I just finished reading a very interesting book, one that any student of popular fiction in America might enjoy. It's called Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons, and it was written by British biographer George Pendle (Harcourt, 2005, 333 pp.). Reading this book was a revelation to me: I have heard of John Whiteside Parsons (1914-1952) only in passing and didn't know anything about the origins of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Parsons, a largely self-taught chemist, rocketeer, and expert on explosives, was there at the beginning, or I should say before the beginning. Strangely enough, Parsons was also involved in Aleister Crowley's version of "magick" to the point that he attempted to conjure beings from another realms into our own--and may have believed at one time that he had done so. The cast of Parsons' life story is large and varied. It includes mathematicians and magicians, physicists and occultists, straight arrows and flim-flam men, bohemians and pillars of academia and government. Fans of Weird Tales will find some of the magazine's contributing authors in the pages of this book: Robert A. Heinlein, L. Sprague de Camp, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Forrest J. Ackerman, Cleve Cartmill, Anthony Boucher, Jack Williamson, and Dr. David H. Keller. "The Unique Magazine" even earns mention itself in Strange Angel.
Strange Angel also reveals something about the intersection of science and magic and about how religious belief might grow out of the yearnings of science fiction. The related religions of flying saucers and Scientology are examples, and that brings me to another character in the life story of John Whiteside Parsons, none other than the inventor of Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard. At the end of World War II, Hubbard found himself not only in Pasadena but also in Parsons' own home. The naive and ingenuous Parsons was a perfect mark for Hubbard. It didn't take Hubbard long to bilk Parsons of his savings and to run away to Florida with his mistress. L. Sprague de Camp had this to say in a letter to Isaac Asimov (dated August 27, 1946, and quoted directly from the book):
The more complete story of Hubbard is that he is now in Fla. living on his yacht with a man-eating tigress named Betty-alias-Sarah [Parsons' former mistress], another of the same kind . . . He will probably soon thereafter arrive in these parts with Betty-Sarah, broke, working the poor-wounded-veteran racket for all it's worth, and looking for another easy mark. Don't say you haven't been warned. Bob [Robert Heinlein] thinks Ron went to pieces morally as a result of the war. I think that's fertilizer, that he always was that way, but when he wanted to conciliate or get something from somebody he could put on a good charm act. What the war did was to wear him down to where he no longer bothers with the act.
Say what you will about L. Sprague de Camp, but he knew enough about human nature to pierce to the heart of the matter, to recognize the man behind the mask.
Finally, a piece of trivia: John Whiteside Parsons' real first name was Marvel. By reading this book, you may decide that Parsons' given name was not far from telling the truth about him.
Text copyright 2012 Terence E. Hanley