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by Michael Byers

Henry Holt


414pp/$27.00/August 2010

Percival's Planet
Cover by Christian Pierce

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

The title Percival’s Planet would indicate that the discovery of Pluto in 1930, or perhaps Percival Lowell’s unsuccessful earlier search doe his Planet X, is the focus of the novel, and, ostensibly, it is. Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered Pluto, is a major character and his discovery does play a climactic role, but the main part of the book focuses on Michael Byers’s fictitious characters, the astronomer-mathematician, Alan Barber, the insane Mary Hempstead, and the dinosaur-hunting millionaire Felix DuPrie.

Each of Byers’s characters have their own stories. Barber is working as a mathematician at the Lowell Observator prior to Tombaugh’s arrival. His infatuation with a friend’s fiancée leads to his very public disgrace, which he tries to banish by revisiting Lowell’s calculations and attempting to more accurately predict a position for Planet X. At first, Hempstead’s story seems completely unrelated to the main narrative as she deals with her homosexual brother, Hollis, and the delusion that a large horn extrudes from her head. Eventually, she travels to Arizona, where her story meshes with those of Barber and DuPrie. DuPrie, meanwhile, is the neer-do-well millionaire heir to an arms fortune whose quest for dinosaur fossils is an attempt to redeem his image and serves as a mirror for both Tombaugh’s quest for Pluto and Barber’s pursuit for redemption.

The most problematic character in the novel is Clyde Tombaugh, as well as the others based on historical figures.  I found myself having problems reconciling the fictionalized version of Tombaugh with the individual I knew for several years in the 1980s, although unlike Byers’s creations, his version of Tombaugh is one of the few sympathetic characters in the book.  Interestingly, the least sympathetic character, the closest the novel comes to a villain, is Byers’s portrayal of Constance Lowell, although she comes across with a level of accuracy based on what Tombaugh, Slipher, and others have written about her.

The book’s tempo is slow as Byers focuses on his characters. Combined with their generally unsympathetic nature, the pace leaves the reader plodding through the novel, not caring about the characters’ successes and set-backs. Even Tombaugh’s eventual discovery come as anticlimactic as the reader knows Pluto will be discovered. The discovery also leads Byers into a debate that presages the 2005-6 debate over Pluto’s status, further destroying the wonder of the moment and portraying Tombaugh, V.M. Slipher, etc. as flim-flam artists rather than scientists.

While Pluto’s nature has long been contentious, the arguments presented in Percival’s Planet are anachronistic when viewed in the discussion of various historical controversies as presented in William Hoyt’s Planets “X” and Pluto or Tombaugh’s own Out of the Darkness: The Search for Pluto.

Byers has taken and interesting and unique moment and built a story around it which doesn’t live up to the focus of the story. He introduces interesting, and perhaps even clever, story elements, but they never coalesce to the level of the actual historical events Byers uses, ultimately undercutting the historical elements which almost appear as an unnecessary afterthought the Byers’s story of Barber, Hempstead, and DuPrie.

Purchase this book from Amazon Books.

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