One of the reasons why I never watched the movie Titanic was because no amount of SPOILER ALERT was going to keep me from knowing the end of the story going in. The ship sank. The same was true for a book I recently read called Percival’s Planet, an historical fiction accounting of the discovery of Pluto. I had a good idea how the novel was going to end. Still, I was on an astronomical high from The Comet Seekers, so I thought I’d give Percival’s Planet a whirl.
Most reports I have read indicate that the Titanic sank in about two hours, which is a good length for a movie except that probably not that much occurred onboard that would make a good story. For this reason, pre-iceberg and post-iceberg filler was created to take up some time until the ship sank.
The same was true for Percival’s Planet. The process by which Pluto was discovered was so painfully boring that the author, Michael Byers, would not have much of a story if that was all he wrote about. And even after it was discovered, there was some skepticism as to whether or not what was found was indeed the elusive Planet X.
So, the reader was treated to more on Kansas farm boy, Clyde Tombaugh, the discoverer of Pluto. However, in Byers’s hands, Clyde’s story was about as exciting as watching grain being threshed. I did feel for him when a sudden hailstorm took out the crop that was supposed to pay for college, and he showed incredible perseverance producing handmade lenses until they were perfect. But again, Pluto and Clyde alone were not enough to carry this tale.
Vesto Slipher, the Lowells, and a few other real people were sprinkled in to help ground the story. There was a technical edge that was interesting without being too tedious even if one has not studied the math and science required for space exploration. The era during which the novel took place, 1928 to 1930, lent some curious appeal as far as social allowances, customs, clothing, and the looming Great Depression.
But it still was not enough to make this the type of story one can hardly wait to return to. It took me three weeks to plow through it, and there were days when I left it untouched. Still, the writing was not horrible, and I’m no quitter. There were some well-turned phrases, but nothing that leapt off the page begging to be read.
Not even the washed-up boxer, Teddy, going through a painful divorce, who was in love with his beautiful secretary, Mary, who was slowly going mad, helped. Nor did the secretary’s older, gay brother, Hollis, who struggled to maintain his relationship with his younger, extremely rich partner. Not even Dick and Florrie, more megarich and brilliant people involved with work at Lowell Observatory, made for interesting reading. And then there was the poor sap, Alan, an astronomer, who named a comet after Florrie before he realized she had run away to marry Dick.
Let’s not forget Felix, the failure-to-please-daddy heir, who decided he wanted to be an amateur paleontologist, and his mother, whose name I’ve honestly forgotten in the three days since I finished the book. Their relationship was awkward, and how they connected with those already mentioned was clunky at best, superfluous at worst.
Alan married Mary; Clyde had a crush on her; Mary was hospitalized after attacking Alan; Hollis disappeared; I truly wished Dick, Florrie, Felix, and his Mama would, too; Teddy became Mary’s champion; Pluto was found but not in a satisfying, triumphant, end-of-the-book way; peripheral characters charmed and annoyed on cue; and Byers wrapped up stories of fictional characters with whom I forged no connection or caring. The narrative moved at the pace of a comet viewed with the naked eye.
What we had here, folks, was a Great Plains soap opera that read like grit blown in from the Dust Bowl to lodge in the corners of one’s mind, waiting to be swept out by the next interesting book.
I suspect Michael Byers attempted to recreate the thrill of discovering a new planet, which was no small thing. Unfortunately, when the novel was published in 2010, moon landings were and still are studied as history, the Space Shuttle program ended in 2011, and it had been twenty years since the Hubble Space Telescope was launched, and twelve years for the first piece of the International Space Station.
Perhaps it’s a shame that we no longer look to the stars with as much interest as we once did. God knows we are barely able to take care of things on Earth let alone what we would do if we ever achieved colonization somewhere in space. Still, what could have been a great story, even to someone like me who doesn’t follow astronomy closely, ended up fizzling out faster than a shooting star.
In the end, I’m glad Clyde Tombaugh never knew Pluto was demoted from being a planet.