How Science Fiction Conquered the World
By THOMAS M. DISCH
The Free Press
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THE RIGHT TO LIE
America is a nation of liars, and for that reason science fiction has a special claim to be our national literature, as the art form best adapted to telling the lies we like to hear and to pretend we believe.
It has been said of Cretans that they were all liars, and we can assume, from its proscription in the Decalogue, that lying was not unknown in Mosaic times. What distinguishes American liars from those of earlier times and other nations is that the perfected American liar does not feel himself to be disgraced by his lies, even when he is caught in them. Indeed, the bolder the lie and the more brazenly imposed on the public, the more admiration the liar is accorded.
The first American hero to be celebrated for his wily ways is a folk spirit native to the continent, Coyote. Among his lineal descendants in the realm of fiction one may number Joel Chandler Harris’s Br’er Rabbit, Herman Melville’s Confidence Man, Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer, and Abigail Williams in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, the Puritan maiden whose lies give rise to the Salem witch trials. What sets such American tricksters apart from those of other cultures is the degree to which they solicit our admiration. I can remember my father’s reading aloud the opening chapters of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and the delight we shared at the way Tom hustles his friends into whitewashing a thirty-yard-long, nine-foot-high board fence.
Before addressing the SF component of this issue, let me offer a short anthology of righteous lies from the past forty years of American history by way of suggesting the dimensions of the nation’s Great White Fence. The first great lie of the post-World War II era, and the foundational whopper of the Cold War, was President Eisenhower’s scout’s-honor insistence, in 1960, that the U-2 shot down over the Soviet Union was not on a spying mission. That pro forma diplomatic fiction became a booby trap when the pilot, Francis Gary Powers, whom Eisenhower had presumed dead, was produced alive and stood trial for spying. Sisela Bok declares that “this lie was one of the crucial turning points in the spiralling loss of confidence by U.S. citizens in the word of their leaders.”
The Vietnam War offered Americans a more extensive lesson in their government’s complacent disregard for inconvenient truths. In The First Casualty, his history of war reporting, Phillip Knightley writes, concerning Vietnam:
In the early years of the American involvement, the administration misled Washington correspondents to such an extent that many an editor, unable to reconcile what his man in Saigon was reporting with what his man in Washington told him, preferred to use the official version. John Shaw, a Time correspondent in Vietnam … says, “for years the press corps in Vietnam was undermined by the White House and the Pentagon …. Yet the Pentagon Papers proved to the hilt that what the correspondents in Saigon had been sending was true?
Knightley contends that compared to earlier wars of the modern era, the press (though not the government) had a good track record for honesty. “But,” he admits, “this is not saying a lot…. With a million-dollar corps of correspondents in Vietnam the war in Cambodia was kept hidden for a year.”
But it was Watergate that made clear even to the most trusting and credulous of citizens that Presidents, their advisers, and anyone within distance of a bribe have as little regard for the truth as Richard III. Nixon had lied so successfully for so long about matters of such consequence that for the entire first year of the scandal, he refused to believe his robes of office would not protect him. In his steadfast denials, which he persisted in even after resigning in disgrace, he set an example of the Liarly Sublime that has never since been bettered for sheer brass.
The final establishment of lying as a right–a right that is specifically God given–was the work of Marine Corps paragon, presidential adviser, and 1994 Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, Oliver North. In July 1987, North had been called to testify before the Senate concerning the White House’s involvement in trading arms to Iran in exchange for the release of American hostages, the diversion of those illegal funds to assist (in defiance of Congress) the contras in Nicaragua, and his own perjuries with respect to these operations, which he had superintended. North’s biographer, Ben Bradlee, Jr., begins his summing up of all the lies that were Oliver North’s life:
Aside from North’s admitted lying to Congress about the Contras, his admitted lying to the Iranians, his admitted falsifying of the Iran initiative chronology, his admitted shredding of documents and his admitted lying to various Administration officials as the Iran-Contra affair unravelled in November of 1986, there are stories, statements or claims that he has made to various people while at the NSC [National Security Council] that are either untrue strongly denied, or unconfirmable and thought to be untrue.
Bradlee recounts a round dozen of North’s wilder whoppers, which include: a variety of self-promoting tales about confidences and private prayer meetings shared with the President; a tale of derring-do concerning his rescue of wounded contra soldiers (who later died, alas) as he piloted a plane through enemy machine-gun fire; his service in Angola and in Argentina during the Falklands War, and strategic tete-a-tetes with Israel Defence Minister Ariel Sharon just before the Israeli invasion of Lebanon (all three stories pure fabulation); and his dog’s death by poisoning–”presumably by those whom he said had been threatening his life.” (A neighbour insisted that the dog died of cancer and old age.) The list is extensive enough to suggest that North’s penchant for lying exceeded the merely strategic and expedient and amounted to pathology, and this is confirmed by the testimony of even reputed friends.
So artful was North’s performance before the Senate that soon a good deal of the country had adopted the same attitude. “No one has captured the American public like Ollie North,” opined a Chicago restaurateur. “Even when he’s not telling the truth he’s beautiful. The guy is so charming.” Then columnist and future presidential candidate Patrick Buchanan lauded North as “a patriotic son of the republic who, confronted with a grave moral dilemma–whether to betray his comrades and cause, or to deceive members of Congress–chose the lesser of two evils, the path of honor. It was magnificent.”
There must be two parties to a successful lie: the one who tells it and the one taken in. The motive of the teller is seldom difficult to discern, though it may be complex. In North’s case one can scent self-advantage, a desire for applause, a certain amount of rational fear, and, not least, an inveterate delight in his own con-artistry. Surely a good deal of North’s success was due to the TV audience’s collusive admiration for the man’s brass. Like Buchanan, they knew he was lying, but he lied so well; it was magnificent. This was the era, after all, of a President who had been caught again and again in evasions and fabulations. But people didn’t care. Indeed, they applauded both men’s acting skills–the catch in the throat, the twinkle in the eye, the scout’s-honor sincerity. TV critic Tom Shales favourably compared North’s debut at the Senate hearings to Burt Lancaster’s performance in Seven Days in May, in which Lancaster plays a general planning a military coup d’etat.
I’ve said America is a nation of liars. A politer way of putting it is that we are a nation of would-be actors. No other culture has ever been so drenched in make-believe. Children spend more time watching television than going to school, and most of what they watch is fiction. In school they are taught to read novels. Actors are national celebrities, and show business is widely recognized as a metaphor for the conduct of life. A smile on one’s face and a shine on one’s shoes are the simple prerequisites for success in a world of self-made men. We could make believe; it’s only a paper moon; let’s go on with the show.
So where does that leave the vast majority of us whose role is only to watch the stars, to applaud, to believe, to vote? There are, admittedly, a great many who do not succumb to the blandishments of the entertainment industry and who can distinguish between performances and principles. But by and large our media stars are admired. They are spoken of often as “role models,” that is to say, templates on which we can form our own social personae. Even their sins are trend setting.
And so, if Reagan and North may lie with impunity, why shouldn’t we all be allowed the same latitude? Few private citizens can take refuge behind “national security” as an all-purpose excuse for self-aggrandizement, but there are any number of worthy causes that an expedient lie can take shelter in. Take the case of Tawana Brawley, a black teenager who claimed, late in 1987, to have been attacked and sexually abused for four days by a gang of white cops, including (according to statements later made by her attorneys, Alton Maddox and C. Vernon Mason), an assistant district attorney and another local law officer, Harry Crist, Jr., who had committed suicide shortly after Brawley’s story hit the news and so could not deny the lawyers’ allegations. Brawley was taken up as a martyr by black activists. She and her mother, who had colluded in her fabrications, became protégés of the black demagogue Rev. Al Sharpton, who took them out of state and beyond the summons of the grand jury investigating her alleged rape–and thereby spared the hard choice between perjury and admitting to the shameful truth; to wit, that she had fabricated the whole story, smearing herself with dog faeces, scrawling “Nigger” and “KKK” on her body with charcoal, and scorching the crotch of the jeans she’d been wearing. Yet to this day, nine years later, despite a grand jury report that presents the great mass of evidence that shows Tawana was lying, the Rev. Al Sharpton equivocates about her probity, on the grounds that even if this particular crime did not take place, others like it have.
Since Tawana’s time, allegations of sexual abuse have become epidemic, but later liars have learned from Tawana’s example not to tell lies that can so easily be disproved. Of great usefulness in this regard has been the Recovered Memory Syndrome, in either its simple form or in combination with fantasies of ritual satanic abuse. A catalogue of only the most celebrated cases of recent years would take pages and would be a work of supererogation, since most large bookstores now have entire sections devoted to the phenomenon.
That child sexual abuse occurs cannot be denied, but even when it is reported shortly after it is alleged to have happened, a certain scepticism is called for. The supposition that children are more likely to be truthful than their elders is unwarranted, especially in a culture of liars. One cautionary tale was a recent case in Chicago, in which three sisters, ages ten, eleven, and twelve, alleged that they had been the victims, at their father’s hands, of four years of sexual assault, beatings, drug injections, and meals of fried rats and boiled roaches. The last detail secured the case national attention, but it probably was the fatal, over-the-top flaw that saved the girls’ parents from prosecution.
Generally children are held as little accountable for their lies as for their more overt misdemeanours and felonies. In theory they are innocents a priori. Many grown-ups feel that they are entitled to similar license, and for them the Recovered Memory movement has been a godsend. Are you obese? Underweight? Anxious? Frigid? Sexually hyperactive? Then, according to countless self-help books, you were probably a victim of childhood sexual abuse but have repressed the memory of it. These memories are to be recovered by means of group therapy, hypnosis, and massage.
How this process enables those making allegations and even those falsely accused to fabricate scenarios and then believe in their own inventions has been described by Lawrence Wright in Remembering Satan (1994), the stranger-than-fiction account of a man railroaded into prison after his daughters had charged him with ritual satanic abuse. Not only were the two daughters and his wife able to “recover” memories of sins that had never been committed, even their victim cooperated in producing more specious “memories.” As to the psychological theories that are the foundation of the movement, Frederick Crews has done a most thorough demolition job in two essays originally published in the New York Review of Books and reprinted, along with the outraged correspondence they provoked, in The Memory Wars: Freud’s Legacy in Dispute (1996). Crews contends that there is as little intellectual and evidentiary substance in the theory and practice of psychoanalysis as in the most blatantly fantastical claims of believers in ritual satanic abuse. Indeed, the latter, Crews urges, is the devolved and déclassé descendant of the former.
I would agree with Crews, with this further suggestion: that science fiction has been an essential element in the transmission of Freud’s original theories and their adaptation to the needs of today’s talk show audiences. There were actually two separate SF conduits. The first was the debased Freudianism of SF writer L. Ron Hubbard, who introduced the pseudoscience of Dianetics (aka the “religion” of Scientology) in the May 1950 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. The second and more direct route is that typified by Whitley Strieber, a writer of horror novels who claims to have been abducted and sexually abused by aliens at periodic intervals throughout his life, a fate subsequently shared by his son, then age seven. Strieber’s books on this subject, Communion: A True Story and Transformation: The Breakthrough, remain notable for being the only such books by an already established professional author, for which distinction Strieber received a whopping million-dollar advance for Communion.
The symptomatic relationship between L. Ron Hubbard and science fiction will be examined at greater length in Chapter 7, on SF and religion. Strieber’s and other “abductees’” memoirs of their UFO experiences might also be considered from that higher vantage–had they been received by the media and the general public with the solemnity and immunity from sceptical examination that is tacitly accorded to officially recognized religions. Happily, though Strieber had a commercial success with Communion, his effort to form a quasi-religious cult of alien abductees did not attain orbital velocity, and so more than a decade after his alleged abduction on the night after Christmas 1985,Communion has become a part of the history of pop culture, not of religion.
Whitley was not the first UFO hoaxer, though he has been, to date, the most audacious and has turned the best profit from his fancies. The first rash of purported sightings was the Great Airship Mystery of 1896, when an armada of cigar-shaped airships with winglike sails crossed the skies of America. These protodirigibles clearly were an expression of imaginative enthusiasm for the dawning era of heavier-than-air flight, and once that era had commenced in fact, such fictions disappeared.
Then, at the dawn of the atomic era, came the flying saucers. In 1947 Kenneth Arnold reported nine disk-shaped objects sporting about Mount Rainier, and before the year was out, 850 other “flying saucer” sightings had been reported in the press. From the first, those who credited flying saucer sightings assumed them to be of extra-terrestrial origin–which is another way of saying that they were the progeny of science fiction. Orson Welles’s radio dramatization of H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds had provoked a panic among credulous listeners in 1938—proof, if any were needed, of a large audience of potential believers.
But strange lights in the night sky are not enough. Contact was inevitable, and on November 20, 1952, George Adamski, a penny-ante guru already in the flying saucer business, lecturing on the subject and selling his own UFO photos, had his first tete-a-tete with a Venusian named Orthon, who explained by dumb show and telepathy that his saucer was powered by Earth’s magnetism. After some brief instruction in English, Orthon was able to express (“Boom, boom!”) the alarm of peace-loving extra-terrestrials at atomic testing and the prospect of nuclear war. (Only a year earlier in the 1951 sci-fi movie, The Day the Earth Stood Still, a flying saucer lands in Washington, D.C., to deliver the same message. A coincidence?)
Adamski’s ghost-written account of his contact with Orthon, Flying Saucers Have Landed (1953) and its sequels, Inside the Spaceships(1955) and Flying Saucers Farewell (1961), had already fallen into disfavour among saucer buffs by the time of his death in 1965. Adamski’s style of fakery and his narrative gifts were too primitive for the new breed of UFOlogists, and he had alienated even the faithful readers of hisCosmic Bulletin, as his emphasis shifted to mysticism and psychic phenomena. Originally Adamski had declared psychics to be in cahoots with the world banking interests, the “Silence Group,” which acted to suppress information about UFOs. Now he seemed to be saying that his contacts with the space people and his trips to the dark side of the moon might be nothing but visionary experiences.
Adamski’s equivocations in this regard were to become a regular feature of the more high-toned UFO “abductees” and their chroniclers of a later generation. Well before Strieber hit the scene, Dr. J. Allen Hynek, dubbed by Newsweek as “the Galileo of UFOlogy,” gave grudging credence to the first abductee narrative, that of Betty and Barney Hill. But by 1982 Hynek was backing away from the received wisdom that UFOs were of extra-terrestrial origin: “The enigma to which [Hynek] had dedicated his career remained inscrutable and unacceptable to the scientific community. Hynek submitted that perhaps UFOs were part of a parallel reality, slipping in and out of sequence with our own. This was a hypothesis that obviously pained him as an empirical scientist. Yet, after thirty years of interviewing witnesses and investigating sighting reports, radar contacts, and physical traces of saucer landings no other hypothesis seemed to make sense to him.”
Parallel universes are another trope borrowed from the repertory of science fiction. They are a marvellous convenience for authors who want to fantasticate at a high rpm without having to offer a rational explanation for the wonders they evoke. In a parallel universe, magic is usually the operative technology, as per SF fandorns’ motto, “Reality is a crutch.” Well before Hynek had adopted this all-purpose escape clause, dozens of SF writers had proposed the same explanation for the persistent unverifiability of all UFO phenomena. The cleverest such confection has been Miracle Visitors (1978) by British SF writer Ian Watson.
Unverifiability is for UFOlogists what deniability was for Nixon and the Watergate conspirators. Without it, they would be attested perjurers. Accordingly, Strieber and Dr. John E. Mack (the Harvard Medical School Professor who drew flack from his colleagues for his UFOlogical “research”) carefully lard their abduction narratives with canny disclaimers. Not for them Adamski’s crudely faked photos of UFOs and his footprint castings of aliens who always manage to elude the camera’s lens, despite decades of “close encounters.” No, the aliens are ineffable and unknowable, and their caprices are no more to be questioned than the koans of a Zen master. In one of his many declarations of independence from rational scrutiny, Strieber declares:
Whomever or whatever the visitors are, their activities go far beyond a mere study of mankind. They are involved with us on very deep levels, playing in the band of dream, weaving imagination and reality together until they begin to seem what they probably are–different aspects of a single continuum. To really begin to perceive the visitors adequately it is going to be necessary to invent a new discipline of vision, one that combines the mystic’s freedom of imagination with the substantial intellectual rigor of the scientist.
In a culture of liars, it is considered bad form to call to account lies reckoned to be harmless. In a telephone survey conducted by the Leo Burnett ad agency, 91 percent of 505 people surveyed confessed that they regularly don’t tell the truth. “People,” the New York Times writer explained, “are more accepting than ever of exaggerations, falsifications, fabrications, misstatements, misrepresentations, gloss-overs, quibbles, concoctions, equivocations, shuffles, prevarications, trims and truth colored and varnished. They even encourage their children to do it by praising them for using their imaginations.”
The Times itself evinced a similar delicacy when it had to deal with Communion in its Sunday book review section, urging its reviewer, Gregory Benford, to adopt a more respectful and accommodating tone. Benford, a noted physicist and an accomplished SF writer, bit his tongue and trimmed his first draft. And so, despite protests over its appearance on the “Non-Fiction” side of the Times‘ best-seller list,Communion was accorded respectful attention in the nation’s main journal of record, where Strieber is quoted to this effect: “I cannot say, in all truth, that I am certain the visitors are present as entities entirely independent of their observers. Nor can I say that I do not think they are here at all.” He cannot say that for a very good reason: if he did, he wouldn’t have a book contract.
I reviewed Communion for the Nation, where I was not under the duelling-code restraints imposed by the Times and could freely express my opinion of Strieber’s enterprise. Better than that, I was in possession of a smoking gun, for Strieber makes much of his own naiveté regarding earlier UFO testimonies: “I did not believe in UFOs before this happened. And I would have laughed in the face of anybody who claimed contact.” He maintained that until he’d been impelled by his own experience to examine other UFO literature, he had taken no interest in such matters. If he had read widely in the literature, the striking resemblance between his own UFO experiences and that recorded by others could be ascribed to imitation. But if, as he claimed, he was innocent of such knowledge, then such a correspondence must be seen as a confirmation that Something Is Happening.
Whitley, as it turned out, had left a significant paper trail in this regard: a story, “Pain,” that appeared in a 1986 hardcover anthology, of horror stories, Cutting Edge. “Pain” is a remarkable prefiguration of Communion’s distinctive addition of S&M themes to the traditional UFO mixture-as-before. Here is the moment in Communion when Strieber reveals how he was raped by aliens:
[Aboard the saucer] the next thing I knew I was being shown an enormous and extremely ugly object, grey and scaly, with a sort of network of wires on the end. It was a least a foot long, narrow and triangular in structure. They inserted this thing into my rectum. It seemed to swarm into me as if it had a life of its own. Apparently its purpose was to take samples, possibly of faecal matter, but at the time I had the impression that I was being raped, and for the first time I felt anger.
In “Pain” the narrator, a novelist like Strieber, tells of his besotted passion for a professional dominatrix, who belongs to an ancient, alien race that had fed on human pain throughout history. They were in charge of the Roman Empire, arranged the Holocaust, assassinated Kennedy, and now their agent, cruel Janet O’Reilly, puts Strieber’s hero through a standard bondage-and-domination scenario.
The textual parallels between “Pain” and Communion are extensive. Could it be that Strieber, having made the imaginative equation between the “archetypal abduction experience” and the ritual protocols of bondage and domination, realized he’d hit a vein of ore untapped by previous UFOlogists? Strieber’s alternative explanation is that the story represents the first surfacing of memories repressed by the aliens, who had given Strieber a similar hazing only days before “Pain” was written.
Strieber’s responses to those who dare to regard his UFO testimonies as other than hard fact or celestial vision have been so passionate that many sceptics are inclined to suppose him sincerely self-deluded. Philip J. Klass, our leading UFO debunker, maintains that Strieber probably suffers from TLE, temporal lobe epilepsy, “a transient phenomenon of the temporal lobe of the brain that causes “vivid hallucinations that are often associated with powerful odours [which Strieber reports during some of his UFOnaut encounters] …. People with [TLE] tend to be verbal and philosophical and to lack a sense of humour.” If Klass is correct, Strieber believes his own lies. But while Betty and Barney Hill (who let five years lapse between their “abduction” and as-told-to publication) may have been sincerely deluded, Strieber has too visibly and systematically worked to cover his own tracks for such a charitable interpretation to be accepted.
Ever resourceful, Strieber has resorted to another SF trope to explain his penchant for telling lies. His aliens, when they are not probing his nether orifices, have been implanting false memories. In an interview with Paul Gagne, Strieber described how he’d almost been a victim of the multiple murderer Charles Whitman, when he opened fire from a tower on the campus of the University of Texas. In Whitley’s anguished words,
I was right in the middle of it. I ended up hiding under a little retaining wall about 2 1/2′ high with another person. Everyone near us was shot–not all killed, but shot. As I lay under that wall with this other man right there, a woman suddenly began to scream about ten feet away from us. She was terribly injured. She had been shot in the stomach and she was wailing and bellowing, scrabbling along the ground with blood coming out of her. I was going to run to her when this other man jumped up, and the moment he did, Whitman shot the top of his head off. He had, of course, shot the woman in the stomach for the purpose of getting us to come out from where we were hiding. He was just waiting there with this gun. I didn’t move. That has haunted me all my life.
Yet in Communion Whitley declares that “for years I have told of being present when Charles Whitman went on his shooting spree from the tower in 1966. But I wasn’t there.”
Those who’ve seen Arnold Schwarzenegger in Total Recall (1990) will be familiar with the notion of implanted memories. Although Whitley’s book antedates that movie, the Philip Dick story on which it was based, “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale,” appeared in 1966, and his classic novel Time Out of Joint (1959) deploys essentially the same idea. And what a convenience that idea is for any UFO abductee who might find himself mired in provable untruths. This, even more than his equation of abduction with the frissons of sadomasochism, has been Strieber’s greatest legacy to the traditions of UFOlogy: nothing one has said or written can be used in evidence against one’s obviously heartfelt testimony, for the past is infinitely elastic.
In our present, imperfectly postmodern world, where most information still takes the potentially embarrassing form of printed matter lurking in archives, liars still must position themselves so that the historical record may not easily gainsay them. In that regard, UFOs have the advantage of goblins and ghosts, entities known to be capricious, elusive, unverifiable in their very nature, whose existence is strictly a function of our willingness to credit the testimony of those who choose to tell such tales.
There are two regions that liars head for by preference: periods of convenient isolation and the remote past. Strieber was abducted from the bedroom of a rustic cabin in the Catskills, and other abductees have usually been similarly circumstanced. Another, grander kind of liar rewrites history on a cosmic scale, telling lies not about himself but about the entire planet from literally the day of creation. The great-granddaddy of such liars was Ignatius Donnelly (1831-1901), a man whose once-flourishing fame has withered to the size of a few footnotes in out-of-the-way scholarly texts. Donnelly wrote three SF novels, one of which, Caesar’s Column (1889), was a best-seller in its day (and will be considered in Chapter 9, as a prototype of the Star Wars techno-thriller), but his true talent, his genius, was for hoaxing. He imposed on the credulity of the public on three separate occasions, and all three inventions, in mutated form, are still in circulation.
His first and most imitated fabrication was a work of pseudo-archaeology, Atlantis: The Antediluvian World (1882), in which he argued “that the description of this island given by Plato is not, as has been long supposed, fable, but veritable history,” that it was “the region where man first rose from a state of barbarism to civilization, … from whose overflowings the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, the Mississippi River, the Amazon, the Pacific coast of South America, the Mediterranean, the west coast of Europe and Africa, the Baltic, the Black Sea, and the Caspian were populated by civilized nations.” In short, all recorded history is in error, except for Plato and the the Book of Genesis. (Even in 1882, Donnelly knew that the best way to pitch a flaky theory is to connect it with a tenet of fundamentalist faith. If you can believe in Noah’s ark, why not Atlantis?)
Already in the nineteenth century, for a hoax to succeed, there had to be some semblance of “science” in the mix, and Donnelly cited evidence from the then infant science of archaeology: “Among the Romans, the Chinese, the Abyssinians, and the Indians of Canada the singular custom prevails of lifting the bride over the door-step of her husband’s home.” How to account for this? The only explanation must be these cultures’ common source in the customs of Atlantis. For linguistic evidence there’s this: “How can we, without Atlantis, explain the presence of the Basques in Europe, who have no lingual affinities with any other race on the continent of Europe, but whose language is similar to the languages of America?” The book is one great piñata of such specious correspondences between the alphabets, mythologies, folkways, and architectural artefacts of all civilizations. Whatever had glintingly caught Donnelly’s magpie attention became another proof of our Atlantean origins.
From Donnelly’s Atlantis has sprung a vast progeny of SF-flavoured pseudohistories, the most popular of which has been Erich von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods? (1968). Von Daniken would have it that
dim, as yet undefinable ages ago an unknown spaceship discovered our planet. The crew of the spaceship soon found out that the earth had all the prerequisites for intelligent life to develop …. The spacemen artificially fertilized some female members of this species, put them into a deep sleep, so ancient legends say, and departed. Thousands of years later the space travellers returned and found scattered specimens of the genus homo sapiens. They repeated their breeding experiment several times until finally they produced a creature intelligent enough to have the rules of society imparted to it. The people of that age were still barbaric. Because there was a danger that they might retrogress and mate with animals again, the space travellers destroyed the unsuccessful specimens or took them with them to settle them on other continents. The first communities and the first skills came into being; rock faces and cave walls were painted, pottery was discovered, and the first attempts at architecture were made.
With this unsavoury amalgam of Darwin, the Old Testament, and the eugenic fantasies of the Third Reich, von Daniken scored a huge publishing success. “Over 4,000,000 copies in print” brags the cover of the thirty-fifth paperback printing from 1978. Although Donnelly lived before the age of UFO mythology and paperbacks, there is nothing in Chariots that cannot be found already fully developed in Atlantis and in Donnelly’s successor hoax, Ragnarok: The Age of Fire and Gravel (1883), which explains how a long-ago comet had almost collided with the Earth, sinking Atlantis and wreaking assorted other havocs. This rather modest astronomical fantasy, which does for Newton what Donnelly had already done for Darwin, prefigures the work of Immanuel Velikovsky (e.g., Worlds in Collision), another redneck archaeologist who also offers the litter of ancient civilizations as proof of his ditzy theory that the solar system is like a game of croquet played by vengeful gods.
No doubt many of the readers of Strieber, von Daniken, and Velikovsky approach their books in the same playful spirit they would bring to an SF story, asking only to be amused. Their books offer larger servings of the campy pleasures available in supermarket tabloids that show photos of Clinton shaking hands with an alien. For such readers, “Far out!” “Weird!” and “What next?” are expressions of appreciation, and belief is not really at issue. Even most of the great mass of those who tell pollsters they believe in UFOs can best be understood to be “entertaining” that belief, partly because aliens are a nifty idea, as long as they never directly impinge on one’s life, and partly because to profess such belief has become a way of giving the finger to know-it-all intellectual snobs.
A certain class of reader values bizarre and paranoid theories precisely because they are bizarre and paranoid. In the late 70s the SF writer Robert Anton Wilson brought out a series of books under the umbrella title of Illuminatus! that aspired to be a Summa of all conspiracy, occult, and UFO theories. Some of the books were offered as fiction, some as nonfiction. For Wilson and his fans, veridity was never an issue. I saw him once, after a book signing in Los Angeles, gravely romancing a would-be true believer, throwing out dark hints, then lapsing into winks and giggles. Did he experience cognitive dissonance? I wondered at the time. Does Oliver Stone when he films egregious distortions of the historical record as though he were recreating actual events? To both questions the answer is: probably not. They must see themselves not as liars, or even romancers, but as poets, in the sense that Sir Philip Sidney intended when he wrote in his “Defence of Poetry” of 1595, “Only the poet… lifted up with the vigour of his own invention, doth grow, in effect, into another nature, in making things either better than nature bringeth forth, or, quite anew, forms such as never were.”
The license that “poets” assume in rewriting ancient history to suit their own fancy and sense of cosmic justice is not always without unhappy consequences in the real world. Witness the effect that such fabulation has had on school and university programs throughout the country, where “African-American Baseline Essays” has been used as a text to teach students that ancient Egyptians (who were black) developed the theory of evolution long before Darwin, understood quantum mechanics, flew gliders, could predict auspicious days by astrology, and could foresee the future by their psychic powers. This information is passed off as science. Martin Bernal, the author of Black Athena (1987), would have us believe that Greek civilization was either borrowed or stolen from Egypt. Other Afrocentrists claim that Aristotle stole his philosophy from books in the Library at Alexandria (a city that did not exist in his lifetime); that Socrates and Cleopatra were black (a fact of which their many detractors made no mention). Commenting on these matters in the New York Review of Books, Jasper Griffin says: “These assertions and the persistence with which they are made in the face of refutation form a fascinating study in morbid collective psychology…. But the implications are worrying. Some academics now say, and others think, that it does not matter whether these assertions are based on evidence or not, or whether they do or do not stand up to dispassionate scrutiny.”
To put it another way, Afrocentric mythologisers have the right to lie. Not only that but to controvert or ridicule their spurious scholarship is an act of racism. Ten years ago it was Tawana Brawley’s self-serving charges of being raped that were at issue; now it is Western civilization tout court. Those who are inclined to shrug must suppose that no one is harmed by such fantasies, which may serve, after all, as a valuable source of self-esteem for black students. Real harm is done by such charlatanry, however. Those bamboozled into believing palpable untruths that are recognized as such by the larger community are likely in time to develop an attitude of truculent resentment and outright paranoia rather than self-esteem. James Wolcott, reviewing a recent tome of UFO lore in the New Yorker, describes his own close encounters with “abductees”:
They bugged me. I came to feel that I was dealing with a quasi-cult of deluded cranks. The abductees I interviewed, far from being people plucked out of the ordinary workday, had browsed the entire New Age boutique of reincarnation, channelling, auras, and healing crystals …. For them the aliens were agents of spiritual growth [but beneath that] was a pinched righteousness; the ones I met tended to be classic pills of passive aggression. Anger and distrust brooded beneath the surface.
Not all the aggression of UFO believers can be counted on to be passive, however. On June 14, 1996, three men on Long Island–one the president of the Long Island UFO Network, and the other two members of the organization–were arrested for plotting to assassinate Suffolk County officials and seize control of county government. What had spurred them to this act was the refusal of those officials to recognize the clear and present danger posed by the UFOs that had set brush fires on Long Island the previous summer.
The potential for such fanaticism is always present when people insist that their self-delusions, dreams, and lies must be taken at face value by the world at large. The world, alas, often refuses. The gentlemen on Long Island certainly made the wrong move in trying to resolve the tension inherent in that situation. Had they been wiser, and a little more patient, they would have done what other gifted liars have done, sometimes with wonderful success: they would have started their own religion.
Or, if they lacked that degree of grandiosity, they could have followed the career path blazed for them by American’s first SF writer and one of our most accomplished liars, Edgar Allan Poe.
(C) 1998 Thomas M. Disch All rights reserved. ISBN: 0-684-82405-1
Thomas Michael Disch (February 2, 1940–July 4, 2008) was an American science fiction author and poet. He won the Hugo Award for Best Related Book – previously called “Best Non-Fiction Book” – in 1999, and he had two other Hugo nominations and nine Nebula Award nominations to his credit, plus one win of the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, a Rhysling Award, and two Seiun Awards, among others.
In the 1960s, his work began appearing in science-fiction magazines. His critically acclaimed science fiction novels, The Genocides, Camp Concentration, and On Wings of Song are major contributions to the New Wave science fiction movement. In 1996, his book The Castle of Indolence: On Poetry, Poets, and Poetasters was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and in 1999, Disch won the Nonfiction Hugo for The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of, a meditation on the impact of science fiction on our culture, as well as the Michael Braude Award for Light Verse. Among his other nonfiction work, he wrote theatre and opera criticism for The New York Times, The Nation, and other periodicals. He also published several volumes of poetry as Tom Disch.
Following an extended period of depression following the death in 2005 of his life-partner, Charles Naylor, Disch stopped writing almost entirely, except for poetry – although he did produce two novellas. Disch committed suicide by gunshot on July 4 2008 in his apartment in Manhattan, New York City. His last book, The Word of God, which was written shortly before Naylor died, had just been published a few days before Disch’s death.