Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons
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Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons

3.96 of 5 stars 3.96  ·  rating details  ·  293 ratings  ·  54 reviews
ROCKET SCIENTIST KILLED IN PASADENA EXPLOSION screamed the headline of the Los Angeles Times. John Parsons, a maverick rocketeer who helped transform the rocket from a derided sci-fi plotline into a reality, was at first mourned as a scientific prodigy. But reporters soon uncovered a more shocking story: Parsons had been a devotee of black magic.

George Pendle re-creates th...more
Paperback, 368 pages
Published February 6th 2006 by Mariner Books (first published February 15th 2005)
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David Lomax
I grew up near JPL (the Jet Propulsion Laboratory) in Pasadena and heard a few of the stories about John Parsons, about the way he was a “Satanist,” and how his obsession eventually cost him his life.

Of course the realty behind the stories of the scientific prodigy were way more complicated than the salacious versions I heard. But George Pendle’s book makes it clear that the truth of Parsons’ life was just as fascinating.

Pendle is a writer for the London Times, which suggests the international f...more
Michael Burnam-fink
This book has to be history, because nobody could make up something so bizarre.

Scion of a wealthy Pasadena family, Parsons was one of the founding fathers of modern rocketry (JATO, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, castable fuels), despite a lack of formal training or credentials. At the same time as he was turning rocketry from a pursuit for cranks into a pillar of the Military-Industrial Complex, Parsons was deeply involved in black magic, and was the high priest of the a Crowleyite Satanic lodge, wh...more
CD

A wide reaching and meandering attempt at an ambitious biography.

George Pendle, the author, came across an obvious choice for a fascinating story, but flounders in trying to pick and choose among the various story lines to pursue in this biography of J.W. Parsons.

The cast of characters reads like a Who's Who of famous, near-famous, and just wannabees set in the turbulent Depression/War Era of greater Los Angeles, California. From the soon to be famous sci-fi writers such as Heinlein and de Camp...more
Kevin Kormylo
Most over the top biography I have ever read. It would make for an excellent film except no one would ever believe that the events described in this book could have actually happened.
John Carter McKnight
A mindboggling story of a different world, Los Angeles in the years before World War 2, when rocket science was confined to comic strips - and a tiny few dreamers blowing stuff up in Pasadena's Arroyo Seco. One such was John Parsons, not quite the blueblood he acted, but an intuitive autodidact with a penchant for blowing shit up.

Along the way he invented Jet-Assisted Takeoff, the modern solid fueled rocket, was instrumental in founding JPL and was a founder of Aerojet Corp. And Aleister Crowle...more
Charles Dee Mitchell
I would like to write a review that does justice to the all-American weirdness of Parson's life but I am not sure how to go about it. So this is going to be very straightforward stuff.

In 1913, Parson's parents were among the thousands who moved to Southern California from the chilly Eastern seaboard in search of the good life. His father abandoned the family, but his mother's wealthy parents made the journey west to take care of their daughter and grandchild. Parsons grew up lonely and affluent...more
Carrie
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Susan

Another quick vacation read--have been curious about the topic for a long time; Loren Cameron told me years ago his "Uncle Jack," the subject of this biography, so it was an unexpected pleasure to stumble across this book at City Lights. It's a great California Studies sort of book, about the social and intellectual connections between occultism, sexual libertinism, bohemian lifestyles, left wing politics and science fiction among the the people at Caltech who pretty much invented American rocke...more
Brian
Oh, the disappointment! Rocket science cowboy and occultist charting a singular life in post-war California before dying a grisly explosive death -- how on earth could such a book be.... boring? Especially when it's written by the same guy who wrote the riotously funny faux-biography, "The Unbelievable Life of Millard Fillmore"? Too much of this book is just "and then he did x, then y. After that, he did z," and while the actual exploits of John Whiteside Parsons are peculiar and dramatic, Pendl...more
Charlotte
John Whiteside Parsons led a very interesting life and Mr. Pendle shares that life with us. Unfortunately, Mr. Pendle likes to take the reader down rabbit holes - exploring the lives of every person Parsons ever meets, the history of every organization with which he could be associated. All these detours (at least the non-rocket science ones) take away from the central story.

My fiance, of course, disagrees. He loved the book. But this is my review and would have enjoyed the book more if Pendle...more
Andy
Jun 22, 2009 Andy rated it 3 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: Chemistry Wizards
Dorothy Parker once wrote, "There is no more cruel destroyer of excitement than painstaking detail", and boy does this book do that. Somewhere there's a fascinating tale to be told about Mr. Parsons, but whenever the story picks up speed you're regaled with endless chemistry compounds and physics equations. All this Mister Wizard attention to detail was biographicus interruptus. C-
Remy
This is the second bio of Jack Parsons I've read, and by far the better, more thorough book. The details of the rocketry are so thorough I was bored. But the L.Ron Hubbard stuff is amazing ... Unbelievable. If you have any interest in the beginnings of scientology you need to know this.
Doug Piero
For years, I have seen the hints about Jack Parsons, rocket scientist, dropped into science fiction reviews or space program trivia. I have some notes scribbled somewhere to remind me to "look into this." Now I won't need to. At last I know how the discovery of modern rocketry, the Nazis, the Communist Party, Pasadena, Aleister Crowley, the discovery of tritium, Robert A Heinlein's nudism, "Hotel California," jet planes, Dianetics & Scientology, "The Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome," Rocke...more
S Suzanne
I loved this book. I must confess I skimmed much of the detailed rocket stuff to get to more about the OTO, occultism, SCI-fi, and relationship zaniness.

Cries out to be series - I just find Parsons' story so compelling. But the material cries out for David Cronenberg or David Lynch...someone who can convey otherworldly and heightened states of reality.

Better than expected. Highly recommended for anyone interested in the occult in America. I want to know much more about the women of his life...m...more
Jack Hastings
Fascinating character study. Explosions, Aleister Crowley, Pasadena, the LA Science Fiction Society, L. Ron Hubbard, who could ask for more.
Ed Smiley
This is a fascinating biography.
The style of the book is slightly purple, but it seems to fit the subject matter.
I think that only Tim Burton could direct a movie about the life of Jack Parsons.

He is an early pioneer of rocketry when rocketry was intellectually disreputable.
A founding member of the rocket experimentation center at CalTech, nicknamed "the suicide squad".
Consultant to the military and inventor of the initial JATO engine.
An expert in explosives. Engaged in exhausting black magic r...more
Mike
Nov 07, 2009 Mike rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: Anyone
Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), JATO packs, castable solid-fuel rocket motors, wierd cults, swapping sex partners, Caltech. All of this in one book, but wait there's more! Death and suicide. It all revolves around this man: Marvel (John) Whiteside Parsons. This man had a very full, very interesting life, but one that ended too soon.

The author does a great job of researching a man who official records and histories would rather leave out. But, they can't (or at least shouldn't). This is probably...more
Mike Travers
California is a place where fringe culture has a way of becoming mainstream in the blink of an eye. What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry described this dynamic as it drove the connections between the hippies of the 1960s and the tech moguls of the 1990s. This book describes an earlier and stranger interplay between the powerful and the fringey, back in pre-war LA, where rocketry pioneers and occultists and science fiction writers flitted th...more
Samuel Robb
At times I felt this book was turgid, but by the end I could appreciate how we'll researched it was. The subject matter is really quite fascinating. The scientific developments are astounding, and the cross over with them and science fiction and magic is rendered believably and sympathetic. Though Parsons was not a particularly likeable character he lived a life filled with excitement and inquiry. He was a great inventor without a formal education, and in a strange way, his involvement in black...more
Andres
An excellent biography of one of the fathers of American rocketry who was, at the same time, heavily involved in the occult and with the fledgling L. Ron Hubbard, just prior to the latter's creation of Scientology. Jack Parsons was lodge master of the Agape OTO Lodge (Thelemic group) in Pasadena and followed Crowley's teachings. Getting swindled out of his life savings by Hubbard, who also stole Parsons then lover (and also sister of his estranged wife (then living with former OTO Lodge Master,...more
Lea
I wish I liked this book more -- it's got so many elements that I love in a book, & it's well researched & well written. Reading this book made me realize how little I really knew about the development of rockets, life in the U.S. during the 1920s through the 1940s, occult beliefs & practices . . . the list goes on & on. At the end of it all, though, this is a heartbreaking story of a very sad man. Jack Parsons seems doomed almost from birth, & it's really a testament to his...more
Andrew Church
This was an excellent biography of the fascinating rocket scientist/occultist Jack Parsons. The book was well written and a very easy read. It also provided a lot of insight into how the mysticism of the late eighteenth century led directly to the Scientology of L. Ron Hubbard.

Interesting fact: After living in Jack's Pasadena mansion/commune/Ordo Templi Orientis temple for several months, Hubbard eloped with Jack's wife to Florida. The two also stole Parsons' entire $20,000 life savings and used...more
Dale
Hey, it's the 150th book I've read while commuting since becoming a mass transit user!

I like biographies of overlooked figures because they combine the intrigue of learning something completely new with the marvel of true-fact reporting. I had no idea who John Whiteside Parsons was before some blurbs for this book caugth my attention. He lived a pretty fascinating life as it turned out.

More, including dubious conclusions about his unintential legacy via one of my favorite fictional characters? B...more
Noiresque
Disappointing. This is the author's first novel, and I'm afraid it does show. He selected a fascinating subject for this biography, but fails to shed much light on the man. There was plenty to enjoy about the book, lots of information about black magic as well as the early days of rocketry. But the book is structured to make the reader ask two questions: exactly how did this guy die? and just who was he? And the book doesn't conclusively answer either one. It would be difficult for me to pinpoin...more
Meg
Loved this book so very much! I highly recommend it for anyone into biographies, science, and a little of the "occult". i am wondering though...some of these "stories" about parsons seem a little uncredited to any person relating it to the author. i'm not one to reject an author putting a bit of assumption in his biographies, but at times its a bit obvious here. I'm not saying it is embellished however, since Parson's life was so fantastical. It has changed the way I look at scientific innovatio...more
Meredith
Dang. They don't make 'em like this anymore.

Self-taught polymath. Chemist, Rockateer, Founding member of JPL, Poet, Magician, total babe. And a snappy dresser to boot!

He may be an excellent example of "It's better to burn out than to fade away." His death was horrific. However, I just don't see him as having much of a future with the avalanche of troubles that kept on coming. The 1950's would have not have been kind to him. Where there is life there is hope, I suppose. But his life seemed to be...more
Kat
I read this coming from the occult science perspective; therefore, the majority of the space science part was of little interest to me.

The book was quite profoundly schizophrenic - the space science and occult science were largely divided and "never the twain shall meet" in the author's treatment of these two major aspects of Parsons' life. I found the writing to be somewhat stale and not especially engaging, and gleaned only small morsels of useful information from the volume.

Not a bad book, b...more
Jeff
There we go - I always enjoy a book about a slightly unhinged genius.

Above and beyond all the rocket work - Parsons in the 1940s established a communal house dedicated to a post-jealousy, post-backbiting, sexually open lifestyle. Like all such ventures, it collapsed in jealousy and backbiting. As if that wasn't bad enough, L. Ron Hubbard showed up in his life and promptly rolled Parsons for all his money and his woman. And by Parsons's "woman" I mean his wife's half-sister, whom Parsons had adju...more
Jacob Hale
A biography of someone whose scientific contributions have been neglected should, I think, be clearer about the exact nature of those contributions, and the relevant science itself should have been explained more thoroughly. But otherwise I mostly agree with Susan's review -- and, thanks, Susan for turning me onto this book. Clifton's Cafeteria was, of course, a focal point for lots of Southern California trends and networks. I would absolutely love to read a careful social, cultural, and politi...more
James
As it's the most complete account we're ever likely to get of Parsons, one of the most fascinating men who ever lived, the occasional editorial sloppiness is exceedingly easy to overlook, and when a book's subject matter overlaps with as many of my fetishes as Pendle's does here -- occultism, fringe science, the paranoid and conspiratorial madness of mid-20th century America -- and is expressed with such infectious passion and excitement, I freely admit I'm little more than putty in the author's...more
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