Saturday, 12 March 2016

Strange Angel

It’s funny the different ways you can stumble upon a good book. Last week I was in Liverpool library. I’d done the work I needed to do, so I was hanging about in the botany section, waiting for my wife to finish researching lichens. I picked a random book from the shelf, called Strange Angel, by George Pendle. It had nothing at all to do with Botany, someone had replaced it on the wrong shelf.

The book was a biography of Jack Parsons, one of the early pioneers of rocketry in the US. I’d never heard of him. I looked at page one, just to get an overview, and...  I couldn’t put it down. I checked the book out of the library and carried on reading on the bus home. I’m now just over three-quarters of the way through.

Parsons was an odd sort of rocket scientist, because he led the field, even though he wasn’t a scientist, and he mixed his enthusiasm for rocketry with a disturbing fascination for the occult. It’s a compelling brew.

Parson’s other passion was science fiction, and his biography documents the birth of the golden age of SF, the first edition of Hugo Gernsback's Amazing Stories, and Parson’s connection with Robert Heinlein and other members of the LASFS, the Los Angeles Science Fiction Society.

I’ve just read a chapter about the first ever World Science Fiction Convention, which took place in 1939 at the World Fair in New York. The narrative tells about the deep political rift amongst the 200 or so members, split between the Futurians and New Fandom. The Futurians (a young Isaac Asimov was one) believed in SF being a medium to promote all that is good in science and learning. The New Fandom group thought Science Fiction should focus only on entertainment, and that the Futorians were dangerously Red. These were not just scholarly debates over a meal; the arguments had passion. Scuffles broke out, and some members were ejected from the Worldcon for fighting. It all sounds kind of familiar.

At the moment I’m fascinated by accounts of the early days of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, how it grew from a collection of tin huts located in the Aroyo Seco in Pasadena, a remote, dry river bed, where rockets could be fired without bothering anybody. I love how they adopted the term 'Jet Propulsion', just to obscure the truth that it was all about rockets, because the term ‘rockets’ had a stigma at the time. Rocketry was not considered proper science, it was grown-up boys playing with things that went bang.

A highly entertaining read. For anyone interested in the dawn of rocket science in the US, and in the early days of the Science Fiction genre, it is well worth tracking a copy down.