Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Greater Mysteries (Strange Angel)

Last week I read a biography, written by George Pendle, entitled Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons. I picked the book up on a whim because it seemed to be right up my alley: I usually read novels, but I like to break it up with non-fiction every once in a while, preferably covering some kind of factual subject matter that wasn’t hammered into my skull by public education (biography of someone I’ve never heard of > biography of, say, Christopher Columbus); rocket science is the ur-discipline of space exploration, which I’ve always had a soft spot for; the “otherworldly” reference in the subtitle is due to Parson’s lifelong fascination with the occult, which in turn snags my D&D playing, comic book reading interest. So I figured the book would be mildly diverting at the very least, and it turned out to be fairly fascinating on a couple of levels.

First of all, I was completely unaware of Parsons’s life story, and I’d be willing to bet his name wouldn’t ring any bells with most people. He seems to be not so much a forgotten giant as never recognized to begin with, and that’s odd considering both his accomplishments and the company he kept. He is essentially one of the godfathers of modern rocketry, which has descendents ranging from Boeing to NASA (jet airplanes originated as propeller aircraft with rockets bolted horizontally under their wings to assist in take-off, as opposed to the escape-velocity rockets of the Apollo program that fired vertically toward the moon). Parsons designed rocket engines and invented new fuel formulations despite never even finishing high school, just because he loved the idea of pushing rocketry farther and farther, and wasn’t at all averse to repetitive and risky processes of trial and error. He was part of a select group at the forefront of a new kind of science and engineering that was misunderstood by most of his contemporaries, to the point of drawing utter disdain, and he displayed a natural genius for it that thrived in the atmosphere of doubt and hostility. And yet: John Whatsa Who?

Maybe that’s not terribly surprising, though. We, the holders of the grand tradition of Common Knowledge, are aware of the Wright Brothers and the Right Stuff, but not much in between. We don’t know who Parsons is because we don’t know who any of those intermediary figures are.

Parsons kept some interesting company, though. He loved (and was inspired by) science fiction, and ended up meeting and sometimes socializing with a lot of the young talents of the 30’s and 40’s, like Robert Heinlein and L. Ron Hubbard. Parsons and Hubbard actually interacted extensively and even vied for the attentions of the same woman, who was Parsons’s lover before Hubbard stole her away and ultimately married her. Parsons also got deeply involved with the Ordo Templi Orientis and became the master of a lodge for the group in California while growing close to Aleister Crowley himself. Parsons developed a notorious reputation for fostering covens and hosting orgies and all manner of “do as thou wilt” depravity. But, again, apparently this wasn’t enough to immortalize him.

Even Parsons’s death was bizarre. (Whenever I talk about biographical details, I always feel the urge to say “Spoilers!” before discussing the death of the subject, geek that I am.) Parson’s should have enjoyed a wealthy old age thanks to his contributions to American military development in World War Two, but he mismanaged his money and wasn’t able to keep working as a rocket scientist once his O.T.O. involvement compromised his national security clearance. He took odd jobs, including as a special effects wizard for a movie company thanks to his familiarity with explosives. He made plans to leave California for a while and spend several months in Mexico, but got a call from the studio looking for a rush order of squibs the night before he was supposed to leave. Parsons knew he would need as much money as he could get to enjoy his stay in Mexico, so despite the fact that most of his lab equipment was already packed away, he took the order and started mixing up explosives. By hand. In old coffee cans. And we’ll never know exactly what happened, whether he slipped or sneezed or let his mind wander or what, but something went wrong and blew up the garage where Parsons was working. According to eyewitnesses Parsons was still alive when the smoke cleared, his bodily horribly mangled and horrifically burned, but he died within a few minutes.

As I read about Parsons’s tumultuous life and death, I was amazed at never having heard of him before. But at the same time, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had known him for years and years. There was something eerily familiar about him, which seems absurd on the face of it. But towards the end I finally put all the pieces together:

  • Only child, mama’s boy, outsider not fully accepted by society? Check.

  • Aristocratic, arrogant bearing and appreciation for the finer things in life? Check.

  • Self-taught scientific genius? Check.

  • Student of the occult, known to use ritual magic to attempt spirit summonings? Check.

  • Grotesquely disfigured in one of his own experiments? Check.

What's that spell?

I even saw my name on the Goodyear Blimp ... it said DOC DOOM IS A PIMP

If you only know the character of Doctor Doom from the 2005 Fantastic Four movie (which I failed to mention the other day when talking about next year’s GL because, sigh, the FF movie is pretty forgettable) then you might think he’s just the evil scientist who is the dark mirror image of Reed Richards. But in the original comics, Doom is a double-threat: a genius-level inventor and a powerful sorcerer, and capable of melding the two disciplines at will. Doom wears a metal mask because he attempted an experiment which tried to use an unholy union of technology and ritual magic to contact the netherworld and rescue the spirit of his cursed gypsy mother – the experiment literally blew up in his face and scarred him (although he survived, of course). He’s also the king of a small country he conquered through superior science and sheer force of will, which I guess makes him a triple-threat. For the record, I have always thought Doctor Doom was one of the baddest-assest bad guys ever (not a controversial position, really) but I also thought his backstory was excessively convoluted and borderline nonsensical (but since it added up to such a mighty villain, who cares?). Somehow the biographical story arc of John Whiteside Parsons gave it a little more cohesion.

Again, to familiarize you with the original comic book Fantastic Four as opposed to the movie version, the story started in 1961 (well before the moon shot) with Reed Richards and friends gaining their powers during the test flight of an experimental rocketship. This must have seemed like the zeitgeistiest idea Stan Lee could possibly imagine at the time (especially when you factor in the fact that the foursome went up in an untested rocket because they felt patriotically obliged to beat the Commies into space). The ideas of space exploration, and the nascent rocket science that enabled it, were always central to the early Fantastic Four concept. And Stan Lee was a voracious reader, and probably familiarized himself with a lot of the developments in the field that were only fifteen or twenty years old at the time. He probably ran across references to Parsons, who was way too much of a weirdo to make a good hero to lead the Fantastic Four. But when it came time to create the ultimate FF villain …

Yep, I’m calling it. There is no way Doctor Doom and John Whiteside Parsons could have so much in common by pure coincidence. Consciously or unconsciously, Lee modeled Doom on Parsons, or elements of his life story at least. In the case of a comic book megalomaniac who’s been having adventures for five decades, it’s a rare example of the fiction ending up stranger than the truth. But only just barely.

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