Shooting the Sun is set in 19th century America, a few decades before
the Civil War. The heroine is Selena, she is a scientist who studies the sun and the new art
of photography, which is called daguerreotyping in that era. She is part of a team that has
decided to capture the next solar eclipse on plates. This feat will demonstrate that the
difference engine designed by Charles Babbage is capable of complex computations, and thus
will ultimately result in more funding for Babbage to build a complete machine for the
English government. Calculating the precise location of a total eclipse is difficult, especially
since it will happen to fall in the great American southwest desert.
Selena joins a band of adventures who will venture into the forbidding
land (full of savage Apaches and trackless wastes - no place for a woman!) to make scientific
history. Each of the characters is well drawn, there is a stuffy Harvard professor who is convinced he
can perform calculations better than Babbage's machine, there is the languid artist, the competent
wilderness man, the adventurer who disdains the presence of a woman on such a dangerous undertaking,
and the guide. In addition to a well drawn cast of characters, Byrd has done some great research,
he knows just what details to throw in to the book to lend authenticity to the tale without boring
the reader with info-dumps.
So - great plot idea, great characters, a great Western setting - it's the
second coming of Lonesome Dove, right? Unfortunately, Shooting the Sun suffers from the fact it is
way too short. This is a huge landscape, but the expedition zooms across trackless miles in just a
few chapters. Obstacles appear, but are so swiftly overcome that don't seem so daunting. The
book is only 300 pages long in the hardback edition that I read, it should have been at least 450
pages long to explore perils of the journey, and to fully develop the characters. Occasionally, we
read - only x more days until the eclipse, which sounds like a great way to inject suspense, but
things happen too quickly. Especially the ending! Byrd had a great confrontation setup, (there is
a nefarious subplot to the expedition, there is more to the journey than an attempt to get a picture
of a total eclipse) but the anticipated climax doesn't occur. I don't know why Byrd rushed this book,
I wish I could have read "a director's cut".
Shooting the Sun is an enjoyable book, and a quick read. For some reason, it
reminded me of The English Passengers by Matthew Kneale, which also deals with Europeans in the 19th
century heading out on a long voyage of discovery.