Whatever The Weather, 'Turbulence' Shines Sometimes, lightning does strike twice: The latest novel by Giles Foden — author of The Last King of Scotland — is an absorbing, elegant and thoughtful read. Turbulence, which dramatizes the Allied effort to use meteorology for military gain during World War II, follows a young meteorologist who must convince a brilliant pacifist to contribute to the war effort.
NPR logo Whatever The Weather, 'Turbulence' Shines


Book Reviews

Whatever The Weather, 'Turbulence' Shines

Turbulence: A Novel
By Giles Foden
Hardcover, 336 pages
List price: $25.95
Read An Excerpt

The words you find yourself reaching for upon finishing Giles Foden's new novel of manners and meteorology -- words like measured, mutable and closely observed -- seem awfully meta given the book's subject. Turbulence is about weather, specifically the Allied effort to forecast atmospheric conditions along the Normandy coast and choose the day when conditions would be most favorable to sending two-and-a-half million soldiers into German-occupied France.

As an officious supervisor explains to our protagonist, the young meteorological prodigy Henry Meadows, mobilizing such a massive military effort requires a daunting set of conditions to first be met: "(A) D-Day should be within one day before to four days after a full moon. (B) There must be quiet weather on the day and for three days afterward. ... (C) Cloud to be less than three-tenths cover below 8,000 feet; visibility 3-plus miles. Or as an alternative to (C): (D) in which case the cloud base itself has got to be above 3,000 feet generally, morning mist not excluded."

What's more, the Allied generals need to know what conditions will be like over not just Omaha Beach, but along the entire English Channel, and they need to know it five days in advance. This prospect would faze even today's most advanced satellite systems -- Meadows and his colleagues must attempt this impossible forecast using only barometers and balloons.

Enter Wallace Ryman, the brilliant, reclusive scientist rumored to have developed a mathematical method to calculate atmospheric turbulence itself -- which, if true, would afford the Allies a means of predicting the nominally unpredictable. But Ryman is a pacifist who refuses to help his government make war, so Meadows is sent undercover to the remote Scottish farm Ryman shares with his beautiful wife in an attempt to prize from the mysterious man the secret that could save millions of lives -- the so-called Ryman number.

It's a rich, juicy premise, and if Turbulence takes its own sweet time setting up its stakes, you'll likely forgive it: Foden builds the world around the hapless Meadows with meticulous detail, and the measured pace of the book's opening chapters helps ensure that when events do take a sudden, violent and unpredictable turn, we feel the terrible weight of their repercussions along with him.

Foden -- whose quirky, accomplished debut novel The Last King of Scotland became a quirky, accomplished film -- writes with quiet conviction, content to linger over moments other writers might speed past, as when Meadows, preoccupied with his mission, shares a smoke with a villager.

Giles Foden teaches creative writing at Britain's University of East Anglia. His first novel, The Last King of Scotland, was adapted into an Oscar-winning film. Poppypix hide caption

toggle caption

Giles Foden teaches creative writing at Britain's University of East Anglia. His first novel, The Last King of Scotland, was adapted into an Oscar-winning film.

All the while I was reading the signs of turbulence, as I am accustomed to -- the spirals, involutions and curlicues of Mackellar's pipe smoke, mixing with the tendrils, cochleae and volutes of my cigarettes smoke -- until the straight jet of the kettle steam, beginning to turn vermicular itself, joined the whole circumbendibus. Here, if it were to be sought, was Ryman's working model of the universe.

Even as this passage characterizes Meadows, with his obsessive fondness for scientific precision and the arcane language of meteorological observation, it also points up Turbulence's single failing -- namely, its main character's inability to allow any thematic affinities and subtextual resonances to pass without commenting on them. Over the course of the novel, Foden equates many things -- love, faith, the scientific process -- to turbulence, and has Meadows explain to us, in great detail, their respective similarities and differences. You'll likely wish that these elements were woven more thoroughly into the book -- and that its author trusted you to find them for yourself.

Despite this, Turbulence is an absorbing, elegant and thoughtful read. Foden argues, compellingly, that science isn't about assigning numbers to the universe, reducing the mysteries around us to dry, implacable formulae. Rather, it embraces those mysteries, revels in them:

"Great scientists use their imagination," Meadows tell us. "They feel their way toward a theory, then seek to prove it. ... Because the whole cannot be reached, we can grasp it only by intuition -- by chasing not the specifics but the beautiful ghost of an idea."

Excerpt: 'Turbulence'

Turbulence: A Novel
By Giles Foden
Hardcover, 336 pages
List price: $25.95

By the time we reached Glasgow it was obvious that there was no chance of travelling any further that day. We sat down to spuds with mince and onions, followed by whisky and a game of poker in front of a coal fire. If I'm not careful, I thought, as the cards slapped onto the table, I could lose the whole afternoon. I resolved not to -- but within minutes the whisky and the warmth had drained all the willpower out of me.

Over the card play, as coals glowed in the hearth and a waitress in an apron and bonnet supplied us with ice for the Scotch, I listened as Krick told me his remarkable life story. I had taken an unlikely route into meteorology, but his was far stranger. After taking a physics degree at the University of California he worked as a disc jockey, then as a runner for a company of stockbrokers.

"Chapman de Wolfe and Company,"he said,pronouncing it "Volf " in the German way. "As you can imagine, my services were dispensed with pretty rapidly after the Crash in 'twenty-nine. Though I missed the worst of it on my own account."

"How?" I asked, leaning forward.

He grinned, slicking his hair back. "I devised a system calibrating financial fluctuations against background randomness, according to certain physical principles. Things have changed a bit since then, but I still use the same basic idea."

Krick's theory of stock-market cycles had begun as an innocent intellectual recreation, or so he said, but in years to come he successfully played the markets using his system. The Wall Street Crash was no accident, he maintained. It was a necessary piece of information within a larger story. Ryman, who had none of Krick's hucksterism, would have agreed. There are no accidents. Every so-called "accident," every piece of turbulence, is part of a sequence, bigger or smaller, whose scale you cannot see. At least, you don't see it until it's too late, and then you start to panic, because you realise how foolish was your original fantasy of understanding.

During the Depression Krick sold pianos and worked as a jobbing concert pianist for the NBC Orchestra. He was also a radio disc jockey for a while. Eventually he found his way back to university, studying meteorology under Theodore von Kármán and Robert Millikan at Caltech in Los Angeles. It was uncanny to hear about these giants of meteorology in a Glasgow hotel -- stranger still to do so with a glass of whisky in one hand and a busted flush in the other.

As the talk flowed, I drank more and more. I won a couple of pots. So did Krick, leaning his big face forward as he collected. The other Americans won one apiece. As the cards were dealt and shuffled and stacked, the smoke from our cigarettes and cigars swirled up the oak panelling, with its pictures of sporting scenes and moody Highland cattle. How well I would come to know their glowering stares.

Krick told more anecdotes as we played. "Goering tried to lure back von Kármán to Europe to head up the Luftwaffe's weather forecasting," he said. "Von Kármán refused, simply sending Goering a drawing of his Jewish profile." We all laughed. It was a meteorologists' joke, a "profile" being a technical term in weather forecasting.

As Krick talked I slowly began to realise the anecdotes were diversion tactics. The tales were intended to distract his opponents from their game -- and it was working. All the time he was recounting his experiences, or expounding pet theories, he was taking money off us.

The diverting stories continued. The duo had met at Caltech. Then Krick had joined an airline, as had Holzman, who became chief meteorologist for American Airlines. They began swapping tales about the aviation industry.

"I used to get in trouble in that first job," Krick drawled, showing another hand. A pair of deuces -- plus another pair of deuces. Four of a kind against my full house, and there he was scooping up our money again."They hadn't heard of weather fronts then,and hated me drawing them on the charts. But obviously it was more useful for the pilots. Then they could see where the action was coming from. Predictable as a corny movie."

"Irv worked in Hollywood," chipped in Holzman. "He was weather prophet for Gone with the Wind."

Krick grinned as he added our money to his stack. "I picked the night they burnt Atlanta. It had to be a clear one."

"Another time, he advised Bogart on the weather for the Ensenada yacht race," said Holzman.

"I flubbed that. Bogie never got to Mexico. He stayed in U.S. waters. A dead calm."

Holzman laughed. "Will you go back to it, Irv, when the war's over?"

"I doubt it. I was forecasting for the citrus industry before I got called up. Reckon I'll get back into it. That's where the money is."

"Commercial forecasting," nodded Holzman.

"Transporting airplanes is another good one," added Krick. "Forty planes going from A to B, you don't wanna get that wrong. One of my first duties in the air force in this war was to pick the days when our guys could fly safely across the Atlantic."

"Days with minimum turbulence?" I asked.

"Oh no," said Krick. "Pick those days and our friends in the Luftwaffe would be waiting. It was more a case of just enough turbulence." He produced a cigar from under the table and, as prelude to another tale, blew a near-perfect smoke ring over my head . . .

It has always struck me as fate that I met those two at the beginning of my working life. From my Cambridge ivory tower I have followed their careers with interest since the war, now and then bumping into one or the other of them on trips to America. They became sort of alter egos for me, standing for all the possibilities I shut off when I chose withdrawal into academic life.

Later in the war Holzman would work on the weather forecast for the atom bomb at Los Alamos. He stayed in the U.S. Air Force for his entire career, becoming a general and commander of the USAAF Research Laboratory. He was involved in virtually every major phase of research into missile and space systems, all through the Cold War. His security clearance was cosmic, so I didn't get to see him much.

Krick, as he indicated during that poker session, would pretty much found the new industry of selling the weather. Cotton growers wanting to know what the harvest will be like. The Edison Company having difficulties with storms knocking out power lines. The California Division of Highways worrying about snow in the mountains. The Brooklyn Dodgers wanting advice on whether they should buy rain insurance for an important game. Loggers, fruit growers, the managers of hydroelectric schemes...

Krick pursued all this and more. He was weather forecaster for the 1960 Winter Olympics and, the following year, for the inauguration of President Kennedy. But his biggest thing was cloud-seeding, which involved modifying weather by dispersing chemicals, usually silver iodide, or dry ice, into clouds to induce precipitation.

Krick got into this still-controversial practice in a major way, selling thousands of ground-based generators to farmers all over the U.S. These machines, rocketing crystals into the reluctant sky, were all controlled by radio from a complex in Palm Springs, California, where Krick himself still lives in a Moorish-style mansion in the shadow of Mount San Jacinto.

I went to visit him there once -- the place had marble floors -- and he was extremely hospitable, serving up frozen margaritas. But to the U.S. Weather Bureau he became a kind of bête noire. There were accusations of quackery and exploitation. He was always very charming to me, and I never brought up something which troubled my colleagues: that he may have been the source of the rumours, still current to this day in the U.S., that the British teams "failed" in their predictions for Overlord -- and that D-Day was saved by Krick himself. He even maintained, somewhat astonishingly, that it would have been better to have gone a day earlier after all. I let it pass.

This was the extravagant future which lay ahead of my poker opponents. I drank far more than I should have done and lost more money than I could afford. Some time in the early hours I staggered up to bed, wallet half emptied, shoelaces trailing, mounting unsteadily a staircase, the steps of which seemed to have been frustratingly rearranged, before losing myself in a warren of interconnecting, treacherously carpeted corridors and the hiding-places of mops and buckets and boiler-room pipes. I suppose I must have booked a room in the course of that long afternoon which had stretched into evening, and eventually found my way to it, but I can't remember doing either.

Excerpted from Turbulence by Giles Foden. Copyright 2010 by Giles Foden. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House Inc.

Books Featured In This Story