Sex and Rockets: The Occult World of Jack Parsons
Sex and Rockets is the biography of John Whiteside Parsons, a man so divided in his interests that the author sometimes refers to him as “John” and other times as “Jack,” almost like Highlights magazine’s Goofus and Gallant. Jack Parsons was one of the pioneers of America’s rocket program, responsible for such innovations as the fuel that got our rockets to the moon. John Parsons was an eager, enthusiastic occultist, a follower of Aleister Crowley who strove to establish an occult church in California. Never have the seemingly disparate personalities of “the scientist” and “the magician” existed so clearly within one man; never has the link between science and science fiction been so obvious. Parsons was killed in 1952 by an explosion in his home that has never been fully explained. Was he experimenting with something for rocket propulsion? Was he experimenting with something occult? Was it murder? An accident?
Carter’s book is well researched but unfortunately Carter refrains from offering much insight into Parsons’ personality. The first half of the book details Parsons’ experiments with rockets at a time when most rocket research in the United States was a grassroots effort, conducted by enthusiastic amateurs in their garages or nearby fields. This section is rather dry, relying too much on superfluous details discovered by Carter’s painstaking research.
Not surprisingly, the biography becomes more interesting when Parsons becomes involved with the occult. Gossipy, true, but definitely more interesting. In addition to Parsons’ Oedipal relationship with Crowley and his friendship with L. Ron Hubbard (founder of the Church of Scientology who manages to steal Parson’s wife), there are tales of orgies and other illicit behavior. But it’s not until he summarizes Parsons’ life at the end of the book that Carter offers much insight into the man:
“In contradistinction to the underestimation in the field of rocket science in the aerospace industry, Parsons accomplishments in the arcane sciences have been highly overrated and grossly exaggerated. As a magician he was essentially a failure…He loves Crowley’s “law” (“do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law”) but could not adhere to it – though he tried harder than most. He violated the rules, undertook unauthorized and unorthodox magical operations, and claimed the grade of Magister Templi without first completing all the grades below. He couldn’t handle working under authority – his ego was too big. His record of failure is valuable in that regard. He was a great promulgator of Thelemic ideals in his essays, but as an idealist his elitism ruined his work.”
The above image came from Zak Snyder's "Pictures Showing What Happens on Each Page of Thomas Pynchon's Novel Gravity's Rainbow." Actually, "Sex and Rockets" would make a good alternative title for Pynchon's novel.