'Percival's Planet': Michael Byers' novelistic take on the discovery of Pluto
A review of former Seattle resident Michael Byers' absorbing novel "Percival's Planet," based on real-life events surrounding the discovery of Pluto in the 1920s. Byers reads Tuesday at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co.
Special to The Seattle Times
Michael ByersThe author of "Percival's Planet" will read at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co. (206-24-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com).
by Michael Byers
Henry Holt, 400 pp., $27
Poor Pluto. Gradually demoted by the scientific establishment to the status of a "dwarf" planet, it can get a bum rap.
That takes away nothing, however, from this absorbing, fascinating new novel by Michael Byers ("The Coast of Good Intentions," "Long For This World"), about the initial discovery of Pluto in the 1920s.
In this fictionalized account, based on the true history and some actual players involved in the search for this so-called "Planet X," Byers vividly depicts disparate characters who gradually become aligned into a kind of constellation. The lodestar is Clyde Tombaugh, (the real-life discoverer of Pluto), a self-taught, enterprising Kansas farm boy who, as an elderly and lionized astronomical hero, looks back on the true nature of the achievement he is credited with.
The rest of the dreamers and doers (real and imagined) whom Byers conjures, are portrayed as equally compelling, as fate gradually nudges them toward the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Ariz.
Clyde was of the most humble stock, and his rugged determination to transcend the limitations of his rural background by turning himself into a telescope maker, sky observer and astronomer hero is inspiring in itself.
He is a world away from the Harvard men he eventually joins forces with, like the wisecracking, determined and fictional Alan Barber. Caught up in a Prohibition Era party scene of loosened sexual morality and illegal hooch, Alan is so stuck on a fellow astronomer that he names a comet after her — making himself an object of scathing ridicule when she marries someone else.
Overseeing Clyde, Alan and the others in a small intrepid band of Pluto-seekers is Constance Lowell, based on the rich and eccentric widow of famed astronomer Percival Lowell. She reluctantly funds the Pluto project, according to her late spouse's wishes — and avidly terrorizes the staff.
The most poignant branch of the story concerns another invented persona, the bright, beautiful Mary Hempstead, who bravely endures recurrent bouts of mental illness at a time when the only "treatment" for such was locking people away for months or years at a time. Mary deserts one devoted suitor because of her illness, a successful prizefighter, and in turn she is deserted by her brother, artist Hollis Hempstead.
But she hopefully weds Barber and charts a path of her own as an assistant to Felix DuPrie, a (fictional) wealthy amateur paleontologist whose personal saga is another major strand of this story. Felix winds up in Arizona too, leading a dig that yields interesting earthly discoveries.
Byers, a Seattle native who now teaches at the University of Michigan, spent years researching Tombaugh and the other remarkable people involved in the dogged, intricate work that led to the precise locating and verification of the planet registered as Pluto, in 1930.
Assessing the accuracy of the scientific information sprinkled liberally through the book is beyond this reader, and probably anyone without some grounding in astronomy. The more technical passages, on the workings of an optical comparator (a measuring device used in astronomical research), the grinding of telescope disks, et al, can be tough going.
Yet that blind spot won't obliterate the interlocking human drama that"Percival's Planet" captures so impressively — nor Byers' comprehension of how signal accomplishments, in space or on earth, are not usually the product of any one individual, but of the sacrifices, invention and fortunes of many.
Misha Berson is the theater critic
for The Seattle Times.