Humans have always been fascinated by the stars. We gaze upon them, dream about them, and often write about them too. John Pipkin is no different. His latest novel, The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter, tells the story of Caroline Ainsworth, the daughter of an astronomer who dedicated his entire life to discovering a new planet. When he dies, she takes up his mission, just as her homeland of Ireland is swept into the throes of rebellion. To celebrate the book’s release, Pipkin shared some of his favorite books that feature stargazers.
I have always been fascinated by astronomy and the stories of the astronomers themselves, whose real lives often reflect the kind of dedication, persistence, and passion that we usually only see portrayed in fictional characters of the most obsessive sort. When I was researching my historical novel, The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter, I found inspiration in many great historical novels. Here are five of my favorite books about astronomy that also explore themes of ambition, obsession, and, in some cases, madness.
Poor Pluto. The distant world was demoted to a minor planet in 2006 (much to the dismay of Plutophiles), but there was a time in the early 20th century when the search for the mysterious “Planet X” was the preoccupation of a team of astronomers led by Percival Lowell. After Lowell’s death, the search for Planet X fell to Clyde Tombaugh, a young amateur astronomer from an Illinois farm. After comparing thousands of photographic plates, Tombaugh discovered Pluto in 1930 at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, AZ, but this is only a small part of the story. Impeccably researched and rich with historical detail, Percival’s Planet cleverly weaves fact and fiction, and it is as much a romance and a coming-of-age story as is it a novel about personal aspirations and scientific discoveries.
Martians. Madness. A giant conflagration in the desert. Equilateral is a riveting novel of scientific ambition and the descent into insanity. Set in the late 1800s, the story builds on the factual discovery of what were thought to be canals on Mars, which some astronomers took as evidence of intelligent life. (The “canals” later turned out to be optical illusions.) The story then ventures into a wild and mesmerizing tale of a fictional British astronomer, Sanford Thayer, who grows increasingly desperate to contact the Martian canal-builders by June 17, 1894, when Earth and Mars will be in favorable positions. Thayer employs thousands of men to dig enormous trenches in the Egyptian desert. If the project is completed in time, the massive trenches, in the shape of an equilateral triangle, will be filled with petroleum and set on fire. But, of course, there will be complications. Ken Kalfus blends historical fact with speculative fiction to give us a portrait of ambition gone awry.
Set in mid-19th-century New England, this beautiful historical novel takes as its subject the untold stories of female astronomers whose early contributions to the field of astronomy have often gone unrecognized. The main character Hannah Price—whose fictional life draws upon the real life of the pioneering American astronomer Maria Mitchell—is determined to prove herself to her father and to the astronomical community by discovering and naming a new comet (the ambition of many 19th century stargazers). In the course of her search she also confronts other taboos of her time, including her romantic attraction to Isaac, the Azorean second mate from a whaling ship who comes to her for lessons in mathematics and navigation. In this richly detailed novel, Price gives us a realistic and compelling account of not only the historical methods of astronomical study but also the challenges of being a woman astronomer in the 19th century.
This not actually a novel about astronomy, but in its stunning and expansive storytelling, Ahab’s Wife draws upon observations and speculations on the cosmos as it reconstructs the 19th-century world. The novel’s main character Una is, among many things, also an amateur stargazer, and in the course of her epic wanderings she meets some of the main historical figures of the period, including the astronomer Maria Mitchell. Beginning with the line “Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last,” Sena Jeter Naslund’s novel takes as its premise a line from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, in which Captain Ahab mentions having a wife. Intricately constructed and rendered in lush prose, Ahab’s Wife is a story of self-discovery as well as an exploration of the world and the heavens.
T.C. Boyle’s first historical novel, Water Music, still remains one of my favorites for the brashness of its narrative voice and for its freewheeling plot lines, which capture the wonder, ambition, and eccentricity of explorers and scientists during the British Romantic period. At the same time, the novel also depicts the harsh and gritty conditions of the late-18th-century world. Several famous historical figures make appearances or are referenced in the novel, including the explorer Mungo Park, scientist Joseph Banks, and others. Like Naslund’s Ahab’s Wife, Boyle’s Water Music is not exactly about astronomy, but observations about the heavens (and some stunning descriptions of the night sky) play an important role in this story about an unlikely hero, Ned Rise, stumbling through a turbulent landscape of political and scientific revolutions.
John Pipkin was born in Baltimore and received his Ph.D. in British Literature from Rice University. His first novel, Woodsburner, was named one of the best books of 2009 by The Washington Post,The Christian Science Monitor, and the San Francisco Chronicle. It won the Massachusetts Book Award for Fiction, the Steven Turner Award for Best Work of First Fiction from the Texas Institute of Letters, and the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize. It was widely praised for its “intelligent and often lyrical” writing (New York Times) and its convincing portrayal of “men and woman consumed by their own passions” (Washington Post). Pipkin lives in Austin, Texas, with his wife and son.