not artists’ guesses, not hoped-for projections, but actual images — of towering escarpments on Mars, of a frozen moon floating above Jupiter’s roiling surface, of a shattered Mercurian landscape, of twists and tangles and tortured earth on Venus, in many cases more clear and vivid than ever hoped for, a peek into where we are and what’s around us that was literally impossible mere decades ago, in some cases even a couple of decades ago…it’s a powerful feeling, an enthralled one. It’s an example where I couldn’t pay my tax dollars enough if these were the results.

And of course the book is already slightly outdated, thanks to the Spirit and Opportunity probes on Mars earlier this year and the Cassini probe’s arrival at Saturn. And then there’s Mercury Messenger, recently launched and well on its way. Next, who knows? But for right now, Beyond is a vivid, visceral, necessary experience, something larger than any of us could comfortably imagine.