Monday, April 25, 2011

Lost Horizon by by James Hilton (1933)

Fascinating little novel by British writer James Hilton about an isolated community in the Himalayan mountains where people live for centuries and peace abounds. It was the basis for the Frank Capra movie in 1937 and the wonderfully bad musical film in 1973. The book is very polished and has all the marks of being written by a writer of great skill. I won't go into much about it because so much has already been written. I do recommended it.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons by George Pendel

"Jack" Parsons is one of the many enigmas of 20th century America. A College drop-out who formualted the first successful solid fuel rockets, he was also heavily involved in many occult groups at the same time. Married three times, his promising life came to an end in 1952 when, at the age of 37, he blew himself up in a makeshift laboratory. Science writer George Pendle has managed to produce a biography of this amazing man which will stand the test of time. Pendle's book, Strange Angel, was able to be written only after the author was given access to the many letters and documents which still survive about and by Jack Parsons.
It's another book which seems to have come from the pages of Fantastic Tales. Young inventor strives against odds to produce something which will change the course of the human race and is destroyed at the moment of his triumph. Toss in some mystical groups from the shudder pulps and you have a theme ready for an MGM production. But, as life usually is, things are somewhat more complicated.
Parsons was raised in Pasadena, CA in the early part of the last century. At the time, Pasadena was a paradise of orange groves and country estates. At a young age he became entranced by the stories of H G Wells and Jules Verne, starting his own backyard rocket experiments. Parsons was lucky to be raised a poor little rich kid with a wealthy grandfather, not so lucky to have a an absantee father. In 1933, while just eighteen years old, he dropped out of community college. The family fortunes had gone south in another great regression and he needed to find a job.
While working at an explosives factory he was able to learn the secret of things that went boom. This knowledge he would apply to his work with the "suicide squad", a group of young men who dreamed of building rockets to the sky. Cal Tech provided them a haven, but most of the gut work they did on their own. With WW2 on the horizon, Parsons and chums were able to attract some money from the military which they used to produced the first JATO's (Jet Assisted Take-Off).
But there was another side to Parsons: the mystical. He became involved with the followers of British occultist Aleister Crowley in 1939, becoming an important member of the local "Agape lodge". Along with his rocket experiments, this would occupy most of his time for the rest of his life. He even purchased a house with the intent of turning it into a commune for the followers of Crowley and other nonconformists.
But events moved in odd directions after the close of WW2. He was urged to sell his stock in the company he started, Jet Propulsion Labs. Although the stock sale put a lot of money in his pockets, he would have became a very rich man had he held onto his shares. His experiments in cooperative mystical living dissolved (as did his first two marriages). Reduced to the point of homelessness, he was mixing chemicals for a Hollywood effects company when an explosion brought his life to an end.
Strange Angel is a detailed look at Parson's life, his legacy, and the times he lived. It will probably be the definitive work on the life of Jack Parsons.