Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Book Review: Percival's Planet, by Michael Byers

Writers of historical fiction face the challenge of capturing the essence, in both feeling and facts, of the times in which they set their stories. That challenge becomes even more difficult when the stories’ main characters are based on actual people, some of whom are either still living or were known well by people alive today. In Percival’s Planet, a fictional account of the search for Pluto, Michael Byers rises to this challenge with a stirring tale that envelops readers in the intricacies of the waning days of the “Roaring ‘20s” and their collapse into the Great Depression.

The novel is especially timely, coming as it does at the 80th anniversary of Pluto’s discovery in February 1930.

Byers spent five years researching his novel, and it shows. His writing is filled with detailed descriptions of subjects ranging from the hardships of farm life in the 1920s to the vapid lives of old money scions of Boston wealth. Byers knows his subjects and knows them well, whether he is discussing the specifications of telescopes, social issues of the time, principles of astronomy, dinosaur digs, or the culture of 1920s academia.

His depictions of the state of early 20th century astronomy illustrate at least one of the roots of the Pluto controversy. Alan Barber, a fictional character studying astronomy at Harvard, at one point complains about the bias against planetary science in the highest echelons of the field, noting that astronomy professors do not even want to hear mention of planets, instead preferring to study more abstract areas of the field such as galaxies, nebulae and cosmology.

This looking down on planetary science as some sort of second class area of astronomy is unfortunately still held by some today, in spite of the enormous amount we have learned about solar system bodies in 50 plus years of planetary exploration. Ironically, while reading the novel, I received email correspondence from an astronomer with the following statement: “In reality, most of the astronomers do not consider planetology as a science…That's the main reason for which the debate is closed. Nobody in the community of astronomers, not only cares, but don't want to hear about it.”

To be clear, I do not believe this view in any way reflects that of the majority of professional or amateur astronomers today. However, it is significant that anyone in the field today professes this at all.

Having my own interest in all things Pluto, I found myself, throughout the novel, constantly comparing what I know about the real Clyde Tombaugh and the actual events leading up to the discovery of Pluto with their portrayals in the novel. At times, it was difficult to realize that the fictional Clyde and the fictional events do not have to be identical to the real ones. This is a novel, not a biography.

Percival’s Planet, at least to this reader, is a tale shrouded with a prevailing sentiment of sadness. The term “X” refers to the unknown, and in this novel, Planet X, the term used to describe the as yet unknown ninth planet, represents more than just the object now known as Pluto. “Planet X” is but one representation of the never-ending chase or search for something undefined, unknown even to those who chase it, reflected in the sentiment of a skeptical Professor Harlow Shapley, that Lowell Observatory’s planet search amounted to “chasing ghosts.”

The novel encompasses a wide range of characters whose stories begin separately, yet whom the reader knows will somehow end up converging in Flagstaff, Arizona, the epicenter of the planet search. With so many characters in play, Planet X and Clyde Tombaugh are less the center than the strings that tie everyone and everything together.

And that is where the sense of sadness, even of despair, enters. Every one of these characters is searching for something, some clear about their quests but others far more murky. A wealthy heir with no interest in his father’s factories desperately looks for meaning, for a time pursuing spirituality, until he finally settles on digging up dinosaur remains. The boat carrying his supplies is lost along the way and never found. A retired boxer looks for love, his quest leading him to the trail of his ex-girlfriend Mary’s missing brother, another who is lost and never found. Mary, suffering from mental illness, fights unsuccessfully for her sanity and cannot quite let go of the search for her brother.

The Tombaugh in the novel comes off as somewhat angry, with a sense of being undeserving. His father is a defeated man who has come to accept that he will never leave his bleak farm life. In contrast, the real Tombaugh, as described in David Levy’s biography Clyde Tombaugh: Discoverer of the Planet Pluto and by people who knew him, seems to have been more upbeat, more hopeful, less confrontational. His father and entire family, according to Levy, strongly valued education, and this background helped fuel Tombaugh’s passion for astronomy and provided a moral support not present in the novel.

Similarly, whereas the Tombaugh of the novel reacts to the finding of Pluto with a combination of guilt for having possibly tricked the world into believing the object he discovered is Planet X, and frustration over being burdened for life by being in the position of its discoverer, the real Tombaugh, in spite of recognizing what he found was not the expected gas giant, was genuinely ecstatic over his discovery. Levy describes Tombaugh’s spending the evening of February 18, 1930 at the movies doing his best to hide his elation and keep the discovery a secret as Lowell Observatory Director Vesto Slipher required. Tombaugh’s subsequent reunion with his family and community were far more upbeat than they are in the novel.

The object discovered at Lowell Observatory was a question mark in real life as well, with its planet status questioned as early as 1931. It certainly was not the gas giant Percival Lowell had sought. However, Tombaugh was convinced it was a planet and maintained that belief to the day he died, unlike his fictional counterpart, who doubts the status of his find from the beginning and feels he was used to pull one over on the public.

And the residuals, or anomalies in the orbits of Uranus and Neptune, which fictional character Alan Barber uses in a mathematical attempt to find the planet, ended up never existing either in fiction or fact. They didn’t exist because astronomers’ calculations of these planets’ orbits were faulty, but this was not realized until 1986 and 1989, when Voyager II flew by Uranus and Neptune respectively. By 1990, the point at which the novel starts and ends, this was known, and Byers’ would have done well to have the older Tombaugh note this in the story.

But doing so would have meant a definitive answer, and these are virtually non-existent in the world of Percival’s Planet. Whether the thing sought for is found is always ambiguous. For several characters, it is also tragic. Their plight mirrors the descent of the nation from the excesses of the 1920s into the prolonged, seemingly endless suffering and despair of the Great Depression.

With his eye for detail and interest in both historical fiction and astronomy, Byers might want to consider as his next subject the fascinating and convoluted drama surrounding the discovery of Neptune in 1846. In that story, there is a potential novel equally riveting just waiting to be written.

For those interested in Tombaugh’s own account of his discovery, there is his book Out of the Darkness: The Planet Pluto, published in 1980.

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