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Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons Paperback – February 6, 2006

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Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons + Sex and Rockets: The Occult World of Jack Parsons + Freedom is a Two-Edged Sword and Other Essays Oriflamme 1
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Mariner Books (February 6, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0156031795
  • ISBN-13: 978-0156031790
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.9 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (37 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #159,343 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Pendle vividly tells the story of a mysterious and forgotten man who embodied the contradictions of his time. Throughout the 1930s, John Whiteside Parsons (1914–1952) was a pioneer of rocket science, a fixture at Caltech with an uncanny ability to understand and control the dynamics of explosions, though he'd never completed an undergraduate degree. At the same time, Parsons was a key figure in the Los Angeles occult scene, presiding over a world of incantations, black magic and orgiastic excess. Science journalist Pendle (Times of London, Financial Times) follows Parsons on his journey through both science and the occult as he explored the connections between the two at a time when science fiction crashed into science fact (and when the practitioners of one often dabbled in the other. The book tells the story of the research that formed the basis for both missile defense and space flight, but Parsons himself was a tragic figure, left behind by both the science he helped to found and the women he loved. Marshaling a cast of characters ranging from Robert Millikan to L. Ron Hubbard, Pendle offers a fascinating glimpse into a world long past, a story that would make a compelling work of fiction if it weren't so astonishingly true. 8 pages of b&w photos not seen by PW.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

In a riveting tale of rocketry, the occult, and boom-and-bust 1920s and 1930s Los Angeles, science writer Pendle presents the first in-depth portrait of John Whiteside Parsons, a pioneer in rocket propulsion and an eccentric right out of an Ed Woods movie. Pendle shrewdly places handsome and charismatic Parsons--a man of dramatic contradictions and an insouciance that led to his horrific death at age 37 in 1952--on the cusp between the era in which rockets were dismissed as pulp science fiction fantasy (of which Parsons eagerly partook) and the milieu in which rockets and space travel became realities. A self-taught chemist with an affinity for explosives, Parsons teamed up with Frank Malina and the rest of the so-called Suicide Squad in the dangerous quest for dependable rocket technology. Parsons became cofounder of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and an aerospace company, but he was also a member of the licentious Church of Thelema, a ludicrous invention of the English mystic Aleister Crowley. Equally cogent in interpreting the scientific and personal facets of Parsons' alluringly scandalous and confounding life, Pendle greatly enlivens the story of rocketry. Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

More About the Author

George Pendle is an author and journalist.

He writes about contemporary art, historical fiction, imaginary countries, real monsters, mad scientists, sane occultists, and the color blue.

He has written for the Economist, the Financial Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Times (London), the Guardian, the Observer, frieze, Cabinet, Bidoun, Modern Painters, and Icon.

He has also written signs for the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation.

Customer Reviews

I couldn't put it down--seriously!
Jake Loves Books
Such an interesting, readable account if the birth of rocket science and the culture that surrounded it.
Ricardo Tubbs
It's a treat when a book combines good research and good storytelling for an entertaining read.
Book Fiend

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

100 of 105 people found the following review helpful By Book Fiend on February 18, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Thank you George Pendle for writing this book. As the daughter of Jack Parson's best friend, Ed Forman, I grew up with a garage-full of explosives that my mother prayed wouldn't go off, fragments of this story as my somewhat exotic but sad family history, and my father's heartbreak that he and Jack were excluded and scorned just as the dreams they delighted in and sweated over took flight in reality.

Until Strange Angel, everything written about Jack and JPL has either been mainstream such as Theodore von Karman's "The Wind and Beyond," or pulp occultist like "Sex and Rockets." Strange Angel tells the untold human stories and re-tells some of the known with the insight of a scholar and empathy of an artist. Pendle illuminates more than the life of a rocket scientist. He captures a vivid era of American thought and aspiration, the adolescence of L.A.---the city world-famous for conjuring dreams, a cast of wild-eyed dreamers who truly believed the sky's the limit, and the cynical forces opposing them.

Pendle is fair-handed with the occult elements of Jack's story. He doesn't sensationalize or condemn. Instead, he informs and gives insight into Jack's and the others' characters to shed light on their attraction to Crowleyism and a shadowy spirituality that was also a reach for the stars. He also covers the birth of science fiction and how the "scientifiction" that my dad and Jack feasted on as boys was actually predictive of the coming space age.

It's a treat when a book combines good research and good storytelling for an entertaining read. You don't need to be a science, sci-fi or occult buff--or a southern Californian--to enjoy Strange Angel! In fact, if you liked the movie The Aviator, the book will immerse you in the same thrilling time and spirit.
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Format: Hardcover
As someone who has long been interested in rocketry, I had been aware of the pioneering work of Robert Goddard and how that work was eventually superseded by a variety of pioneers in the West. Having grown up near Pasadena, I was very aware of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory there and its pivotal role in space exploration. I have also read a number of biographies that mention unexpected explosions at Cal Tech. Having long been a science fiction fan, I know the writings of many of the classic authors . . . but not much about them.

What a nice surprise it was when I stumbled onto Strange Angel, which provides much helpful perspective about all those interests of mine in the context of the short and explosive life of John Whiteside Parsons. George Pendle is quite successful at capturing the times -- distrust of rocketry as a research area, paranoia about Communism, fascination among the wealthy with the occult and the undeniable appeal for some of unrestrained sexual activity.

Beyond that slice of time, the book also appealed to my sense of how many new sciences develop . . . by lots of painful trial and error. I was especially intrigued by the problems of creating stable solid rocket fuels that wouldn't fail in painful ways. Mr. Pendle also does a fine job of explaining how the early trial-and-error pioneers are eventually superseded by those who can develop the theory and practice in more advanced ways.

John Whiteside Parsons lived a life that screamed for a strong hand to take him in the right direction . . . but which wasn't available. There's a classic element of human tragedy to the story that will intrigue almost any reader . . . and leave the reader with a vastly enlarged sense of what the human mind can contain.
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15 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Elisabeth Carey on August 12, 2006
Format: Paperback
In June 1952, John Whiteside Parsons, one of the founders of the Jet Propulsion Lab and of Aerojet Engineering Corporation, was killed in an explosion in his home laboratory. The first news reports described him as a Caltech scientist, and described his accomplishments at JPL and his work with other early great rocket scientists. Over the next few weeks, though, a rather different story emerged.

Jack Parsons, one of the pioneering rocket scientists of the pre-war and WWII years, had led a life that could fairly be described as "interesting." He was a "Caltech scientist" and a founder of the JPL, but he had no education past high school. He was a devotee of black magic and a follower of Aleister Crowley. And he was a science fiction fan, a semi-regular visitor to LASFS, friendly with Robert Heinlein, Jack Williamson, and other sf writers for years, and for a time had L. Ron Hubbard as a housemate. (This last proved to be a serious mistake.)

Pendle reconstructs Parsons' life, from his wealthy and privileged childhood in Pasadena, his discovery of both science fiction and rocketry, through his increasingly strange explorations of the occult, and how these three strands became ever more tangled. The loss of the family fortune in the crash of 1929, when Parsons was fifteen, complicated his pursuit of rocketry and put an end to transatlantic phone calls to talk to Werner von Braun (also a teenaged amateur racketeer), but didn't divert his efforts. In high school, he met Ed Forman, who became his partner for most of the rest of his career.
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