Non-Fiction Reviews

Head Shot

(2010) G. Paul Chambers, Prometheus Books, £21.95 / US $25, hrdbk, 260pp, ISBN 978-1-616-14209-4


In the six-year Glasgow Herald SF short story competition for new writers, it was perhaps inevitable that the judges had to renew acquaintance with the great clichés of SF and fantasy. I did try to issue a few warnings after one year when a full third of the entries ended, ‘His name was Adam and her name was Eve’. But whenever a story began with someone getting out of a UFO or a time machine with the words, “That’s Dallas over there”, we knew what was coming.

G. Paul Chambers is 'an internationally recognised expert in the field of shock physics and has performed high-speed photographic studies of high-velocity impacts and deformations of solids as well as extensive computer modelling of shock wave and matter interactions'. He is the first experimental physicist to write an account of the John F. Kennedy assassination, and his findings should perhaps be required reading for anyone who wants to write SF about it hereafter. He reopens a lot of issues which I thought were long settled, and when such analyses are routine plot elements in programmes like CSI and NCIS, he makes it seem astonishing that the exercise hasn’t been done before.

As I understand it, the main points are these:-

Uniting all of the above, Chambers’ own reconstructions indicate that the second round to hit Kennedy was fired from in front by a low-calibre, high-velocity weapon such as the Winchester .220 Swift, “a favourite assassination of the 1960s”. This is consistent with the piece of Kennedy’s skull which was blown clear and subsequently retrieved, but cannot be reconciled with any kind of shot fired from the rear.

While in the USA in 1984, I bought copies of the Warren Commission Report and of “Rush to Judgement”, the highly critical assessment which came out the following year. Having lost one in a house move, I’ve never read either, which puts me at a disadvantage with regard to Chambers’ non-scientific claims, namely:-

It might seem inconceivable that such things could happen to a report of such consequence, but I have known another case. An entire section ( to which I had contributed) of Pioneering the Space Frontier, the report of Ronald Reagan’s Presidential Commission on Space, was deleted on the personal decision of the Chairman who disagreed with it. When the omission came to light on publication, the paperwork relating to it was promptly stolen from its author – the only thing stolen in an obviously targeted burglary. It does happen.

Chambers’ book is full of such instances, from the history of science and from his own experience, to show how the scientific method works, how it can get things wrong but strives to get them right. There’s so much of it that I think to detect the hand of an editor, one saying, “Nobody trusts scientists any more, what with global warming and all. You have to tell people why they should believe what you say.”

But I suspect readers genuinely mistrustful of science will say, ‘Methinks he doth protest too much’, non-scientific readers will just want to get to the facts about Kennedy, and readers with a scientific background will be annoyed by the many digressions. Some of the analogies are far-fetched, and one is just plain wrong (pp. 88-89). It is true that if an observatory’s staff detect a supernova in a distant galaxy, they immediately alert all the rest. One reason is to establish priority; another is to maximise the acquisition of data from a short-lived, rapidly varying phenomenon. Another is indeed to eliminate any chance of observational error, but not “because for both causes to be due to ‘random noise’, or to, say, a 'luminescent dust speck' on the telescope’s mirror, it would require both mirrors have the dust speck in exactly the same place.” (Chambers’ quotation marks and emphases.) 'Since a telescopic mirror may be hundreds of square feet in area, the probability of this happening is astronomically small.' And instrumentally zero: a bright spot on a telescope mirror wouldn’t appear as a bright spot in the image, it would degrade the whole image, probably washing it out altogether.

When Rush to Judgement was published, a member of the Warren Commission was interviewed on BBC TV. “But who were these supposed conspirators?” he angrily demanded. “Who benefited financially from the assassination? Who gained politically? Who has claimed credit? Where are the people behind it supposed to be?” Watching, I thought, 'My God, they’re from the future.' But before I did anything with the idea, all too many others beat me to it. For anyone who thinks they have a new twist on it now, Head Shot would be a good place to start the research.

Duncan Lunan

See also Peter's review of Head Shot.

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