Astute scholarly history of Amazonian exploration, with an enjoyable emphasis on outrâ€š personages. Smith (Goodbye Gutenberg; The Geopolitics of Information; etc.) plunges into these tropical waters with relish, reminding us that ""the Amazon is the superlative river""--containing 20% of the world's river water, so big and remote that no bridge spans it over 3900 miles of its length. A big stream, then, attracting big egos--perhaps the only exception being the obscure explorer Pedro Cabral, who ""discovered"" the river in 1500. Close on his heels came the conquistador Francisco Orellana, first European to travel down the Amazon; Orellana's heels were nipped in turn by the messianic madman Lope de Aguirre (played with drooling gusto by Klans Kinski in Werner Herzog's Aguirre, the Wrath of God), a tomb-robber, mutineer, and would-be Emperor of Peru. More civilized visitors included Charles Marie de la Condamine and Baron Alexander von Humboldt, both of whom helped forge a new tradition of Brazilian exploration by scientists rather than adventurers. Smith dotes as well on the marital misadventures of the charming Godins--separated for two decades by the length of the Amazon, reunited following Madame de Godin's epic trek across the continent. Reports on British botanists and American muckrakers round out the river tour. Dashing, detailed history, with a serious undertone: Smith warns that within 30 years, only five percent of the Amazonian trees will be left standing--thanks to industrial pillaging--and the Amazon of this sprightly book will be no more.