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Sunday, 24 May 2015

How UFOs Conquered the World

 As you can see from the photograph, the latest addition to my collection of UFO books is How UFOs Conquered the World by David Clarke. Despite having a picture of a child on the cover, it’s one of the most grown-up books on the subject I’ve ever come across. My review of it appeared on Brian Clegg’s Popular Science site last weekend. At that time I hadn’t read any other reviews of the book, so I was pleased to see on David’s own blog the next day that both the Sunday Times and Magonia described it in very similar terms to myself.

The clever thing about this book is that it’s not about UFOs per se, but about how people think and talk about UFOs, and the way this has become inextricably interwoven with popular culture over the last 70 years. As David Clarke demonstrates, this is a subject that can be analysed methodically, intelligently and – most important of all – constructively. That’s what I was getting at when I described the book as “grown up”. It’s a refreshing antidote to the childish to-ing and fro-ing between uncritical speculation on the one hand and destructive debunking on the other.

The book’s subtitle is “The History of a Modern Myth”. This uses myth, not in its colloquial sense of “popular misconception”, but its original sense of “pre-scientific world-view”. As the author says: “To qualify as a myth a story does not have to be true or false, but it must express a conviction held tenaciously by its adherents. It is a defining characteristic of myths that, like the extraterrestrial hypothesis, they are immune to scientific scrutiny.”

I don’t want to repeat large chunks of what I said in the review, but I will quote one bit which highlights just how “immune to scientific scrutiny” modern ufology has become:
The X-Files went on to provide one of the most powerful tools in the cognitive dissonance arsenal, by popularising the idea that ‘They’ (the government, NASA et al) are actively concealing the truth about UFOs. This hypothesis – which Clarke points out is unfalsifiable – allows any awkward counter-evidence to be dismissed as ‘disinformation’.
One striking thing occurred to me while I was reading the book which I didn’t have space to mention in the review. As far as the extraterrestrial hypothesis is concerned, there is simply too much evidence for it, not too little. I’m not referring to evidence that would convince a court of law or a peer-reviewed scientific journal (neither of which has ever been convinced, of course), but evidence of the type commonly cited by UFO believers. There are too many UFO sightings (750 in the UK alone the year that Close Encounters of the Third Kind was released). There are too many Roswell-style “crashed saucer” incidents (more than 200, according to one website). And too many people claim to have been abducted by aliens (2.5 million British citizens, extrapolating from a survey carried out in 2014). Those figures are simply too big to make sense in the context of extraterrestrial visitation. On the other hand, they make perfect sense in the context of a social and/or psychological phenomenon.

Of course, some UFO reports may still be “true” (i.e. real extraterrestrial spacecraft) even if the majority are not. But the extraterrestrial hypothesis remains nothing more than speculation. On the other hand, it's an indisputable fact that there is a fascinating psychosocial phenomenon at play, independent of the truth or otherwise of the ETH. That’s what I meant when I said David Clarke’s book is constructive, not destructive.

You can read my full review here. I gave the book four stars, which in the context of the Popular Science site where it was posted means “Excellent book that any popular science fan would want to read”. From a Fortean perspective, however, the rating would be a resounding five stars – definitely as good as they come. You can get your copy by clicking on the following links:

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Fake News and Lazy Journalism

Earlier this year I wrote about the huge upsurge in Fake News Stories circulating on social media. The Snopes website is very good at identifying and debunking these stories, and a few days ago they had an interesting article on Fake News Sites to Avoid Sharing (from which the above graphic is taken). The first paragraph emphasizes the cynical financial motive behind most of these “fake news” stories:
The sharp increase in popularity of social media networks (primarily Facebook) has created a predatory secondary market among online publishers seeking to profitably exploit the large reach of those networks [...] and a number of frequent offenders regularly fabricate salacious and attention-grabbing tales simply to drive traffic (and revenue) to their site.
There’s another factor at play though, besides deliberate fake news sites. That’s lazy journalism by mainstream media, who often repeat a far-fetched claim without attempting to check up on its background and credibility. There was a good example of this last week (admittedly a slow news week here in the UK, what with the General Election) when several tabloids chose to run the “Roswell Slides” story at face value:
  • “REVEALED: Images of Roswell ALIEN found in wreckage of crashed UFO almost 70 years ago” (Daily Express, 6 May 2015)
  • “Is this evidence of alien life? New Roswell photos prove ‘beyond any doubt’ that ET exists, claim UFO specialists” (Daily Mail, 7 May 2015)
In fact the images in question look less like a dead alien in a government laboratory than a child mummy in a public museum (which is what they almost certainly do show). But if the papers had said that, they wouldn’t have sold as many copies.

The latest issue of Animals & Men magazine (issue 53, May 2015) contains a letter from me on another example of lazy journalism with a Fortean flavour. You can read the whole issue online for free (my letter is on pp. 70-71), but here is the gist of what I said:
[...] The mainstream media appear to judge the newsworthiness of Fortean-type stories not by their credibility but by their outrageousness. A case in point was the “Whitstable giant crab” you mentioned on page 25 of Issue 52. This started out as a whimsical piece of artwork in issue 301 of Fortean Times (May 2013), which was a special tribute issue to the actor Peter Cushing on the hundredth anniversary of his birth. Whitstable was Cushing’s adopted home, and the magazine included a lighthearted feature on “Weird Whitstable”. The article was the work of artist Quinton Winter, and the idea that a giant crab can be seen on Google Earth images of Whitstable was just one of his inventions. Sadly, however, it seems that people these days simply aren’t wired up to understand irony. In October 2014, it was reported as a genuine news story in the Sunday Express, soon followed by several other tabloids including the Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror. Within days, the story of “Crabzilla”, as it became known, had gone viral on social media around the world! (Source: Fortean Times issue 321, December 2014, page 2).

Sunday, 10 May 2015

The Lusitania Conspiracy

From a quick glance at the cover of my book Conspiracy History (a close-up of which is shown above) you might think it includes a section about the sinking of RMS Titanic in 1912. Actually it doesn’t – although it might have done, since there is no shortage of conspiracy theories associated with that event. But the ship shown on the cover is not the Titanic but her lesser known rival RMS Lusitania, which was torpedoed by a German U-boat a hundred years ago this month, on 7 May 1915.

I wrote about the basic facts of the case in an online article What Happened to the British Ocean Liner Lusitania? last year. But for the conspiracy angle, here is what I said in the book:
The RMS Lusitania was launched by Cunard in 1907. At 32,000 tons she was one of the largest passenger ships of the time, becoming a regular on the lucrative transatlantic route between Liverpool and New York. By April 1915, some nine months after the outbreak of the First World War, the Lusitania had completed no fewer than 200 Atlantic crossings.

Britain was one of the countries fighting the war. British ships like the Lusitania were prey to German U-boats, particularly in the waters around the British Isles which Germany had declared to be a War Zone. The United States remained neutral in the war, but was happy to supply Britain with arms and ammunition – transported across the Atlantic on whatever ships had space in their holds.

When the Lusitania arrived in New York on 24 April at the end of her 201st transatlantic crossing, she was duly loaded up with shells, machine gun ammo and other explosives in addition to almost 2,000 passengers and crew. Of the passengers, 139 were U.S. citizens – many more Americans had been deterred from travelling by a notice the German embassy had placed in newspapers warning that the ship was a legitimate target for their submarines.

On the last day of the return trip – 7 May 1915 – when the Lusitania was less than a day away from docking in Liverpool, she was torpedoed by a German U-boat near the coast of Ireland. The huge liner sank almost immediately, with the death of more than a thousand people – including 128 of the 139 Americans on board. In light of the German warnings, this tragic outcome seems all but inevitable.

Why did the British allow the Lusitania to sail, without an armed escort, through the very waters the Germans had declared to be a War Zone? There are only two possible answers – either the government was grossly incompetent, or they knew exactly what they were doing. Most conspiracy theorists would put their money on the second of these. Britain didn’t like the fact that America was remaining neutral in the war – they wanted to see Americans fighting alongside them against the Germans. An atrocity like the sinking of a civilian liner was just the sort of thing that could swing American public opinion in their favour. Shortly before the sinking of the Lusitania, Winston Churchill – who at the time was First Lord of the Admiralty – had written to another minister that it was “most important to attract neutral shipping to our shores, in the hope especially of embroiling the United States with Germany.” Translating from the deliberately obscure phraseology of the professional politician, this boils down to “the sooner an innocent ship gets sunk, the sooner the Americans will join us in the trenches”.

As it turned out, the ruse – if it was a ruse – was not immediately successful. Instead of joining the war, the Americans secured a promise from the German government that an incident such as the sinking of the Lusitania wouldn’t happen again. It was only when the Germans withdrew this promise, early in 1917, that the United States finally decided it was time to go to war.
That’s just one of the 69 historical conspiracies discussed in the book. At the last count, there were still several billion people in the world who haven’t bought their copy yet, so you might be able to snap one up if you hurry:

Sunday, 3 May 2015

Camelot, maybe

Hill-forts are among the most impressive pre-Roman structures to be found in Britain. They are particularly common in southern England, as Paul Jackson described in his blog post A Handful of Hill Forts. Despite the name, hill-forts weren’t really military structures so much as small, self-contained towns that were defended by artificially built ramparts. An example can be seen in the photograph above, which shows Cadbury Castle in Somerset.

Cadbury Castle was built during the Iron Age, around 500 BC, and was continuously occupied until it was overrun by the Romans in the first century AD, in what seems to have been a particularly brutal and violent event. According to the Somerset County Council website, there is “clear evidence of destruction by fire and the massacre of a group of inhabitants”. However, after the departure of the Romans, the South Cadbury site was reoccupied and redeveloped in the early Middle Ages.

In 1533, a man named John Leland was given a commission by King Henry VIII “to make a search after England’s Antiquities”. This assignment took him to all corners of the country, including the Somerset village of South Cadbury, where he wrote “At the very south end of the church of South Cadbury standeth Camelot, sometime a famous town or castle” and that “The people can tell nothing there but that they have heard say that Arthur much restored to Camelot.

In other words, Leland was saying that Cadbury Castle was nothing less than King Arthur’s Camelot!

Now King Arthur is one of the most frustrating figures in British history. Almost everyone has heard of him, but there is no firm consensus on what century he lived in, what kingdom he ruled over, or even if he existed in the real world at all. As I said last year in The Lost Tomb of King Arthur:
Down here in the south-west, the prevailing opinion is that he was the King of Dumnonia around 500 AD, a century or so after the departure of the Romans. Dumnonia roughly corresponded to modern-day Cornwall, Devon and Somerset, which remained resolutely Celtic while Wessex to the East (Dorset/Wiltshire/Hampshire) adopted the language and culture of the Anglo-Saxons.
According to this view, it’s not that unreasonable to suggest that Cadbury Castle might have been associated with King Arthur – possibly even one of his main courts. It was occupied at the right time, and it’s in the right place. I made this point in my book Bloody British History: Somerset:
Cadbury Castle is one of the best natural defences on what would have been the eastern border of Dumnonia. Although the hillfort had existed for more than a thousand years in Arthur’s time, its modern name dates from precisely that period. Cadbury means ‘Cado’s Fort’... and Cado was king of Dumnonia around the time Arthur was born. Archaeologically, too, the evidence points to the site being an important military installation of the period. It was refortified in the fifth century with massive stone walls, and in the middle of the hilltop a timber-framed Great Hall was built – a splendid palace fit for a King!
These days, the only structure on the top of Cadbury Castle is a stone plinth dated “2000 AD” (see picture below). The plaque on top of this shows the directions and distances to a number of other places in southwest England. I struggled at first to discern a common theme to these, eventually deciding that they're all places dear to the hearts of hippies and New Agers! There are nine places in all, as follows:
  • Two other “Arthurian” sites, Tintagel and Glastonbury
  • Two other hill-forts, Ham Hill and Maiden Castle
  • Another Iron Age site, Hengistbury Head, which was a busy seaport and trading centre
  • Two megalithic sites, Stonehenge and Avebury
  • Lamyatt Beacon, the site of a Romano-Celtic temple
  • Alfred’s Tower, an 18th century folly commemorating Alfred the Great

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Isaac Newton and me

The studious-looking geek in the above photo is me, at the age of 21 in 1979, posing in front of a portrait of Isaac Newton. The picture was taken in Trinity College, Cambridge, at the top of I staircase where I had a room during my third year at university. I staircase is about 200 feet along the east front of Great Court from E staircase, where Newton himself lived for many years (although I staircase, which is a 20th century utilitarian monstrosity, wasn’t there in his time).

Along with Einstein, Newton was one of the scientific heroes of my teenage years. I read a biography of him in 1973 (as I’ve mentioned before, I kept a list of all the books I read) and visited his birthplace in Lincolnshire a year or two after that. So I was pleased to end up at Newton’s college, Trinity, even though I had no say in the matter. The school I went to (a comprehensive in the West Midlands, before you ask) had a tradition of trying to get its best science student into that particular college each year. All I needed to do was get three grade As at A-level (I got four, just to be on the safe side).

After I graduated (the day that photo was taken – I didn’t always dress like that) I went to Manchester University to do a PhD on the computer simulation of galaxy dynamics. That may sound very modern and state-of-the-art, but the only science involved was 100% Newtonian. In three years I never had to use a single equation that isn’t present, either explicitly or implicitly, in the Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica that Newton wrote in 1687. So I owe Newton my doctorate, too!

Just over a year ago the History Press (which published my first book, Bloody British History: Somerset) started a new series of short biographies called Pocket Giants. I was intrigued by this idea (as I’ve said before, I like short books) so I contacted the series editor, Tony Morris, to see if there was anything I could do for him. After batting a few ideas around, we eventually zeroed in – perhaps not surprisingly – on Isaac Newton. Tony was as enthusiastic about the project as I was, and with his encouragement and constructive input the proposal was accepted by the History Press, the contract signed and the book written in the space of a few months last year.

Despite being a lifelong fan of Newton, I still learned a lot about him while I was researching and writing the book. Perhaps the oddest thing about him – which is more widely known today than it was in the 1970s – is that he spent less time on the scientific work for which he’s remembered than on pursuing non-scientific interests like alchemy, Hermeticism, theology and ancient history. There’s a common tendency to view the scientific and non-scientific (or even anti-scientific, by modern standards) activities as separate and non-overlapping. Scientists see the non-scientific work as an irrelevance and embarrassment that ought to be ignored and forgotten, while mystics and New Agers see the scientific work as the irrelevance – a kind of smoke-screen of acceptability designed to hide Newton’s real achievements.

I came to the conclusion that both these views miss the point. Everything Newton did stemmed from the same world-view – the idea that the universe was designed, by God, according to a simple code that could be rediscovered if it was searched for carefully enough. Newton looked for the code in the Bible and other ancient writings, and in the work of alchemists and Hermeticists. But he also looked for mathematical relationships that applied to the material world – something that seemed just as mystical and improbable to his contemporaries. But Newton’s “applied mathematics” worked – and worked so well that it’s become synonymous with mainstream science. Both scientists and New Agers have forgotten, or can’t see, what a profoundly mystical notion it is.

This was the point I tried to make in a blog post I wrote last week for the History Press. My original title was “Isaac Newton and the Key to the Universe”, which I thought was quite clever, but they wanted to tie it in with the series so they changed it to Why was Isaac Newton such a giant? (It was meant as a rhetorical question, but one clever lady on Twitter replied “Because he stood on the shoulders of giants”).

Needless to say, all these ideas are explored in more detail in the book itself, together with lots of other fascinating facts about Newton (such as how he perpetrated a UFO hoax as a teenager, predicted the end of the world and became “17th-Century London’s Dirty Harry”). You can order your copy from any good bookseller or from Amazon.

Sunday, 19 April 2015

The Cerne Giant

The Cerne Giant is one of the best known features of the Dorset landscape. In fact it’s such a familiar image that it’s easy to forget just how bizarre and unique it is. As I pointed out 18 months ago in my post about Phallic Symbols (mostly small ones), “gigantic erections are something you almost never see in mainstream European art”. Although they went to the trouble of inventing a word, ithyphallic, to refer to the artistic depiction of a sexually aroused male, it’s usually limited to ancient cultures and/or other continents. In this part of the world, ithyphallic images disappeared almost completely with the departure of the Romans in the fifth century. Nudity of any kind never really returned to British art, even during the Renaissance period when it was quite common in the rest of Europe (albeit with tiny little dicks).

Also from around 18 months ago is Paul Jackson’s “Armchair Tour of Britain’s Hill Figures”, the first part covering White Horses and the second everything else. In the latter category, there is only one other human figure besides the Cerne Giant – the Long Man of Wilmington. There’s a similarity between the two, in that both are simplistically drawn outline figures, but also an obvious difference – the Long Man of Wilmington hasn’t got his dick out.

A fact about hill figures that isn’t always appreciated is that they require constant maintenance – decade after decade, century after century. Paul gave a first-hand account of what needs to be done in his post Maintaining the Broad Town White Horse last year. The first step is weeding and trimming to prevent the outline from becoming overgrown, followed by re-liming (in the case of Paul’s White Horse, using over a ton of powdered lime) to restore the figure’s whiteness. Without this sort of attention, generation after generation, a hill figure would eventually be lost to sight and forgotten.

This brings us to the most contentious question about the Cerne Giant: How old is it? Only one of the figures in Paul’s survey – the Uffington White Horse – has been accurately dated to prehistoric times, with most of the others being a few centuries old at most (the Broad Town White Horse, for example, was created in the 19th century).

The oldest surviving records of the Cerne Giant date from the second half of the 17th century. As a result, many skeptical websites (Wikipedia among them) assume it must have originated around that time. One theory is that it’s a caricature of Oliver Cromwell – England’s puritanical leader following the Civil War of the 1640s. This makes sense up to a point. The obscene image would certainly have offended Cromwell and his followers (who took the Biblical injunction against graven images very seriously), and it’s placed in clear view of what would have been a busy road between Dorchester and Sherborne. But on closer inspection the theory is ludicrous.

It’s all very well for people in the 21st century to sit at their computer screens and say “maybe it was a 17th century political cartoon”... but does it look like a 17th century political cartoon? As I said at the start, nude figures – let alone rampant erections – were conspicuously absent from British representational art in those days. It’s true that the people who opposed the Puritans (and came back to power with the Restoration of Charles II) sometimes went to the opposite extreme – a notorious example being the satirical entertainment Sodom, or the Quintessence of Debauchery (which includes some great character names like Fuckadilla and Clytoris)... but that was only in discrete private circles, not on public display for everyone to see!

Also, why depict Cromwell bald-headed and whiskerless, when he wasn’t? Why depict him holding a club and not a pistol or musket? Real caricatures of Cromwell are quite different in style, leaving the viewer in no doubt as to his identity. Here is one of him dressed as a king and here he is consorting with the devil. Even crudely drawn cartoons of that period are quite different in style from the Cerne Giant, as you can see from this example or this one. All the adult male figures are shown with long hair and beards, and dressed in the fashion of the times.

The theory that the Cerne Giant is a 17th century caricature seems to be an internet-era thing. I looked in various history books, guidebooks etc that I’ve got (mostly dating from the 20th century) and couldn’t find a single mention of it. Out of 11 books I consulted, one says that nothing is known about the giant’s history, seven suggest it’s a depiction of Hercules from the Romano-British period, and three that it represents a pre-Roman deity.

The association with Hercules is based on similarities of iconography. The ancient Greek hero, who was also popular with the Romans, was often depicted holding a club in one hand and a lion skin in the other – and archaeological evidence does indeed suggest that the Cerne Giant might once have held a lion skin (or something similar) which has since been erased. But Hercules isn’t usually ithyphallic. I said earlier that the Romans often depicted enormous erections, but that was almost always in the context of one specific deity, Priapus. Hercules, on the other hand, usually had a tiny little one (see the second picture in my earlier blog post for a particularly amusing example).

Personally I think it’s more likely that the Cerne Giant originated in pre-Roman times. The artistic style looks pre-Roman, for one thing, and the Uffington White Horse proves that chalk hill figures were not unknown in Iron Age Britain. Maybe it was subsequently adapted by the Romans into a depiction of Hercules, which would explain how it survived into the fifth or sixth century AD. But what happened then?

The full name of the village where the giant is located is Cerne Abbas – the “Abbas” suffix indicating that the village was attached to a mediaeval Christian abbey. At a time when anything pagan was automatically assumed to be the work of the devil, it’s difficult to believe the monks did any proactive maintenance work on the giant (and may even have deliberately tried to obliterate it). So perhaps it was lost to sight and forgotten until the 17th century, when it was rediscovered and restored – hence the misconception that it was actually created at that time.

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Madame Xanadu

Madame Xanadu #1 (pictured above left) dates from 1981, but I bought my copy much more recently than that. I can’t remember exactly when or where, but it was probably about 10 or 12 years ago. I don’t often buy DC comics, so it was obviously an impulse buy – probably on account of the Tarot cards on the cover, which is a subject I’ve always found fascinating. Quite apart from the Tarot connection, though, it’s a really good story. I was reminded of it last week when I saw a Madame Xanadu trade paperback (pictured above right) in a local shop. It was reduced to £4.99 so I bought that too. The story isn’t quite as perfect as the first one, but it’s still great fun.

The character of Madame Xanadu first appeared in a comic called Doorway to Nightmare in 1978, but the story in Madame Xanadu #1 is pretty self-contained. The setting is Greenwich Village, the same as the early Dr Strange stories (see Master of the Mystic Arts). But there’s little indication at this stage that Madame Xanadu has the same kind of supernatural powers as Dr Strange – the character is basically just a Tarot card reader (albeit one with genuine psychic powers and a rather mysterious background). The story includes a detailed Tarot reading as an integral part of the plot, and there’s a text article on the inside front cover about the history and use of the Tarot.

The story itself isn’t really about Madame Xanadu though, but one of her clients. It’s a variation on my favourite occult cliché – bored teenager starts to dabble in witchcraft for a giggle... gets drawn into a big grown-up world of sex and drugs... ends up summoning timeless demons who don’t give a toss whether she lives or dies. Then enter Madame Xanadu, and cue the happy ending!

The trade paperback, Madame Xanadu: Broken House of Cards, is one of a series collecting issues from a later incarnation of the Madame Xanadu title – the ones in this volume date from 2010. By this time, Madame Xanadu has been retconned as a powerful supernatural being from Arthurian mythology. Personally I feel this is a backward step, because it makes the character harder to believe in and relate to (for me, anyway), and it reduces the title’s Unique Selling Point – the use of Tarot cards – to little more than a cover story to hide the protagonist’s secret identity, instead of her primary talent. But that’s just my opinion – other people may disagree.

Having said that, it’s really a very enjoyable story. It’s set in the late 1950s, which gives it a nice retro feel (even in the 1981 comic, it was implied that Madame Xanadu had occupied the same Greenwich Village premises for several decades without appearing to get any older). There are a number of threads to the story, including one about a cult of devil-worshippers called the Church of the Midnight Dawn. As in the earlier story, the people involved are portrayed as predominantly middle-class and driven by boredom (as you can see in the sample panels below). I imagine that’s true of real-world Satanists, too... although in the real world they probably end up having a promiscuous orgy instead of conjuring up demons from hell. But you can’t have an orgy in a comic book, so you get the demons instead – which is much better!

Sunday, 5 April 2015

The Natural Law Party

There’s an interesting article in the current issue of Fortean Times called “Westminster Weirdos”, all about the nuttier fringes of British politics. The main focus is on the parties contesting next month’s General Election, but there’s a brief mention of a very nutty fringe party that fielded a number of candidates way back in the General Election of 1992: the Natural Law Party.

All the policies of the Natural Law Party centred around the practice of Transcendental Meditation (that’s a special kind of meditation devised by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, best known as the Beatles’ guru in the 1960s). When they first appeared on the British political scene in 1992, I happened to be particularly interested in wacky New Age beliefs, reading lots of books on the subject and attending lectures at the Theosophical Society and Buddhist Society and places like that. So I was fascinated by the Natural Law Party, and I’ve kept their campaign leaflet (pictured above) ever since. According to Wikipedia, William Stevens of the Natural Law Party got 92 votes in the 1992 General Election. I think one of those was mine, although at this distance in time I can’t be certain!

As you can see from the back cover of the manifesto, Transcendental Meditation would be good for the economy (by making people more creative), good for education (by increasing intelligence), good for defence (by creating an “invincible national consciousness”) and good for law & order (by eliminating the cause of crime, i.e. “the inability of the population to think and act spontaneously in accord with natural law”). You may say that’s all a load of unworkable idealistic nonsense, which of course it is – but no more unworkable than the idealistic nonsense purveyed by the mainstream political parties! There’s a difference, too – the mainstream parties have an annoying habit of talking down to the electorate, as if we’re all a bunch of ignorant yokels. That certainly wasn’t the case with the Natural Law party, as you can see from this interior page from the leaflet:
“Time to Bring the Light of Science into Politics”. That sentiment appealed to me, since I was working as a scientist at the time. But for most people it would have had the opposite effect – an instant turn-off! Especially as the science in question was fundamental physics, which is one of the most abstract, mathematically complex disciplines of all. Just zoom in on the left-hand side of the page and look at all those symbols and equations! Admittedly they’ve been annotated with user-friendly words like “FREEDOM”, “SIMPLICITY” and “OMNIPOTENCE”, but they’re still pretty daunting for the non-mathematician.

The thing that is depicted, as it says at the bottom, is “the Lagrangian of the superstring”. Now, how many people know what to do with a Lagrangian? I used to know, but I’ve forgotten – and I expect that most people who studied physics at degree level will say the same thing. To everyone else, it’s just so much mumbo-jumbo... which I guess is why only 92 Battersea residents voted for them!

It’s not mumbo-jumbo, though – it’s real science (the equation, I mean – not the bits about omnipotence and freedom). The image below shows, on the left, a zoomed-in view of the bottom line from the Natural Law manifesto. On the right is a closely similar equation from the book Why Does E = mc2? by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw. They describe it as “one of the most wonderful equations in physics”, and go on to say: “It really is possible to get a flavour of what is going on just by talking about the symbols without knowing any mathematics at all.” Sadly, however, they don’t say anything about “IMMORTALITY” or “INVINCIBILITY”.

Sunday, 29 March 2015

Skull the Slayer

Skull the Slayer was a short-lived series from Marvel Comics that ran for just 8 issues, cover-dated August 1975 to November 1976. That was a time when I was buying at least half a dozen Marvel titles a month, but not this one – in fact I don’t even remember being aware of its existence. It’s a fascinating concept, though, combining two of the most popular Fortean themes of the seventies – the Bermuda Triangle and Ancient Aliens.

I bought the six comics pictured above at the London Super Comic Convention earlier this month. I mentioned the two Silver Age bargains I picked up, for just £2 each, in my post about Jack Kirby’s Universe. These Bronze Age oddities came from the same stall and were a mere £1 each – unbagged, but all in excellent, scarcely handled condition. They didn’t have issues 1 or 4, but I got the rest of the series. The final issue, #8 in the bottom right-hand corner, even has a cover by Jack Kirby. That’s one of the two covers that still work well at thumbnail size – the other being #6 in the bottom left corner, which is by far my favourite of the six covers (I’ll come back to it at the end of the post).

Whatever image the title “Skull the Slayer” conjures up in your mind, the actuality is a lot wackier than that. Having flown through a vortex in the Bermuda Triangle, the four protagonists find themselves transported into the distant past, where ancient aliens have built a huge tower-like construct that pulls in creatures from all different stages of Earth’s history (meaning you can have dinosaurs and cavemen in the same story, for example, which is always a good thing). It isn’t clear why the aliens did this (not to me, anyway), but by the time the action takes place there’s only one of them left, living in this tower and watching robot versions of King Arthur’s knights fight endless battles with the sorceress Morgan-le-Fay. This occurs about half-way through the series, and marks the high-point of the daftness curve – the earlier and later issues are a lot better.

There are a couple of references to the historic Bermuda Triangle. In issue 3, as the protagonists approach the Time Tower, they come across the skeletal remains of dozens of airmen and sailors who presumably vanished inside the triangle at various times in history. Then in the final two issues they encounter a U.S. Navy pilot, Captain Victor Cochran, who was sent out to search for Flight 19 in 1945 (the original flight of five torpedo-bombers which started the Bermuda Triangle mystery – see my post about The Mystery of Flight 19). After passing through the time vortex, Cochran was found by a tribe of Inca warriors who have worshipped him as a God ever since.

The four main characters are an interesting mix of 70s stereotypes: an ex-soldier, an egghead scientist, an outspoken feminist and a long-haired teenager. “Skull the Slayer” is the nickname of Jim Scully, a Vietnam vet who spent five years in a prisoner-of-war camp. He may have been a nice guy once, but the war left him resentful and untrusting – the perfect seventies anti-hero. He’s constantly squabbling with the war-hating, establishment-hating scientist, Dr Corey. The latter’s assistant, Ann, is one of those feminists of the blonde-haired, large-breasted, scantily-clad, grenade-throwing variety that particularly appeals to adolescent male comic book readers (and probably never existed in reality).

The least interesting character is Jeff, the teenage boy. Presumably he was meant to be a surrogate for the reader, but he hardly does or says anything, and has no discernable personality. I can’t help feeling the writers should have gone a step further and made him a real comic book geek, saying things like “Whoa, cool, dude” every time a T. Rex or barbarian warrior makes an appearance! As for the bearded, middle-aged, mega-brained scientist – I’d hoped he would be someone I could relate to myself, but the guy is a total jerk. At the end of #3, for example, he leaves his colleagues facing almost certain death in the Time Tower so he can run off and explore some its more fascinating technology (OK, that probably is what I’d do, come to think of it).

Coming back to that great cover in the bottom-left of my photo (which is by Conan artist John Buscema) – the creature Scully is grappling with is meant to be an ichthyosaur, a ferocious marine reptile of the Jurassic period. Now it just so happens that I may have had an encounter with one of these creatures myself earlier this month. I spent a day fossil-hunting at Lyme Regis with Paul Jackson and his wife Melanie, and among other finds Paul picked up the object shown in the photo below (it’s sitting on the cover of a pocket-sized booklet, so you can see how tiny it is). I’m not sure, but I think this might be a tail-end vertebra from a baby ichthyosaur – which isn’t as unlikely as it sounds, because such things are quite often found as pebbles on that particular stretch of beach.

Sunday, 22 March 2015

Three difficult things that are easier than Mars One

Mars One, the reality TV initiative aimed at setting up a Martian colony twelve years from now, has been in the news again. Much of this recent publicity has been extremely negative, with scathing criticisms from various members of the scientific and aerospace establishments. For a project that needs a strong public image to secure investment, this kind of negativity is extremely damaging. In fact it risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. If the project ends up collapsing, its supporters will no doubt blame the negativity of the skeptics, while the skeptics themselves will gleefully say “I told you so”.

Personally I never like being negative about other people’s bright ideas, but in the case of Mars One it’s hard not to be. The flaw lies not so much in their proposed solution, as in the problem they’ve chosen to solve. Getting humans to Mars is still beyond the capabilities of much more experienced organizations, such as NASA, Roscosmos and ESA, who have had far longer to think about it (the illustration above is from a study NASA did in 1964, over 50 years ago).

Rather than rehashing all the arguments for and against, I thought it would be fun to list three things that have never been done, but any one of which would still be a lot easier than setting up a human colony on Mars. Each of my three projects involves solving just a small subset of the problems facing Mars One, instead of having to solve all those problems simultaneously (and others as well).
  1. Set up a human colony on the floor of the ocean. This is just as inhospitable to human life as the surface of Mars, so you need to address all the same problems of a safe, self-contained living environment. But the destination is a lot closer, so it’s easier to get material down there. We also know for a fact that there’s enough water, oxygen and food nutrients to sustain the colonists indefinitely (with suitable processing) – something that has to be taken on faith in the case of Mars One. The deep-sea environment is more interesting than Mars, too, teeming with unfamiliar life-forms that would make much better TV than the virtually dead world of Mars. Finally, a trip to the ocean floor doesn’t have to be a one-way one, so the colonists wouldn’t be doomed to die if and when the TV show was cancelled.
  2. Establish a permanent base on the Moon. Technologically, this is easy – it’s basically the same as building the ISS, but a quarter of a million miles away instead of in low earth orbit. A quarter of a million miles may sound a long way, but the journey is more than a thousand times shorter than the Hohmann transfer orbit to Mars. On top of that, there are several opportunities to launch lunar missions every month, whereas Mars missions are limited to brief launch windows every two years. Even more importantly, the low lunar surface gravity means that getting people back to Earth is nothing like as difficult as it is from Mars. So rather than having to set up a permanent colony, you can rotate crews the same way they do with the ISS. In terms of reality TV this is great news, because it means you could run monthly competitions where the prize is a trip to the Moon. Lots of people willingly pay large sums of money each week to play the lottery, and I’ll bet many of them would do the same for a chance to visit the Moon (and appear on TV into the bargain).
  3. Send low-budget robot probes to Mars with a better than 95% success rate. That’s the kind of reliability that would be needed for crewed missions, but it’s only ever been achieved for top-of-the-range spacecraft like the Curiosity Rover – not the sort of budget hardware that a private venture like Mars One will have to use. As a general rule, Mars missions have a depressing tendency to fail – the overall success rate is just 47%. Unlike the previous two items, I’m not suggesting this one would make a good reality TV show. Quite the opposite, in fact – it’s all about rocket science, which is virtually guaranteed to have viewers switching to another channel. But that’s an important point in itself. While there’s plenty of human interest involved in setting up a Martian colony, there’s a lot of boring science and engineering too – and it’s the science and engineering that’s going to end up eating up all the money. It would be a lot smarter, in my opinion, to pick something like the ocean floor or lunar project, which offers the same level of human interest with far fewer technical challenges.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Jack Kirby's Universe

I went to the London Super Comic Convention yesterday, where the high point for me was the Jack Kirby panel in the afternoon. This was hosted by Russell Payne of the online Jack Kirby Museum (on the left in the picture above), and included two of British comicdom’s best known figures: Dave Gibbons, co-creator of Watchmen, and TV personality Jonathan Ross. Sitting between them is a younger American creator named Tim Seeley. Having been a Kirby fan since the 1960s, I found the panel a fascinating mix of nostalgia and insight (a lot of the latter coming from Jonathan Ross – which may surprise people who only know him from TV, but he really is very knowledgeable and eloquent when he gets onto the subject of comics).

Not everyone has heard of Jack Kirby, but everyone has heard of the comic-book characters he helped to create. The Wikipedia category Characters created by Jack Kirby has no fewer than 308 entries, including Captain America, the Fantastic Four, Thor, Loki, the Hulk, the X-Men, Ant-Man, the Red Skull, Peggy Carter and Groot. Some of his creations had a distinctly Fortean flavour, as pointed out by a Forum writer in Fortean Times a few years ago (FT277, July 2011): “Kirby’s science fiction series The Eternals (originally entitled The Return of the Gods) was inspired by Erich von Däniken’s cosmic conspiracy tome Chariots of the Gods.” And one of my own very first blog posts was about Kirby’s “Face on Mars” story from 1958.

Sooner or later any discussion of Kirby’s creations is going to zoom in on one highly emotive issue: he didn’t own any of them. This is particularly tragic in Kirby’s case, because he created so many characters who are central to modern popular culture – but the same is true of any comic creator of his generation. It was the way the industry worked in those days: an artist was paid a flat fee to create heroes and villains, which then became the property of the company they worked for (Marvel, in the case of all the characters I’ve mentioned so far). That’s completely different from the way prose literature works, where the author retains ownership of any characters they create.

But there’s a flip side to this, which had never occurred to me until Jonathan Ross pointed it out yesterday. I’m going to have to be careful how I say this, because it may come across as a defence of corporatism, which it absolutely isn’t. Of course Jack should have retained ownership of all his creations, and of course Marvel should have paid him a royalty every time they reused one of his characters in a subsequent comic book (or more recently, in a blockbuster movie). That way Jack would have been a richer and happier man in his old age, and justice would have been done.

But if that had been the case, history would have unfolded differently. If Marvel had to pay royalties every time they used Captain America, or Thor, or the Hulk, they wouldn’t have used them anything like as much as they have done. The amazing way that Jack Kirby’s creations have been continuously recycled and reinvented for new generations would almost certainly never have happened. You can’t just point at Groot, for example, in the Guardians of the Galaxy movie and say “Kirby’s family should be getting royalties for that” – because if that was the legal situation, it probably wouldn’t have been Groot in the movie but a newly created character.

If you name a Marvel superhero, there’s a good chance Jack Kirby had a hand in the creative process. But that’s not the case with Marvel’s chief rival, DC comics. It’s true that Kirby did create plenty of characters for DC – a whole sub-universe known as the Fourth World – but they’re not the well known ones. Everyone has heard of Superman and Batman, but only comic-book geeks have heard of Darkseid and Orion. The convention yesterday was overflowing with cosplay Poison Ivys and Harley Quinns, but there wasn’t a single Big Barda in sight (much to my disappointment).

Jonathan Ross offered the view that Star Wars is basically a plagiaristic rip-off of Kirby’s Fourth World saga. I’ve come across this theory before, and I’m not convinced by it. There are parallels, of course, but it may be more a case of “great minds think alike”. As Tim Seeley pointed out, it’s known that George Lucas consciously based Star Wars on Joseph Campbell’s monomyth – and it’s likely that Kirby was unconsciously digging into the same source material.

Out in the main hall, I studiously avoided all the expensive dealers and focused my attention on the bargain bins. I managed to find the two Kirby-era Marvel comics pictured below for the incredibly low price of £2 each. The one on the left, Strange Tales #128, is in fairly battered condition, although it’s complete and unmarked. The cover is by Jack Kirby, and it also has one of the Ditko Dr Strange stories I wrote about a few months ago (it even includes the original of the Dr Strange pinup, my version of which featured at the bottom of that post). The other £2 comic is Sgt Fury and his Howling Commandos #45 (with art by John Severin, although the character – an early incarnation of Nick Fury, later of S.H.I.E.L.D. – is yet another Kirby creation). It’s in just about as perfect condition as you can get for a 1967 comic.

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Fake News Stories

Forteans who scour news media for unusual-sounding stories have always had to contend with deliberate fabrications. One of the earliest, now known as “The Balloon Hoax” (pictured above), was perpetrated by the great writer Edgar Allan Poe in 1844. It claimed that one Monck Mason had crossed the Atlantic Ocean in a flying machine – a feat that was not accomplished in reality for another 75 years.

Since the advent of social media, however, fake news stories have become a real plague. Dozens of new ones are created every day by websites which exist solely for that purpose (World News Daily Report, Empire News, National Report and The Daily Currant are among the worst offenders). Ostensibly these sites describe themselves as “satire”, but their techniques (and their motivations, I suspect) are significantly different from those of traditional satirists. Take a story that did the rounds a few weeks ago about a Catholic Priest’s near-death experience in which he came face-to-face with God – only to find that the deity in question was female! That’s a timeless joke, which could easily have featured on a classic satire show such as That Was The Week That Was in the 1960s, or Not the Nine O’Clock News in the 1980s.

But there’s a difference. TV satires had laughter tracks, so the audience knew from the context that it was just a joke. TV shows make most of their money from advertising revenue on first airing, and people are far more likely to tune into a comedy show than a straight news program. But that business model simply won’t work with internet satire. Very few people knowingly visit satire sites just to check out the stories and click on the ads. They are more likely to be lured in unwittingly by an eyecatching link they saw on their Facebook feed – and that’s going to work far more effectively if they don’t realize it’s satire.

I wrote about the tendency for Facebook users to mistake satire for real news before, in Satire and the Internet. At the time I assumed this was because they were stupid, but now I think there are other factors at play as well. I found an article on Wikipedia recently about Poe’s Law, which isn’t named after the aforementioned great writer but some nobody named Nathan Poe. What he said is highly relevant, though: “Without a blatant display of humour, it is impossible to create a parody of extremism that someone won’t mistake for the real thing.” The same is true of any satire: without that laughter track, how can you tell whether it’s meant to be taken seriously or not?

“Because satire is funny,” you might reply. But that brings us to the other really important new trend in internet satire – most of it isn’t funny at all. It’s cynically tailored to make people click on it because it sounds like it’s true. Often it concerns the sudden death of a popular celebrity, or an arrogant right-wing politician making an arrogant right-wing statement – things that might be true, but just happen not to be. It doesn’t have to be true, though, and it doesn’t have to be funny, when the sole aim is to make the story go viral on Facebook so the hosting site gets plenty of advertising clicks.

Since the whole purpose of fake news stories is to get as many people as possible to social-share them, they don’t often deal with Fortean subjects which usually only have a minority appeal. But there was an exception a few months ago, when a story went viral about Buzz Aldrin finally admitting that the Moon landings were a hoax (“I am ashamed to say this but I cannot hide it any more... we decided to fake the moon landings of Apollo 11 to say we were greater than the Soviets”). That story came from a site called Huzlers, which even has a convenient “submit” form so that anyone in the world can create their own fake news story!

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Bigfoot on Parson's Creek

Here is a retro-Fortean novel with a difference. It wasn’t written in the 1960s, and it isn’t a pastiche of the 60s style. But it’s set in the 60s, and it takes the reader back to a time when the subject of Bigfoot was a lot newer and fresher than it is today. On Parson’s Creek, written by Richard Sutton last year, is told from the present-day perspective of a grandfather recalling events that took place when he was a teenager in 1967. The book probably isn’t as well known among cryptozoologists as it ought to be, because it’s marketed as a Young Adult novel – aimed at readers the same age as the protagonist was when the events occurred. But I found the book equally gripping, even though I was closer to that age in 1967 than I am today!

On Parson’s Creek is a very clever story, and a refreshing change from all the usual clichés of Bigfoot fiction. The basic concept of the novel sets two major challenges for the author, which he then proceeds to solve in a surprisingly effortless way (it surprised me, anyhow).

The first big challenge is the 1960s setting. Of course, that does simplify things in some ways, because there was far less cultural baggage associated with Bigfoot then than there is today – no childishly bickering squatchers versus skeptics, no endless cycle of student hoaxes on YouTube, no urban legends, no internet memes. “Reality TV” is mentioned in the initial framing scene, while the main story refers to Ivan Sanderson’s book on the Yeti and the Patterson-Gimlin film (which was brand new at the time)... but that’s it. Aside from that, the protagonist has a clean slate to work with, free from socio-cultural preconceptions.

So why do I say the 60s setting is a challenge for the writer? It’s obvious if you think about it. Despite all the reality shows and YouTube videos, Bigfoot is just as much a mystery today as it was then. So we know, from our present-day perspective, that the story can’t end with the public outing of Bigfoot as a giant bipedal hominid (which would be the standard ending for a story set in the present or near-future). So how does On Parson’s Creek end? With my limited imagination, I could only think of two rather disappointing outcomes: either the supposed Bigfoot sightings would turn out to be a Scooby-Doo style hoax, designed to keep inquisitive teenagers from discovering criminal activity of some form or another, or the whole thing would end with a vague, open question: Was it Bigfoot or wasn’t it? I’m pleased to say, though, that Richard Sutton manages to come up with a more satisfying resolution than either of those!

The other challenge becomes apparent in the first pages of the novel. This is a hyper-realistic narrative, not a work of escapist fiction. To be honest, this put me off a bit at first. As regular readers will be aware, I have very little patience with anything except escapist fiction! But again, the author makes it work, and it’s the avoidance of all the usual escapist tropes that gives the novel its impressively fresh feel. The protagonist doesn’t just plunge straight into a search for Bigfoot, which then occupies him single-mindedly for a few days before reaching a dramatic climax. Yes, he investigates local Bigfoot rumours – not just by physical exploration but by talking to people and reading books – but it’s something he does on and off, over a period of months, in between other more mundane activities. There are other local mysteries, too – such as forgotten industrial relics and decades-old tragedies no-one wants to talk about – which may or may not have a connection with Bigfoot. Perhaps the most “realistic” aspect (for anyone who can remember being a frustrated teenager) is the way all the adults tell conflicting accounts of the same events – all with equal apparent sincerity!

There are a number of subplots running through the novel, including one relating to the protagonist’s fascination with Newtonian physics. This sits rather awkwardly with the broader narrative, but it really appealed to me because I too was a big fan of Isaac Newton as a teenager. And I still am... my book Pocket GIANTS: Isaac Newton is out tomorrow!

Sunday, 22 February 2015

The World's Weirdest Publishing Group

When I came to plug my new book The Museum of the Future on this blog last month, I had two fairly obvious questions for the publisher:
  • “Can you let me have the link to the ebook version on Amazon, please?”
  • “Can you let me have the link to the book’s page on your own website, please?”
It was at this point I discovered just how unconventional the CFZ Publishing Group is. There wasn’t an ebook version, just a paperback, and while the CFZ (Centre for Fortean Zoology) does have a long-running website and blog, it didn’t have a dedicated online “storefront” like every other publisher on the planet.

There were good reasons for these deficiencies. The “CFZ Publishing Group” consists of Jon and Corinna Downes, both of whom do many other things besides running a publishing company. They are highly reliant on the help of volunteers to get things done, and setting up a marketing website and an ebook production line were two of the things that always seemed to fall between the cracks.

This struck me as a real tragedy, because it meant awareness of my book (and the hundred-plus other titles published by CFZ) simply wasn't reaching a large section of the potential audience. There is a well-established online community of CFZ “insiders” which Jon puts vast amounts of effort into nurturing, but if you look beyond that then the CFZ brand has a very low profile indeed.

Electronic media open up new opportunities for publishers. A reader who buys one book, and enjoys it, might be motivated to search out other titles from the same imprint... if the information is there to be found. Another reader who perhaps can’t afford $15 for a paperback might be happy to spend $5 on an ebook... but only if the option is there!

Although I was particularly motivated by the thought of my own book languishing unsold, exactly the same principles apply to the whole catalogue. It was only when I looked into it that I realized just how varied and impressive the CFZ catalogue is – covering not just cryptozoology but the whole spectrum of weirdness from UFOs and the paranormal to mythology and urban legends. My book is part of the Fortean Fiction imprint, which – from all you could discover about it online – included four other titles, all issued back in 2011. But actually there are a dozen titles in the series, with more on the way!

So to cut a long story short, I volunteered to help out both with producing ebooks and setting up a website. On the ebook side, we decided to focus exclusively on Kindle to start with, because their tools for producing ebooks are so much more streamlined than other formats. Between Jon and myself we’ve produced 12 Kindle titles so far – all conversions of existing paperbacks.

As for the website, you can check it out here:

It’s got pages about the three main imprints (CFZ Press, Fortean Words and Fortean Fiction), information on some of the best-known authors (including Nick Redfern, Karl Shuker and Andy Roberts) and a blog for new releases and other announcements. And best of all, there’s are a couple of shops (one based in the UK and one in the USA) where you can browse the entire catalogue and buy anything that takes your fancy!

Sunday, 15 February 2015

The Lafferty Paradox

Ever heard of Raphael Aloysius Lafferty? Not many people have, despite the fact that he was one of the most intelligent and prolific writers of Fortean fiction in the 1960s and 70s. That’s one of the lesser paradoxes surrounding R.A. Lafferty. Another is the fact that, around the time I started reading science fiction in the early seventies, he was one of the most ubiquitous contributors to magazines and anthologies – often appearing on the cover and being nominated for numerous awards – yet even in those days publishers were strangely reluctant to put out single-author works by Lafferty, in the form of novels and short-story collections (here in the UK, they were only ever issued as hardbacks for the library market). The 1984 paperback collection pictured above, Ringing Changes, proved incredibly difficult to track down – I eventually acquired it from an online US-based seller a couple of weeks ago.

The biggest Lafferty paradox, however, is in the stories themselves. Most of them are very short, and at first sight they appear to be whimsical, offbeat fantasies that can read quickly and forgotten quickly. His characters are often bizarrely cartoonish, with bizarre cartoonish names. His settings are surreal and his plots are outrageous. His writing style is chatty and filled with laugh-out-loud humour. This all goes to support the view that Lafferty’s stories are lightweight and ephemeral. But nothing could be further from the truth – which is that Lafferty was one of the most serious, deep-thinking writers of his generation. Almost all his stories have a carefully thought-through philosophical subtext, often on issues he felt strongly about.

When you think about deep-thinking SF writers of the 60s and 70s, the name that springs most obviously to mind is Philip K. Dick. Probably every SF fan in the world has heard of him, and academics write dissertations about his work. So why isn’t the same true of R. A. Lafferty?

One difference is in the medium they chose. Most of Dick’s important works are 70,000 word novels, while Lafferty’s tend to be 5,000 word short stories – a form whose popularity has plummeted since the 1970s. But a bigger difference is in the accessibility of their ideas. Dick’s idée fixe was essentially Gnostic – that the so-called “reality” we perceive around us is in some sense fake or substandard. That resonates perfectly with the uncertainty and paranoia of the modern world, and most readers can relate to it. There’s something screwy about reality in Lafferty’s stories too – but in a far more complex way, which even a Lafferty fan like myself often has difficulty getting to grips with.

In Wild Talents, Charles Fort wrote: “I conceive of nothing in religion, science or philosophy that is more than the proper thing to wear, for a while.” Does this mean that while reality itself is fixed and self-consistent, human attempts to understand it are constantly changing perspective over the generations? Or is it that reality itself is always shifting into new configurations? Lafferty seems to have believed the latter. His stories tell of times in the past – often the not-very-distant past – when the laws of physics were different, or human abilities were different, or animal species were different, or time itself was different. But the differences quickly get forgotten, because history reshapes itself to cover up the changes.

By my count, more than half the 20 stories in the Ringing Changes collection deal with one variation or another on this theme (the other stories deal with other, equally philosophical, ideas). I will get hopelessly muddled if I try to describe all of them, so I’ll just focus on the two most obviously Fortean stories.

The longest story in the collection, “The Rivers of Damascus”, is one of half a dozen that I’d already read (in this case, in the issue of Galaxy magazine in which it first appeared). Longest is a relative term, though – it’s still only 27 pages, although it could easily have been expanded into a novel ten times that length. In fact I wouldn’t be surprised if that was the original plan, since the story reads like the outline of a novel in places. For example, the backstories of the two main characters go into far more biographical detail than you would expect in a novelette of this length. One of them is a skilled dowser, who is capable of dowsing not just underground water but the past as well (this is explained with some first-rate technobabble about the heterodyning of brain waves – Lafferty was an electrical engineer by profession).

The other character has a psychic talent of a different kind – he can tune into mental impressions and turn them into solid reality. So between them, acting as a team, they can help academic researchers recreate the past in the form of a “para-archaeological probe”. But this is a Lafferty story, so it’s the wrong underground river they tap into... and the past thus revealed is completely different from the one in the history books. They become a laughing-stock of the scientific establishment, paraded before a billion-strong TV audience on an ultra-skeptical documentary show called “Science Supreme, the End of the Crackpots”. But the story has a happy ending – the entrenched academics are revealed as the true crackpots, while the world gives the para-archaeologists an open-door welcome!

The collection includes three stories that hadn’t previously seen print. One of them is burdened with the rather longwinded title “Oh Whatta You Do When the Well Runs Dry?” (I guess that’s what happens when an author makes up his own title, without editorial intervention). It’s an excellent story, though. It features the same protagonist, Miss Phosphor McCabe, as “Nor Limestone Islands” which I mentioned in Charles Fort in Fiction. This story isn’t a direct sequel, but it’s equally Fortean and it has a stronger philosophical subtext.

The “well” of the title is the Collective Unconscious – a concept taken from Jungian psychology, though given a Lafferty-esque twist. This is the place people get their ideas and creative inspirations from, and one day it suddenly runs dry. Or does it? A group of Forteans knows better. They know the Collective Unconscious consists of countless sub-wells, and what has run dry is just the conventional-thinking one. There are plenty of others to choose from – but only if everyone in the world becomes as open-minded as the Forteans! Again, the story has a happy ending:
You know what rough and shouting people the Forteans had always been? You remember what rude strutters the Boschites were? You know the loud and glittering insanity of the Dalikites, and the perversity and perfidy of the Albionians? These shabby, crude, delirious dregs of humanity had always lived on rocks in the lower skies and in shanties on the outskirts of our towns. But now we all drank their water, we thought their thoughts (thoughts? some of their ghouly notions were enough to rot the flesh off your bones), and now we became indistinguishable from them.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

More Bigfoot Sleaze

As you can see from the photo, I’ve been reading Bigfoot porn again. Or for the first time, actually, since my only previous encounter with Bigfoot porn was an art-house movie called The Geek. There is a novel called The Geek, which is equally arty, but that’s chicken porn, not Bigfoot porn (go back and re-read Two Geeks, a Chicken and Bigfoot if you’re confused).

The book I was just reading is Cum For Bigfoot by Virginia Wade. This was originally released in instalments as self-published ebooks, and the author reportedly earns $30,000 per month from the series. That was the reason (the only reason, honestly) why I bought the book – I wanted to see if I could work out what her secret is. All my self-published ebooks added together struggle to make $3 per month, and some of them haven’t sold a single copy.

If Ms. Wade does have a secret, then I reckon it’s KISS. I don’t mean “kiss” as in lovey-dovey romance (of which the book has mercifully little), but the too-often-ignored principle of “Keep It Simple, Stupid”. If you keep things simple, you don’t make mistakes... and mistakes are what readers notice. Who wants complexity in a porn novel, anyway? By avoiding complexity, and avoiding mistakes, Cum for Bigfoot comes pretty close to perfection (I only spotted 4 typos in 217 pages). Of course it’s a very simplistic, unambitious perfection – but I guess that’s what readers want, and it explains why the series has become such a bestseller.

There are a lot of things you might expect to see in a book of this length which simply aren’t there. The plot is completely linear and uncomplicated – there’s no foreshadowing, no twists, no forks, no flashbacks. There is no technobabble – you might expect a know-it-all character to act as the author’s mouthpiece, recounting little-known facts about Bigfoot at every opportunity... but there isn’t anyone like that. There aren’t any eccentric characters at all – no goths or emos or punks or hippies, or half-crazed Bigfoot hunters, or money-grabbing sideshow entrepreneurs. No-one turns out to be anything other than what they appear to be on first appearance.

That last paragraph may sound negative, but it isn’t really. Those are the kind of things I’d try to squeeze into the story... but I wouldn’t do them very well, so the book would just sit there not getting bought. Even if a really good writer tackled the book that way, then I bet most of the people who’ve been buying Cum for Bigfoot wouldn’t like the result. All those things force the reader to slow down and think – which isn’t what someone who buys this sort of book wants.

I’ve repeatedly described the book as “porn”, not erotica, because that’s what it is. The sex scenes are long and detailed, while the linking narrative is simple and easy-to-follow. The characters are pretty generic, so most female readers (who I guess are the book’s target audience) will be able to identify with them. The description of Bigfoot society, and how they manage to remain undetected, is credible but minimalistic, with no gratuitous detail or attempts at pseudo-erudition.

So why is the book such a success? As far as I can see, it all comes down to the fact that Ms. Wade knows her audience... and knows how to give them exactly what they want.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Anthology Nostalgia

Nostalgia is a subjective thing. It’s not just a function of time period (e.g. 60s, 70s or 80s) but also how old you happened to be at the time. This struck me recently when I was looking at some so-called “Eighties nostalgia” blogs on Tumblr, which were all about toys, games and children’s TV. Personally, I associate those with the 1960s rather than the 80s, by which time I was in my twenties. To me, 1980s nostalgia means things like Dallas, Miami Vice, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Traci Lords.

But the height of nostalgia for me is not the 60s or 80s but the 70s – my teenage years. During this period I went through a number of fanatical interests, from amateur radio and Marvel Comics to astronomy and science fiction. In those days, the latter usually meant short stories and novelettes rather than blockbuster novels and movies. At least two-thirds of the SF books I read during the 70s were multi-author anthologies. Wherever possible I bought imported U.S. paperbacks, for the perfectly logical reason that they smelled better than British ones (I mean a lot better – almost as good as comics).

Seven of the books pictured in the photograph above are my original copies from the 70s (Nova 2 and Dangerous Visions 2 are signed by their respective authors, Harry Harrison and Harlan Ellison). The odd one out is the battered-looking one in the bottom right-hand corner – Omega, edited by Roger Elwood. I bought it online last week on a nostalgic impulse. It wasn’t a completely random choice, though – I noticed that several of the stories had a potentially Fortean sound to them:
  • “Amfortas” by Laurence M. Janifer. Amfortas is a character in Wagner’s most Fortean opera, Parsifal (the science-fictional aspects of which I’ve discussed elsewhere). The story starts with a quote from the opera, but it only has a tenuous relation to the plot – which is pretty Fortean in its own right, about a transplant recipient who takes on the personality of the donor.
  • “Beast in View” by Miriam Allen de Ford isn’t Fortean in itself (it’s about how to deal with a murderer in a futuristic crime-free society), but the author is. She was mentioned by Charles Fort himself in New Lands (“Miriam Allen de Ford has sent me an account of her own observations”) and in Wild Talents (“Clipping sent to me by Miriam Allen de Ford of San Francisco”).
  • “Symposium” by R. A. Lafferty consists of philosophical musings by semi-sentient building-blocks in a futuristic child’s toy box. When one of the blocks, labelled with an archaic mediaeval letter, is told “You just don’t fit in!” it replies “You can’t get rid of the awkward. It does not really dispose of a thing to call it Fortean.” Lafferty was one of the most frequently anthologized authors during the period we’re talking about, and his stories often mention Charles Fort (as Daniel Petersen pointed out in a comment to my blog post about Charles Fort in Fiction).
  • “Running Around” by Barry N. Malzberg is about a loser who decides to commit suicide by the paradoxical method of travelling back in time to kill his grandfather (and then his father, when that doesn’t work). Like Lafferty, Malzberg was a regular contributor to these anthologies, and another of my favourites at the time (both for his offbeat writing style and his propensity for sex scenes – he’s one of the authors I was trying to parody in Six Dimensional Sex).
  • “After King Kong Fell” by Philip José Farmer is the only story in the book that I’d already read in another anthology. It’s basically an eyewitness recollection of King Kong’s rampage in New York by someone who was just a child at the time. On re-reading it, I noticed a few things that would have gone over my head when I read it back in 1976 – such as the cameo appearances by pulp heroes Doc Savage and the Shadow. Also I can see now that the calculation of the length of King Kong’s penis (which fascinated my 18-year-old self) is based on a misapplication of the square-cube law... although I suspect that was intentional on Farmer’s part, for humorous effect.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

The History of Atlantis

I wrote another short article for eHow last week: What Did Atlantis Look Like?. The editorial instructions said the piece should draw on multiple “credible expert sources”, but when it comes down to it there is only one really credible source on the subject :  the ancient Greek philosopher Plato, who described the sinking of Atlantis in his dialogues Timaeus and Critias in the 4th century BC. Everything that has ever been written about Atlantis draws in one way or another on Plato’s account.

Modern proponents of Atlantis seem to fall into three broad camps:
  • Academics (and pseudo-academics) who scour the world looking for archaeological and historical evidence of a lost Atlantean civilization. This approach really took off with the publication of Ignatius Donnelly’s Atlantis: The Antediluvian World in 1882.
  • New Agers and other mystics who emphasize the spiritual and high-tech aspects of Atlantean culture, often receiving their information through telepathic “channelling” as opposed to more materialistic methods. This idea seems to have originated with the Theosophical movement in the late 19th century, continuing into the 20th century with the writings of Edgar Cayce and others.
  • Fictional treatments of Atlantis often portray it as still existing, thousands of years after it sank beneath the waves, in the form of a highly advanced underwater civilization. The best-known representative of this version of Atlantis is probably Namor the Sub-Mariner from Marvel Comics, although the earliest occurrence of the idea that I’m aware of is Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel The Maracot Deep from 1929.
The thing about Plato’s account that makes all this variety possible is that virtually no-one imagines he was telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth. That leaves people free to pick and choose the bits they like, and add whatever further details they feel necessary.

Plato was a philosopher, not a historian, so he wasn’t in the business of recording purely factual accounts of historical events. He used the story of Atlantis as a vehicle to make specific points about moral and political philosophy. At the same time, however, Plato wasn’t in the business of writing imaginative fiction either. It’s hard to see why he would have gone to the trouble of fabricating such a convoluted story when he could have conveyed the same message in a more straightforward way. So it’s reasonable enough to conclude that some of what Plato said about Atlantis was based in fact, and some of it was made up.

But which is which? Translated into modern-day terms, the essential elements of Plato’s account are as follows:
  1. Atlantis was an island which sank beneath the sea as the result of a catastrophic earthquake.
  2. The island was large, perhaps 2000 or more miles in extent, and located in the Atlantic Ocean beyond the Straits of Gibraltar. After it sank, Plato says it “became an impassable barrier of mud to voyagers sailing from hence to any part of the ocean”.
  3. According to Plato, the sinking of Atlantis occurred around 9600 BC, when Atlantean civilization was at its height. Although Europe, North Africa and the Middle East were still in the early Neolithic period (New Stone Age) at that time, Plato’s Atlantis boasted a rich and thriving Bronze Age culture of a kind not seen elsewhere until 6000 years later.
As a general rule, the closer an Atlantis-hunter is to the academic mainstream, the fewer details of Plato’s account they seem prepared to accept. At the most hardnosed extreme, they just accept point (1) and ignore the rest. The second point – an island of that size located where Plato said it was – really isn’t credible in light of what is now known about the north Atlantic seabed. Similarly, the idea that such an advanced Bronze Age culture could have existed 12 millennia ago, without leaving the slightest trace in the neighbouring parts of Africa and Europe, just doesn’t fit with academically accepted chronology.

The figure of 9600 BC comes from Plato’s dating of the sinking of Atlantis to 9000 years before the time of Solon — a Greek statesman who lived around 600 BC. But one of the references cited in my eHow article claims that “Studies have shown there would appear to be a ten-fold error in all figures over a hundred in Plato’s work, due probably to an early translation error.” This would give a date of 600 + 900 (not 9000) = 1500 BC, which neatly coincides with the Bronze Age eruption of the small Greek island of Santorini – often cited as the most rationalistic explanation for the origin of Plato’s story.

But rationality is for the academics. At the other extreme, the mystics and New Agers are perfectly happy to accept Plato’s date of approximately 10,000 BC. They’re generally less interested in the location of Atlantis than in its level of technical and spiritual advancement – so they tend to focus on point (3) above rather than the first two. From their point of view, the idea of Bronze Age technology presents no problem at all, even when the rest of the world was back in the Stone Age. In fact they’re likely to advocate an even higher level of ancient Atlantean culture, complete with such things as flying vehicles, ESP, teleportation and maybe even space travel!