Strange Angel by George Pendle

Strange Angel: The Otherworldy Life of Scientist John Whiteside Parsons by George Pendle

I don’t normally read nonfiction, but when I do it is about really strange and and wacky people, who accomplish amazing things. John (Jack) Whiteside Parsons was one such person. George Pendle took it upon himself to write a biography of man who lived a larger than life existence, and he did so until the day he blew himself up.

Here is the description provided by the Mariner Books:

ROCKET SCIENTIST KILLED IN PASADENA EXPLOSION screamed the headline of the Los Angeles Times. John Parsons, a maverick rocketeer who helped transform the rocket from a derided sci-fi plotline into a reality, was at first mourned as a scientific prodigy. But reporters soon uncovered a more shocking story: Parsons had been a devotee of black magic.

George Pendle re-creates the world of John Parsons in this dazzling portrait of prewar superstition, cold war paranoia, and futuristic possibility. Fueled by childhood dreams of space flight, Parsons was a leader of the motley band of enthusiastic young men who
founded the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a cornerstone of the American space program. But Parsons’s wild imagination also led him into the occult- for if he could make rocketry a reality, why not magic?

With a cast of characters including Howard Hughes, L. Ron Hubbard, and Robert Heinlein, Strange Angel explores the unruly consequences of genius.

Pendle begins Parsons’ tale from the very begining with his parents and his subsequent birth, all the way through to his untimely death due to an explosion in his home. Now don’t be shocked by that last fact, if you have ever read anything on Parsons, or choose to read this book, you would be wondering how it didn’t happen sooner.

Pendle gives a brief overview of Parsons younger years, which weren’t the typical Ozzie and Harriet or Leave It To Beaver existence. He moves through Parsons’ younger years quickly to get to the Jack Parsons that was a combination of mad genius, determined inventor, intellectual elite, dreamer of the impossible, and explorer of things unknown.

Parsons was a self-taught scientist who went on to co-found Jet Propulsion Labs, which became partly responsible for the creation of the first fighter jets and fuel propelled missiles. His scientific methods and uses for fuel engines were far outside the box for the times he was in, but with the help of a few friends, he force-fed other scientists the value and plausibility of rocketry until what they believed was impossible became possible. Some became so enamored with his new thinking that they joined him; while others fought tooth and nail, calling it a foolish and pure fiction.

He was also a member of the Church of Thelema. Not familiar with them? This is the religion founded by Aleister Crowley. Intrigued yet? Parsons was also friends with L. Ron Hubbard, Isaac Asimov, and James George Frazer (The Golden Bough). He devoured science fiction and was a part of the first sci-fi con in America.

Pendle does a good job covering Parsons’ life until his untimely death. He includes outside information on many of the people and the beginning of rocketry science that made Parsons who he was. There are times when it gets a bit tedious, but slogging through it is totally worth the time to find out more about this man ahead of his time.

This is a great read for dreamers of the impossible for the simple fact that Parsons was a man with a dream who refused to give up and saw it through to fruition. He opened his mind to new and sometimes exciting ideas. He thirsted for knowledge and drank in whatever he could get his hands on.

This is not a book that can be picked up easily at a bookstore, so if you want to give it as a gift be sure to leave plenty of time for shipping.