on February 18, 2005
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.
on August 12, 2006
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. Blowing up rockets in the Arroyo Seco, working long hours at jobs with explosives manufacturers, and gradually making contacts at Caltech (including meeting Frank Malina, who became the third member of the Suicide Squad triumvirate, the only one with the formal educational background, and the Caltech access, for what they were doing), they gradually built the foundations for transforming rocketry from a subject of mockery and ridicule to something capable, a few years later, of making a real contribution to the war effort when the army wanted a way for military planes to take off faster and on shorter runways. Parsons also became a recognized explosives expert--despite the low regard for rocketry and the Caltech administration's distaste for Parsons and the Suicide Squad, it was Parsons who was recommended when the prosecution in a notorious LA car-bombing asked Caltech for a scientist to examine the explosives evidence. Parsons testified in the trial, and at twenty-three, was far too poised, confident, and effective for the defense to cope with.
But it was also during these pre-war years that Parsons discovered the Ordo Templi Orientis, the cult founded by Aleister Crowley, and became fascinated with magic and the occult. Wilfred Smith, head of the local branch of the cult, was equally fascinated with Parsons, believing that he was the much-desired wealthy enthusiast who could be induced to pay the cult's many expenses, including especially funneling funds to Crowley himself, now aging, ill, and dependent on funds from his supporeters. That Parsons was not in fact wealthy (the family fortune having vanished in the stock market crash) didn't become apparent until later, but he was a far more charismatic figure than Smith, and that had its own ramifications later.
Parsons also began attending political meetings that were in fact a recruiting tool for the local Communist Party at Caltech. This was of little significance at the time, especially since, when finally pushed to join the Party, he dropped the meetings instead, but it came back to haunt him later, during and after the war, when his work for the military meant that he needed a security clearance. It was also during the years that Parsons was dropping in on LASFS meetings (initially, he was invited to talk about rocketry), meeting and to some degree both influencing and being influenced by the sf writers who were also regularly or occasionally attending. Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and Jack Williamson all figure to a greater or lesser degree in Parsons' story. Jack Parsons' life is odd and fascinating, and it's very well told here, capturing the early triumphs and the frustration, sometimes desperation of his later years (his thirties!) as his life spins further and further out of control.
on August 19, 2007
If you ever read about John Dee, Leonardo DaVinci, Sir Issac Newton and many others, then you will recognize their 20th century counterpart in the genius, Jack Whiteside Parsons. The key factor in his life that drove him to the top of the scientific world for a brief period, from the late thirties to mid forties of the last century, was his Vision of space travel and the medium of the rocket as a means to get to space. In my mind, he was a supreme innovator using the trial and error process to attain more and more positive results. He was also not college educated which left his mind uncluttered with theorems and accepted truths of academia. He was above all a cultist. In the beginning of the story rocketry is a cult and a sub-genre of science fiction. In religion he was a Satanist, although the word in never mentioned in the book and a follower and devotee of the Great Beast, Alistair Crowley. In the nineteen thirties in Los Angeles, these various cult worlds overlapped with fellow science fiction writers (and religion founder)such as L. Ron Hubbard playing a role in Parson's life - he also stole the love of his life in the process. It is a very interesting read for anyone interested in the genesis of the USA space program. This book shows that it started in the teenage dreams of Jack Parsons. I finished the book realizing that the author had only touched upon briefly the many aspects of his life story. Given the excesses of the OTO cult, it can be still be read by adults and teenagers without any qualms. There is no detail given about the various sexual rituals and in that respect it is PG rated. There are many famous individuals who die young - Alexander the Great, Elvis, James Dean, Mozart and a host of rock stars. I would place Jack Parsons as a compatriot of young geniuses who flame out because of other obsessions whether it be drugs, alcohol or other addictions. In many ways I liked the person of Jack Parsons, especially his friendly nature and his scientific accomplishments but I was frankly repulsed by his personal life. This is a tale of a rich,pampered Mommy's boy who never really grew up emotionally. The lack of childhood discipline and his self love led him to become a leader of a cult whose creed was the Supremacy of the Self. In the end his lack of an education allowed him the birth the field of rocketry but at the same time blinded him the dangers of the occult.
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.
For those who are interested in the occult, they will probably be disappointed in the book for its taking a neutral tone in regard to this subject. For those who prefer a strong religious perspective on every spiritual issue, they will be disappointed that the author isn't overtly disapproving of Mr. Parsons' involvement with the occult.
Ultimately, biographies rise or fall on the intrigue that the life of the subject presents to the reader. It's hard to imagine a more intriguing (but not exemplary) life than the one described in Strange Angel.
Don't miss this story!
on June 4, 2015
Well researched intriguing and ultimately tragic story of jack parsons, inventor of solid rocket fuel and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. A genius self made scientist, he was also an occultist and crowleyite. Beautiful and evocatiive description of the Golden Age of Los Angeles. Imtesting sharply drawn cameo appearances of Hubbard, Heinlin and many others. Explores the connections among futurism, science fiction, the military and the alternative religions ( cults) that flourished in LA. If Parsons had lived, and been able to free himself of the so called freedoms oc Crowley, space exploration might have been far advanced. Unique look at this man and this time.