Monday, 7 November 2005

The Rocketbelt Caper – Paul Brown ****

There’s something hypnotically attractive about the concept of a rocketbelt – a device to enable an individual to fly through the air. This aspect of flying without a plane seems to tie directly into our dreams. (UK readers may be familiar with comedian Paul Merton’s occasional rant about his desire for a jetpack, one of the many alternative names for this unusual technology.)
In this book, Paul Brown brings the topic alive. It has to be one of the most readable science/technology focussed books of the year. Brown has an excellent journalistic style, and pulls the reader on relentlessly through the tales of technical inspiration and human weakness that litter the history of the rocketbelt.
Starting with its science fiction origins, we learn how a practical rocketbelt was first constructed, how the most famous appearance of a belt – in the James Bond movie Thunderball – was real, even though most moviegoers assumed it was pure special effects, and the convoluted history of the rocketbelts themselves. Almost uniquely, it is possible to chart the existence of every belt ever built – fewer than there were Apollo spacecraft. This is the irony of the rocketbelt. Though the idea was often originally sold as a commercial wonder – everyone flying around the place in rocketbelts – or as a military vehicle, in practice they have proved hugely expensive to build, difficult and dangerous to fly, and are limited to totally impractical flight times of 20 to 30 seconds. Even so, the few rocketbelts that have had a commercial career have made a lot of money, because they have been in high demand for public demonstrations and publicity stunts.
When the book is charting the rise of the rocketbelt and the lives of those involved with the technology, it is truly fascinating. Things only fall down a little when Brown takes us into the murkiest part of the rocketbelt’s history, involving fraud, theft, kidnapping and murder. It sounds a writer’s dream, the icing on the cake that will make the story even more attractive, but after a while, because the main characters in this aspect of the story seem so unpleasant and difficult to identify with, it actually detracts from the overall impact of the book, and it might have been better to have had less pages on this human tragedy that is interwoven with the history of one particular rocketbelt.
Despite this, however, the book overall is a delight to read, and the sheer enthusiasm that rocketbelts have generated in those who have built and flown them is amazing. This is never going to be an everyday piece of technology, but the rocketbelt remains a remarkable achievement – the more so for being largely in semi-amateur hands – and the story is genuinely one where reality is stranger than fiction.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

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