Hannah Kate

poet, short story writer and editor based in Manchester

Reach for the Stars: My Favourite Fictional Astronomers

On Tuesday’s Helping of History on North Manchester FM, I talked about Broughton’s William Crabtree and Cheetham Hill’s Joseph Baxendell, two North Manchester men who made their name in the field of astronomy. In 1639, Crabtree was one of only two people to observe and report on the Transit of Venus, and in 1858 Baxendell was appointed official astronomer to Manchester Corporation. I found both these stories so fascinating, that I couldn’t help but extend my stellar theme to this week’s Hannah’s Bookshelf as well – though, of course, Saturday’s show had a slightly more fictional bent! My theme was fictional astronomers, and I took a little look at a selection of books featuring astronomers and astrophysicists.

Now… long-time listeners and readers of this blog might possibly be thinking that I’ve been here before. In 2016, I devoted a show to my favourite books about Outer Space. On that list, I included books set on distant planets and in spaceships, in which people left the earth and travelled the universe. Today’s list is different – the characters in these books are (almost exclusively) earthbound. But they’re all looking up and beyond, in search of some cosmological knowledge or truth. The characters I talked about in this episode all have their feet on earth… but they’re reaching for the stars.

As promised on the show, here’s the list of the books I featured. Let me know if you’ve got any other recommendations (or if you disagree with my choices!).

See You in the Cosmos by Jack Cheng (2017)

The first book on today’s list is Cheng’s charming middle-grade novel, See You in the Cosmos, a book that shares some similarities with Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (though it’s aimed at a slightly younger audience). It’s a book with an intelligent child narrator (though an adult may read between the lines and see the things that the narrator doesn’t), an unaccompanied road trip, and (though it may not appear so at first) a mystery to be solved. Eleven-year-old Alex Petroski loves space, astronomy and rockets. He wants to recreate Carl Sagan’s Golden Record (which was launched on the Voyager spacecraft in 1977) by launching a gold-painted iPod with recordings on it into space. He decides to travel to the Southwest High-Altitude Rocket Festival in New Mexico to do so.

Alex is a young narrator, and we see the world through his naive eyes. See You in the Cosmos is structured as ‘recordings’, rather than ‘chapters’, with a stream-of-consciousness style. As such, it’s very much from the narrator’s perspective. Alex doesn’t see anything ‘off’ about his family, and is innocently honest in his descriptions of his home-life: he lives with his mum (who is seemingly neglectful and incapacitated on her ‘quiet days’, during which Alex looks after himself), and he doesn’t see his adult brother Ronnie, who works as a sports agent and lives elsewhere. His dad died when Alex was young. Alex adopts a dog, and names it Carl Sagan after his hero, and his new pet accompanies him on the trip to New Mexico. Alex’s journey is a quest narrative – and, typically, it’s not necessarily the quest you were initially expecting. On his trip to launch his rocket, Alex meets adults (and kids) who help him, and he learns some truths that have been hidden from him. Cheng’s novel is deeply sad in places, but ultimately rather sweet and uplifting.

The Movement of Stars by Amy Brill (2013)

Brill’s novel is set in 1845, and tells the story of Hannah Gardner Price, a Nantucket Quaker. Hannah’s passion is (surprisingly enough) astronomy, and she dreams of discovering a comet and winning the King of Denmark’s prize. Although her father is initially supportive, his own interest in astronomy wanes when Hannah’s brother Edward leaves on a whaling vessel. When he decides to pack up, remarry and move to Philadelphia, Hannah realizes that her career as an astronomer may be curtailed.

In addition to being a historical novel, The Movement of Stars is also a romance. Hannah’s head is turned by a young Azorean whaler, Isaac, who comes to her for help with his ship’s chronometer. As Hannah and Isaac’s friendship deepens, the small Quaker community begin to question Hannah’s respectability. However, Hannah and Isaac are both ambitious, and united in their fascination with the stars. Will this win out over prejudice? And will Hannah ever spot a comet?

Brill’s novel is inspired by the life of Maria Mitchell, the first woman to work as a professional astronomer in America. In 1847, Mitchell discovered a comet, which became known as ‘Miss Mitchell’s Comet’, and won the King of Denmark’s award. The Maria Mitchell Observatory in Nantucket is named in her memory. However, Brill has embellished Mitchell’s story with a forbidden romance and a restrictive, religious society. In reality, Mitchell never married, and her Quaker community believed in intellectual equality of the sexes. Brill’s novel exercises some artistic licence, to create a story about freedom, belonging and human connection.

Somnium by Johannes Kepler (1634)

The rest of today’s books were all published in the twenty-first century – but we’re going a bit further back in time for the next one! Tuesday’s Helping of History featured the story of William Crabtree and Jeremiah Horrocks – who were followers of Johannes Kepler (1571–1630), the German astronomer and mathematician. So I thought it would be fitting to include a book related to Kepler on today’s list. I considered John Banville’s 1981 novel Kepler, and nearly included it… But surely it’s even more apt to include a work of fiction by the man himself. Somnium is sometimes described as one of the first works of science fiction. It was written in 1608 (in Latin), and published in 1634 by Kepler’s son Ludwig.

In the (relatively short) novel, Kepler-the-narrator falls asleep reading about a sorceress. He dreams about reading another book, this time about a fourteen-year-old Icelandic boy named Duracotus, whose mother Fiolxhilde makes a living selling mystical herbs to ship captains for luck. After an incident involving the herbs, Duracotus ends up being sold to a ship captain, and then later becomes a student of Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe. When he eventually returns home, Fiolxhilde explains she has the power to commune with daemons, who can transport humans to their home world, the island of Levania (which is really the earth’s moon). The books contains detailed descriptions of the journey to Levania, its two hemispheres, and the view of Volva (Earth) in its sky. It offers a poetic-but-scientific version of the geometry of the Earth/Moon system, eclipses and other lunar astronomy.

Somnium was originally a student dissertation by Kepler, defending the Copernican doctrine of the motion of the Earth. Two decades later, he added the dream framework, and then later, some explanatory notes on his own career. Some people have theorized that Kepler wrote it as a piece of fiction in order to disguise the radical nature of his thoughts – it was not an easy time to be an astronomer, and Kepler’s fellow Copernican Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for heresy in 1600.

Percival’s Planet by Michael Byers (2010)

Percival’s Planet is a fictionalized account of Clyde Tombaugh‘s discovery of Pluto in 1930 (following Percival Lowell‘s unsuccessful search for the hypothesized ‘Planet X’). The story of Tombaugh here is roughly based on a true story, but Byers populates his novel with a series of fictional characters, all of whom are locked in their own quests – and all of whom play some part or intersect in some way with the search for Planet X. The book begins in 1928, with Tombaugh on his family’s farm in Kansas, grinding a telescope lens and dreaming of astronomy. In Flagstaff, Arizona, the Lowell Observatory is planning to resume the late Percival Lowell’s search for Planet X. Tombaugh ends up working at the Lowell Observatory, initially helping with the night-time photography required for the search, but eventually making his name as the discoverer of Pluto. Surrounding his story are those of other ‘lost souls’ and searchers, including Alan Barber (who names a comet after the woman he loves, just before she marries another man), Barber’s (later) love Mary (who is fighting a losing battle against psychosis), Felix DuPrie (a rich dilettante who ends up as a dinosaur-hunter). Percival’s Planet is a book about discovery, loss, obsession and madness, but also about astrophysics, mathematics and computation.

The novel is inspired by the story of Tombaugh, rather than being faithfully biographical. David Levy’s biography, Clyde Tombaugh: Discoverer of the Planet Pluto, offers a different account of Tombaugh’s character, for instance. As in other books on today’s list, the astronomer here is presented as unsupported by his family and community, whereas in reality Tombaugh’s family put a high value on education.

Boneland by Alan Garner (2012)

When I was thinking about this list, I considered including a novel featuring the Royal Greenwich Observatory – for instance, Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent or Graham Swift’s Waterland – but in the end I decided to stick a little closer to home, and so the next book on my list is one where Jodrell Bank in Cheshire plays a significant role. Boneland is a sequel to Garner’s much-loved children’s books, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (1960) and The Moon of Gomrath (1963), but it is not straightforwardly so. Published nearly fifty years after the second book in the trilogy, it is a very different kettle of fish – not least because it isn’t a children’s book. (It is still set in and around Alderley Edge, though, and the landscape is still very much a character.)

In some ways, the book offers a catch-up with Colin and Susan from the two previous stories (they’re brother and sister in the early books, now explicitly twins). In other ways, however, it’s really not a catch-up, as a large part of the story of the intervening years is absent. We find out that Susan has disappeared, and Colin is now autistic polymath Professor Colin Whisterfield. He works at Jodrell Bank, using the radio telescope to search the Pleiades for his lost sister. Colin can remember every moment of his life after thirteen, but nothing at all that happened before that age. Readers expecting a turn of events that will bring the sort of high-peril fantasy adventure found in the 60s novels will be disappointed (or, perhaps, pleasantly surprised), as Colin’s story is actually told through conversations with Meg, an idiosyncratic but gifted psychologist who is sympathetic towards him. It is intercut with a Shamanistic dream narrative – a man (the Watcher) who is the guardian of the Edge needs to find/create the Woman to ensure the survival of the world. Written in the sparse but poetic prose characteristic of Garner’s later fiction, Boneland is, in part, a meditation on growing up – the jaded, cynical adult world is stripped of the fantastical beings and wonder of childhood – but also a consideration of magic, memory and mental health. Its non-linear and opaque narrative structure creates a cerebral and unsettling finale to the Alderley Edge story, and one that bears re-reading.

The Falling Sky by Pippa Goldschmidt (2013)

The final book on today’s list is another novel by an astronomer… but it’s a very different kettle of fish to Somnium! Pippa Goldschmidt has a PhD in Astronomy from the University of Edinburgh. The Falling Sky was her debut novel. The novel’s central character is Jeanette, a post-doctoral researcher who finds evidence that potentially does not fit with the Big Bang Theory (she observes two connected galaxies that should be impossible). A true scientist, Jeanette is desperate to refute her own findings, painstakingly calculating and recalculating in an attempt to find her own error, and travelling to Chile in order to continue her observations. However, this is only part of the story. The book alternates between ‘Now’ and ‘Then’ chapters. The former describe her present situation – she’s trying to come to terms with implications of her discovery and the consequences for her academic career, while going through a cycle of unsatisfying affairs and relationships. The ‘Then’ chapters focus on her past – piecing together her early childhood, and her disjointed relationship with her parents and beloved sister (whose unexplained death is a shadow on Jeanette’s adult life).

Described as a satirical campus novel, The Falling Sky is more than this. Its humour is really of the blackest (or perhaps bleakest?) kind. This is a quiet and thoughtful novel about disconnection, reality, tragedy and loss. It seems a fitting book with which to end this list, as it touches on so many of the themes that these books have in common. However, it does leave me with a puzzling question: Why can’t astronomers (in fiction) be happy? Are they all reaching for the stars to replace something that’s missing from their terrestrial life? Given the proliferation within these books of dead/absent parents and missing siblings, I can’t help but come to the conclusion that literary takes on astronomy repeatedly situate the science as a potent, but poignant, search for meaning in the face of loss and absence.

To hear more about all the books on today’s list, and my reasons for choosing them, listen to the show here:

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