Steven Vogt (UC-Santa Cruz) is suddenly the buzz of the blogosphere, though not in ways he might have intended. The designer of the HIRES spectrometer that made the detection of Gliese 581g possible, Vogt can claim pride of place as the discoverer of the first near-Earth mass planet found in the habitable zone of its star. But he’s also taking his lumps for saying that he could all but guarantee life on that planet. An unwise call, as many commenters here have noted. Perhaps even more unwise is his hope to name the new planet after his wife, Zarmina.
Centauri Dreams has nothing against the notion of naming celestial objects for loved ones, but caution should always be the byword. Suppose, for example, that Mrs. Vogt, fed up with publicity and tired of the company of astronomers, should surprise her husband by leaving him. Vogt’s ex would be forever enshrined in the celestial sphere, a taunting presence whenever the poor man thought of the Gl 581 system. Such a scenario happens in Michael Byers’ marvelous novel Percival’s Planet (New York: Henry Holt, 2010), in which one character, an astronomer named Alan Barber, conceives a hopeless romance for a co-worker and winds up naming his newly discovered comet ‘Florence.’
Florence, of course, has plans beyond Barber, and runs off with a friend of his, her absence causing not only months of anguish but, even worse, raised eyebrows and shaking heads among his colleagues, whose 1920s observatory culture doesn’t mesh well with the extravagant romantic gesture. I bring all this up not only to have a bit of fun with Steven Vogt (whose achievements we all celebrate), but also to clue you in to the Byers book, which is one of the more splendid things I’ve read in the past decade. No kidding, it’s that good, a fictional account of Clyde Tombaugh’s discovery of Pluto at Percival Lowell’s observatory outside Flagstaff, Arizona.
How to write a fictional account of an actual event? Byers does it by entering into the head of the driven Tombaugh with the ease and plausibility of long familiarity. He also does it by creating a cast of supporting characters, some of them real people, like the astronomer and observatory director Vesto Slipher and the waspish Constance Lowell, and some fictional, like the wealthy archaeologist Felix DuPrie, and an elusive beauty named Mary who flits through the lives of all these people as she battles a rare form of schizophrenia. Barber’s struggles with Lowell’s equations (he’s looking for Lowell’s ‘planet X’) are paralleled by his deepening relationship with the tumultuous Mary, once Florence has left him no more than a comet to remember her by.
Byers’ prose is gemlike, with many paragraphs that saw me pause, think for a bit, and then read the paragraph over again just to savor the language. But Byers, though no astronomer, has done his homework and shows a knowledge of both astronomy and the scientific culture of Tombaugh’s Pluto-finding era that makes his account utterly convincing. Here Barber and Slipher are in the dome of the 42-inch instrument at Flagstaff on the night of cometary discovery:
The 42-inch is an old instrument — it has been around since 1909 — but still brutally powerful with its giant mirror and especially good for planetary survey work as it collects a lot of light quickly. It is stubby and broad and supported in a massive steel harness. Also like the Clark, it is so perfectly balanced a man can stand flat-footed and with one hand pivot its huge bulk on its multiple axes. Slipher’s observation of the North Polar Cap of Mars continues. ‘You can find him for me,’ Slipher offers, and Alan checks the charts. This dome is moved electrically, so he lifts the heavy gray switchbox from its place on the cement floor and depresses the black button that sends the big hemicircle shuddering around above them to the proper position. Then he directs the telescope at the hot red spark of Mars using the little aiming scopes aligned along the barrel of the 42. He turns the gears that lock the telescope to the tracking motors, then loads a plate into the spectroscope and checks his watch by the low red light. Then he bends to catch a glimpse of the planet itself through the main scope. The detail is good, a wavering red-brown disk the size of a nickel, three dark slashes in the northern hemisphere and a white blur at the pole. By photographing it, week after week, year after year, you could build up a fairly complete picture of the Martian atmosphere, the weather systems, and thereby arrive at a convincing idea of what it would be like to live there. Impossible, is the consensus. Although you don’t really say such a thing aloud at Lowell.
Mars, of course, was one of Percival Lowell’s idées fixes, the other being Planet X, a putative gas giant of at least Neptune mass that Lowell found in the residuals of his orbital calculations for the other eight planets. Tombaugh would find Pluto while searching for Planet X, and one of the high points of the novel is the reaction around the observatory, particularly Slipher’s, when everyone realizes that while they have indeed found a new world, it couldn’t possibly be Planet X. I have to quote from a bit of this delicious exchange, as Barber has been trying to refine the orbit of the object Tombaugh has found. Slipher has stuck his head around the door of Barber’s office:
‘Getting closer. It’ll be rough.’
‘That’s fine. We just want a little bit of an idea tonight. Tombaugh’s still working over the old plates,’ Slipher tells him. ‘No luck yet.’
‘Hard to believe he saw it in the first place.’
‘Small, isn’t it?’ Slipher winces.
‘Small,’ Alan says, addressing his papers, ‘and faint.’
‘You noticed,’ Slipher says. ‘So my first thought was, well, all right, maybe it’s just got a very low albedo.’
‘Sure,’ he answers. ‘But what sort of gas doesn’t reflect light?’
‘And then I thought, Well, maybe it’s all frozen out. At that distance.’
Slipher says, ‘But that’s not likely, is it?’
Alan lays his pencil down. He knows what Slipher wants. What the best thing is, for all of them. He fingers his scar, slick across his cheek. Still, he musters some vestige of resistance. He says, ‘It doesn’t look right to me. No disk at all. Magnitude 15.’
Slipher nods at his shoes, acknowledging it. ‘You can get us a mass.’
‘Not too long.’
‘At least no canals, please,’ Slipher warns, and ducks back into the corridor.
You’ll notice that Clyde Tombaugh himself is hardly at the center of this review, although he’s a richly drawn character throughout. But Byers isn’t trying to do a fictionalized biography of the Kansas farmboy who worked so hard to demonstrate that he was something more than a lens-grinding hobbyist and wound up electrifying Depression-era America. Rather, he’s trying to catch a time and a place, and his novel is very much a collage of characterization, each individual resonating in a setting painted with precise, intricate strokes. Percival’s Planet becomes a study in obsession, from Lowell’s canals to the hapless Felix DuPrie’s dinosaurs, dug out of soft Arizona stone and representing a kind of redemption that, like Planet X, is meant to reinvent a career.
And what a place is the Arizona that draws all these people. This place, this time, more than any of the characters by themselves, forms the real focus of Byers’ book, a place of ‘[t]ubercular patients in their last visionary days, half-mad desert seekers, white-gowned proponents of psychical truth, sunstruck mummy hunters prospecting in the Grand Canyon, dog-nipped Navaho dreamers, earnest ethnographers with their wax-cylinder recorders strapped to their horses hunting down the Hopi to quiz them on their otherworldly verb structure…” And so on, a portrait of the Colarado Plateau as the New Atlantis. Michael Byers is not a science fiction writer and he is not a writer of science. He is a literary novelist of the first rank whose name is about to start resonating, and if you choose to read Percival’s Planet, I think you’ll soon see why.