According to George Pendle, there was a time in the early 20th Century, particularly the 19-teens and twenties, when rockets were not considered SCIENCE but SCIENCE-FICTION. Though we now know that rockets can send folks to the moon and beyond, this idea was considered laughable for decades. Enter a man named Marvel Whiteside Parsons, commonly known as “Jack,” who would lead a group of rocket enthusiasts, known as the “Suicide Squad,” (the name was not meant ironically) who would put their lives on the line to PROVE that rockets could be more than fireworks or explosives---eventually. In addition to helping invent rocket science as we know it, Parson’s was ALSO a practicing magician and an acolyte of Aleister Crowley… Seriously…
[This is the thumbnail for the digital book that I read on my Kindle. I like this image better than what the publishers used for the “actual” cover---but the image is so small, it got all pixelated when I tried to blow it up… Sorry…]
[This is a photograph that I took of the actual digital book that I read. The image is included for review purposes only!]
George Pendle – Strange Angel (2005)
I’m pretty sure I’d heard the name “Jack Parsons” a few times over the last few years (reading the kinds of things that I tend to read), but it wasn’t until I listened to an episode of MonsterTalk (a skeptical podcast that uses monsters and strange phenomena to look at human failings in perception and information transmission) that discussed Parsons in some detail that I became interested enough in the man to read a biography about him---and I’m glad I did. (I’m also VERY glad I listen to MonsterTalk. It has been my number one favorite podcast for seven or eight years!)
What Pendle, the author of Strange Angel, does exceptionally well is make this book entertaining. I’ve read more than a few biographies that were a slog to get through---drowning in detail for the sake of detail. You just want to scream, "Your research is showing!” meaning that the author just slaps every factoid or bit or trivia on the page, without bothering to ask if it helps move the narrative along. (If you're compiling data for a critical analysis of an individual's life, that's one thing. If you're writing a biography, don't shove a day by day calendar at us! Put it in an appendix, if you HAVE to include everything!!! Okay---sliding off topic...) Pendle, by contrast, takes a real “story-teller’s” approach to Parsons’s life, and presents the reader with a compelling tale---and he begins with the END, as all good stories should! The “Prologue” to this book reads like the opening act of a salacious mystery story: an explosion rocks a formerly upper-crust street in Pasadena, and our main character meets his gruesome, untimely death. From here, a media frenzy adds fuel to the fire (uuummm…. sorry…), and the readers gets sucked into a vortex of David Lynchian proportions. (I’m leaving out most of the details, because the story is a great read and I don’t want to spoil anything.) After this gripping opener, Pendle takes us back to the beginning of Parsons’s short time on Earth---but now we know that there is a fiery conclusion to look forward to, so we’re compelled to read on!
And, honestly, this is a very cinematic narrative, rocketed forward both by Pendle’s writing skill AND by Parsons’s cavalier, explosive life. Although he may be a somewhat unknown figure today, in his short time on Earth he managed to hang out and/or associate with Marjorie Cameron (a brilliant artist and his second wife), L. Ron Hubbard, Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, Forrest Ackerman (a true HERO in the sci-fi / monster world, who started the classic Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine!), a host of well known scientists (who are so famous that I can’t remember any of their names---and I’m too lazy to flip through the book and look them up…), and the most sinister figure in world at that time: Aleister Crowley (who he had a great deal of postal correspondence with---Parsons even became the High Priest of Crowley’s Thelemite Agape Lodge in the U.S.---although they never met in person.) The point I’m driving at here is that Jack Parsons, in his day, was already an underground / cult figure, although he somehow slipped through the cracks of history after his death and has only recently started being rediscovered, thanks in part to this biography (and one other, Sex and Rockets, by John Carter. I haven’t read that other biography, yet, although I’m sure I will…eventually…)
If you don’t take anything else from this review, I hope these two things come across: George Pendle is an excellent writer (his language is clear, his sources are well cited, and he pushes us effortlessly through the events he is recounting), AND that Parsons was a fascinating man. He came from an affluent background, he liked adventure, he took risks (perhaps a few too many), and he did great things. However you feel about magic and the occult, (I’m not a believer, but I’m fascinated by the psychology of it all), Parsons did---genuinely---contribute a great deal to the science of rocketry, devising a method for preparing solid fuel so that it burned consistently and was much less likely to explode than it was before he invented his ingenious preparation method (and this after blowing up SO MANY things that he became known as an explosives expert as well as a rocket scientist---even being called on as an expert witness in a legal case!) Although Parsons’s name was tarnished because of his membership in a black magic “cult,” he was also one of the founders of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory! And there’s even a crater on the moon named after him!
As regards the magical elements of Parsons’s life, as with everything else, he went to the extreme. When Aleister Crowley, the Great Beast, is telling you to chill out, you’re probably a bit over the line. (Again, I’m leaving the details to Pendle!) For those people who are a bit squeamish, this book does have some gruesome descriptions in it, there is definitely a serious amount of naughtiness (both sexual and ethical), and there are more than a few trigger issues for P.C. sensitive folks---who will no doubt be disgusted by much of what Parsons did. However, the story is compellingly told, the tie-ins with the more well-known authors and personalities are intriguing, and the historical importance of Parsons himself comes across, loud and clear, which I think is the best part of the book. I was also amazed to discover that rocketry (having grown up AFTER rockets were used to land humans on the moon---and YES it DID HAPPEN!!!), the idea of using rockets to propel humans outside of Earth’s atmosphere, was once considered laughable, pointless, and an utter impossibility by REAL scientists. The existence of rocketry AS A SCIENCE is largely thanks to Parsons and his compatriots in the Suicide Squad, mavericks who blew shit up and (eventually) changed the course of history! Do you think I’m being hyperbolic? Then go read this book---and see if I’m exaggerating or not!
[P.S. – I’m not being paid by the publisher or author to review this book, nor am I advocating either black magic or blowing shit up---but I really did enjoy the book! If you do decide to blow shit up or try to conjure extra-worldly entities, please do so RESPONSIBLY! Thanks!]
---Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Holy Fool)
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