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Review: Percival’s Planet

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Percival’s Planet: A Novel
by Michael Byers
Henry Holt, 2010
hardcover, 432 pp.
ISBN 978-0-8050-9218-9

Pluto, it would seem, is a world with an influence on publishing disproportionate to its mass. Over the last several years several books have been published about the dwarf planet, which was famously (or infamously, depending on your point of view) demoted from planet status by the International Astronomical Union in 2006, mostly recounting those events and/or advocating a particular point of view about its classification. Now, though, Pluto has become the inspiration for a very different kind of book: a historical novel about the discovery of that distant world 80 years ago.

In Percival’s Planet, Michael Byers takes readers back to the late 1920s, in particular to a farm in Kansas where a young Clyde Tombaugh is living, quite unhappily. As his parents eke out a living on the farm, he seeks to head off to college but cannot afford to do so. So, he finds escape building telescopes and observing the heavens, work that would, eventually, be his ticket off the farm and to a job at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff.

Rarely does a novel go into digressions of knife-edge optical tests for telescopes or an introduction to orbital mechanics—there’s even an equation in the text.

Tombaugh, though, is only one of many characters—mostly but not entirely fictional—in Percival’s Planet. There’s a Harvard graduate student working at Lowell, the odd man out in a love triangle with a fellow student and a woman “computer” from the astronomy department there. There’s also a wealthy man who eschews the family business in favor of a search for dinosaur fossils, and a young woman in Boston battling mental illness. There are also some historical figures in the book, too, such as Lowell astronomer Vesto Slipher and Constance Lowell, widow of Percival Lowell.

The novel gets off to a slow start: much of the first half of the book is devoted to the individual stories of these and other characters, with the focus shifting from chapter to chapter. At times it’s hard to tell what some of these people have to do with the eventual discovery of Pluto. Eventually, though, these characters’ orbits do intersect in Flagstaff, the Arizona town that is the home of Lowell Observatory and, in the words of Byers, a “funny mix” of oddball characters: “you hardly have to walk a mile to encounter to encounter someone from another world who has decided the Colorado Plateau is the New Atlantis.”

Percival’s Planet is not a history of the discovery of Pluto, but Byers goes to great lengths to get the history, and the science, correct, even while weaving it into a work of fiction. Rarely does a novel go into digressions of knife-edge optical tests for telescopes or an introduction to orbital mechanics—there’s even an equation (a formulation of Kepler’s Third Law) in the text. That emphasis on authenticity may be lost on the average reader, and not strictly necessary for a work of fiction, but it is certainly appreciated by those with knowledge of the subject. The historical outcome of the novel—Tombaugh’s discovery of Pluto—is certainly not a surprise, but the combination of historical detail and the interactions of a diverse set of characters, including Tombaugh, makes Percival’s Planet an entertaining read.