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X marks the spot

The Unfixed Stars by Michael Byers

Deborah Rowe 13 February 2011

Star-struck: detail from the cover

We get a glimpse of the tedium, as well as the pleasure, competitiveness and political manoeuvres, of scientific research

Michael Byers’ latest science-related novel The Unfixed Stars (Picador, 2010; differently titled Percival’s Planet in the US edition, Henry Holt & Co 2010) is loosely based on the true story surrounding the key players at the centre of the search for ‘Planet X’ – Pluto – in 1930. At its heart is Clyde Tombaugh, a Kansas farm boy with such a keen interest in astronomy that he grinds his own telescope lenses in his father’s barn. We join him in retirement, en route to giving a talk at an astronomical society event, as he is reminded of the events that lead him to discover Pluto. From the beginning we get the sense that there may be unfinished business and a story that has yet to be properly told.

It turns out to be a tale worth telling and we get to see it from the different perspectives of the vibrant characters whose lives interlink to bring it to life. The staff at the Lowell Observatory in Arizona dedicated to finding Planet X, and the cantankerous widow whose legacy is to fund them; the hapless heir to a huge industrial fortune whose search for a meaning in life leads him to dinosaur hunting, and his doting mother who tags along for the ride; and a beautiful woman on the verge of insanity and the men who try to save her from herself. Each of them has a part to play as their stories converge and diverge in surprising ways.

The cover blurb mentions ‘madness, mathematics, music, astrophysics, boxing, dinosaur hunting, and shipwrecks’ and the novel doesn’t disappoint. Byers weaves an intricate tale of love, loss and scientific discovery. He delivers it in a poetic and convincing narrative (even in its most implausible moments) that keeps the reader engaged to the end. We learn enough to care what happens to his characters and we even get a glimpse of the tedium, as well as the pleasure, competitiveness and political manoeuvres, of working in scientific research.

This is not a dry tale of scientific endeavour. You don’t have to be interested in astrophysics to enjoy this book but you do have to be interested in a good story. The Unfixed Stars is a great read.

Related information:

Michael Byers has written another lab lit novel called Long For This World, which the editors also highly recommend.