Percival's Planet

Oct 19, 2010

Percival's Planet is a sweeping, fascinating and a tiny bit frustrating novel. The events begin 12 years after Percival Lowell's death. 1928. Cylde Tombaugh is a self-made astronomer trapped on his father's Kansas farm. He's all set for college when freak weather ruins the year's crop and dashes his hopes. But one lucky letter brings him a job offer from Vesto Slipher, Lowell's successor at the observatory. Clyde takes a fast train to Flagstaff, ecstatic to pick up where Lowell left off. With a much better telescope than Lowell had, he begins the tedious job of photographing incremental images of the ecliptic.

Clyde's story is just one of many in the novel. Michael Byers draws some of his characters, like Tombaugh and Slipher, from historical figures. Others are pure fiction. Slipher has hired two bright graduate students from Harvard to work at the observatory. The two, Dick Morrow and Alan Barber, happen to be in love with the same woman, Florrie Chambers. In a romantic but ill-conceived moment, Alan names a new comet after Florrie just hours before he learns she's eloped with Dick. How cool is that for a plot? Alan's mortified. But he must put on a good show for the cajoling Harvard crowd while facing Dick's ire and Florrie's embarrassment.

Other characters, and the novel's landscapes, are less successful. All of the characters are chasing or being chased by ghosts of one sort or another. A mentally fragile Boston debutante believes she has a tusk growing from the back of her head and a phantom hunter chasing her. She's chasing the ghost of her brother who abandoned her on a train. Mary's madness is interesting but her character seems figured out more than felt. Then, there's a bored Boston blueblood hunting dinosaur bones, a fun guy, but Byers pays scant attention to landscape. He places the archeological dig in a generalized desert terrain just south of Flagstaff, which kept me wondering, Now, where are these bones?

I enjoyed Percival's Planet. I learned a heck of a lot about what went into finding Pluto. But, I wish Byers would've left mad Mary and the bone digger for another novel, and instead centered the whole story on those astro-pioneers that launched Flagstaff's star in astronomy history.