As I’ve probably said before, the striking thing about Fortean books of this vintage is how much less aggressive and bad-tempered they are compared with the situation today. Believers were content to get their ideas across in a calm voice, without gratuitous ad-hominem attacks on their opponents. And the same was true of skeptical authors, as these two books show.
On the face of it, Can You Speak Venusian? isn’t a skeptical book at all. Its subtitle is “A Guide to Independent Thinkers”, and the views of these Independent Thinkers (on subjects ranging from the Flat Earth, the Hollow Earth and Atlantis to Creationism, Flying Saucers and Astrology) are presented in an objective way with hardly any explicit criticism. Instead, the author relies on the old adage “If you give someone enough rope they’ll hang themselves”. The identity of the author is a clue, too. Until his death three years ago, Patrick Moore was the presenter of the longest-running science series on British TV, The Sky at Night.
Patrick Moore was famous for being an eccentric as well as a scientist. As a result, he seems to have had considerable respect for other eccentrics, even if their views were the opposite of his own. As he puts it: “The Independent Thinker is a genuine, well-meaning person, who is not hidebound by convention, and who is always ready to strike out on a line of his own – frequently, though not always, in the face of all the evidence.”
The book’s title is a reference to the last of the Independent Thinkers described in it, one Mr Bernard Byron of Romford. He claimed to be fluent, by means of interplanetary telepathy, in not just Venusian but also Plutonian and Krugerian (the language spoken on one of the planets of Kruger 60, a red dwarf binary star). The book includes an example of written Venusian (part of Mr Byron’s translation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet), while a sample of the spoken language can be heard in this YouTube clip.
Mixed in with Moore’s deadpan account of crackpot theories, there’s a hint of active mischief-making. In 1957 a UFO magazine called Cosmic Voice printed a series of pseudo-academic articles which included such dubious-sounding names as R. T. Fischall (artificial), E. Ratic (erratic), Hotère (hot air) and Huizenaas (who’s an ass?). Initially the editor – George King, the founder of the Aetherius Society – was happy to print these, but he later “came to the conclusion that some of his contributors were not quite so serious or so scientific as he had been led to expect”. King’s prime suspect was Moore himself – who of course denied the whole thing (the book also refers to the Adamski-style contactee Cedric Allingham, who is widely believed to have been another of Patrick Moore’s mischievous alter egos).
Can You Speak Venusian? contains only a couple of relatively brief references to Erich von Däniken, but he’s the central target of Ronald Story’s The Space-Gods Revealed, which also dates from the mid-seventies. I’ve written about the “ancient astronaut” hypothesis several times before (see for example this article and this blog post). I don’t think it’s the “stupid idea” many people believe it to be – on the contrary, it would be stupid NOT to consider extraterrestrial visitation as a potential explanation for certain ancient legends, images or artifacts. Where the ancient alien enthusiasts go astray (and lose the sympathy of most ordinary people) is in always preferring an extraterrestrial explanation to a terrestrial one.
But on top of that, there’s another annoyance about von Däniken in particular – the way he gets all the credit for ideas (sometimes quite clever ideas) that were expressed much more carefully and precisely long before he wrote Chariots of the Gods (see numerous books by Desmond Leslie, Morris K. Jessup, Pauwels and Bergier, Robert Charroux, Brinsley LePoer Trench and W. R. Drake, to name just a few). So I was pleased to see that The Space-Gods Revealed isn’t so much a debunking of ancient aliens per se, as an exposé of von Däniken’s slapdash style. Here are a couple of good examples:
- In support of his ancient astronaut hypothesis, von Däniken makes an astonishing claim: that “ancient Egypt appears suddenly and without transition with a fantastic ready-made civilization,” and that it is “without recognizable prehistory!” Is he serious? If he had looked at almost any one of the approximately twenty thousand volumes of books and periodicals that have been written on the subject, he would have realized the absurdity of such a statement.
- The “evidence” claimed by von Däniken to represent the science and technology of the ancient gods falls far short of what might be expected from an advanced race of beings capable of interstellar space travel […] Von Däniken refers to the Baghdad batteries as if they were indeed the products of an advanced alien technology […] If they are really batteries, then they would be the most primitive form of simple cell possible.