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Light This Candle, by Neal Thompson

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I’ve always enjoyed science fiction novels, but as I’ve grown older I’ve had more trouble swallowing the premises that they threw at me. I read progressively more realistic sci-fi, moving from Bradbury to Clarke to Asimov, and finally to Kim Stanley Robinson. Perhaps it was natural, then that I moved across the boundary to science nonfiction. A couple of months ago I started reading non-fiction accounts of the early days of the Space Age, and I’ve enjoyed most all of them. Light this Candle, a biography of Alan Shepard, does an overall proficient job.

Alan Shepard is by no means the easiest of biographical subjects. He was rather private, as public figures go, and not given to self-narration. Consequently much of the information is obtained from family and friends of Shepard, some of whom are as intensely protective of Shepard’s privacy as Shepard was himself.

Despite these obstacles, Thompson does not lack for information or interesting events. Shepard was a trouble-maker for most of his life, and the book is peppered with accounts of his exploits, such as ‘flat-hatting’, or flying dangerously low, and stealing the shoes of the upper-classmen in military school.

It’s not as though Shepard led a dull life, and Thompson gives the book enough narrative drive to easily keep readers interested, but Thompson still seems to feel obligated to add to the tension by finishing off his chapters with ‘cliff-hanger’ sentences. “Little did he know ” sorts of things. And then the next chapter fails to live up to these ominous forebodings. The book would have been better without these attempts at artificial drama.

Another facet of the book that is somewhat flawed is it’s factual content. This would not be immediately apparent to most readers, but according to some reading I’ve done, Thompson’s facts are erroneous on several points. His descriptions of the dynamics of space-flight and certain early spacecraft are not wholly correct. In other places his assumptions about personal behaviors seem to be on shaky ground. A section describing Shepard and his wife Louise’s first night together cannot have firm factual basis.

With that and a few other indiscretions aside, Light This Candle is a very enjoyable read. Thompson has a sparse, sturdy prose style and sticks to the point, resisting the temptation to spout off flowery poeticisms.

Verdict: An enjoyable read marred by a few factual errors. 4/5

Cross-posted to Leoniceno’s Corner

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About Leoniceno

  • Check out James Michener’s “Space” for a good read about the race to space, as it were.

  • Bennett

    Thanks for this review! And thanks to Aaman for yet another recommended adventure.

  • For people who like space age histories, I ought to dust off a few of my old reviews for people who like this kind of thing (e.g. This New Ocean by Burroughs, Last Man on the Moon by Cernan, Failure is Not an Option by Krantz).

    But I have a couple of good ones already up on my site:

    (1) A column on books about planetary exploration.

    (2) A review of Rocket Dreams by Marina Benjamin.

    Here’s an excerpt from the my review of Benjamin’s book, which is a story of lost dreams and their practical replacements:

    “In this insightful book completed before the Columbia tragedy but made all the more poignant because of it, Journalist Marina Benjamin, who came of age in London in the heady days of Apollo only to be confronted by a time of practical limitation in adulthood, explores not only that question but also the way individuals and cultures have responded to it. Like many of the best questions of science, it was not the one she set out to investigate, but rather one that announced itself in the research — and she was smart enough to follow.”

    If you visit my site and want me to add some of the older reviews noted, drop me an e-mail from there.