Saturday, May 29, 2010


John Whitehead Parsons, had he not existed, would need to be invented. A restless tinkerer, a master explosives chemist, a pioneer of rocketry, a devotee of literature and classical music, a fencer--the guy was into everything. His crazy intuitive inventiveness was a key component in the early successes of a rag-tag band of academics and inventors and engineers at Cal Tech who went on to win military contracts and found the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Aerojet corporation.

But Parsons was no mere rocket scientist. He was devoted to the magical arts as well, and ran a chapter of Aleister Crowley's OTO in Pasadena in a grand manse where orgies and Gnostic masses and meetings of fledgling sci-fi groups took place. Parsons met and influenced many writers, including Ray Bradbury, Bob Heinlein, L. Sprague de Camp, and L. Ron Hubbard. He and Hubbard had a contentious relationship and perhaps a magical battle or two before Hubbard stole Parson's lover, most of his fortune, and many of his occult ideas. Hubbard of course went on to found Scientology. In his spare time Parsons manufactures narcotics, absinthe, and fireworks, he writes epic occult poetry, reads The Golden Bough while penning his own prophecy about the coming of the goddess Babalon, and attends meetings of ultra-progressive left-wing organizations.

Pendle's book is up to the task of telling Parson's story, and switches back and forth between Parson's dual obsessions without difficulty. At times the narrative is a bit choppy--for example, we follow Parson's life into his mid-20s only to be told that Parsons had gotten married along the way and then we have to flashback and catch up on his romantic entanglement with Helen--but these are minor glitches in a great read about a far-out dude.

[shout-out to Casey for the rec]


Casey said...

I just really liked this book, and the way Pendle told the tale of a bootstrapping California, inventing the myths of America in the midst of every hustle you can imagine. Did you ever read "Waiting for the Sun?" It's a history of California's contribution to rock 'n' roll, and it takes a similar tack.

I also enjoyed the fact that "Strange Angel" took the time to describe the anguish that came when these young geniuses were used by Uncle Sam to rdtsblish America's aerospace and ballistic military dominance, only to be shut out and blacklisted.

Check out Parsons' essays "Freedom is a Two-Edged Sword" if you get a chance. He was a surprisingly astute political thinker. I was encouraged to see many of my own views reflected in these texts from the late 1940s - early '50s.

Anonymous said...

I believe it's Whiteside not Whitehead. Just a friendly correction.