AE logo

AE logo
AE logo AE logo

John Sladek
Some Book Reviews

Author biography About the author  Links Links

The Forge of God
by Greg Bear
(Gollancz, 1987, 474 pp, £11.95)

Apocalyptic literature labours under the handicap of describing visions, rather than presenting them on a wide screen. Movies are so much better than books at capturing the narcotic dream visions of destruction and damnation. Admit it, wouldn't you rather see Revelations as a badly-produced film, but with high-priced special effects, than read the Book?

The Forge of God is one book that pays attention to the Hollywood elements in the end of the world. Greg Bear quotes movies shamelessly: a cute E.T. with three golden eyes dies, people climb a Close Encounters mountain, a man explores a giant Alien spaceship (while thinking of that movie) and so on. There are (I'm not sure why) several references to Tarzan, and one of the characters lives in Tarzana.

Movies can't do any harm here, and may even help. If help is needed, it's because end-of-the-world stories have a number of built-in problems, including scale and inevitability (more about these later).

The story begins with the disappearance of Europa, one of the more visible moons of Jupiter. Only astronomers really worry about it. Next, E.T. turns up in Death Valley, in a spaceship buried inside an artificial mountain. He immediately begins delivering messages (in English) and to die. Next, a bunch of spherical, levitating robots land in Australia, and begin making wonderful promises of new technology. E.T. explains the problem:

"If you have the ability to leave, you will wish to do so soon. A disease has entered your system of planets. There is little time left for your world." (p.60)

The disease is a kind of virus that feeds on planets: an unstoppable self-replicating thing that travels great distances, destroys planets, and makes younger replicas of itself. The thing is a machine. Evidently it has been sent to wipe out Earth and its inhabitants specifically, to make this part of the universe safe for its builders.

E.T. explains how his own world was destroyed, and how its kind stowed away aboard the machine-ships. It then dies. An autopsy shows E.T. to be an artifact.

The Australian robots tell a completely different story. They maintain that they are here only to deliver the gift of very high technology to humanity. In fact, they deliver little but promises. When questioned about E.T., they become evasive, and finally blow themselves up.

The mechanism arrives, and it is truly unstoppable. Within a few months, Earth will be no more than a blank spot in the solar system. This is where the problems of inevitability and scale come up: it becomes hard to care about the individual ants in an anthill.

The solution is another invasion, this time of metal spiders that puncture the backs of people's necks and thus control them (didn't I see that in Invaders from Mars?). In this case, the spiders are not sinister, they're just in a hurry to rescue a remnant of humanity – biting is quicker than explaining. A few elect are to be harvested, along with samples of human culture. We're told very little about what the spiders are saving – one imagines Coca Cola t-shirts, Readers' Digest condensed books, sad clowns painted on velvet, an Elvis Presley Graceland dishtowel, Nixon memoirs, pain relief commercials, an "offbeat" greeting card, significant clips from Spielberg films, a recipe for tuna-noodle hot dish.

The big rescue, or rapture, solves one exploding-world story problem (inevitability) but not the problem of scale. We're shown all kinds of people behaving and misbehaving, but so what? It doesn't seem to matter whether or not the ants say "We who are about to squish salute thee."

For example, the President takes up Fundamentalist religion and does nothing about the coming catastrophe, which he sees as the judgement of God. It's hard to make this important, however, since (aside from the fact that presidents are always dabbling in Fundamentalism) there really is nothing he or anyone can do.

The book is weak only in the occasional spots where it ignores its film premise and waxes "scientific". There are a great many scientists in the story, who can give the right names to the phenomena they witness (a geologist sees mountains collapsing, an astrophysicist gets to observe the global catastrophe from space, and so on). Sometimes this kind of hardening of the sciences can be overdone:

New slopes of talus crept across the valley floor like an amoeba's pseudopods, alive, churning, settling, striving for stability. (p.455)

Over the Pacific, a silver-white mass grew like mold in a petri dish. (p.461)

The first quote manages to heap geology upon biology, and attributes a desire for stability to the amoeba (who knows what the little crittur really wants?). The second is all but meaningless. One begins to long for a naive point of view, someone just seeing all hell bust loose.

Nevertheless, Earth sweeps smoothly on to its inevitable conclusion, and the story sweeps smoothly on to a surprise ending. The style of the ending is not altogether surprising to moviegoers, but the mechanism is satisfyingly credible.


Hail Ffellowes Well Met

The Peculiar Exploits of Brigadier Ffellowes
by Sterling E. Lanier
(Sidgwick & Jackson, 1977, 159pp, £3.95, ISBN 0283 98372 8)

To say that these stories are written to a formula is not to disparage them. The formula is old and honourable, and amazingly effective still, as Mr Lanier ably demonstrates.

On a rainy evening, a few chaps are talking quietly by the fire in the club library, when a stray word or a trivial incident suddenly reminds X of one of his most uncanny adventures. The adventure takes place in some remote region, and about 20 years or more in the past. As Arthur C. Clarke's introduction explains, the story "should take place in some unusual but vividly described locale ... should be incapable of disproof – despite frequent attempts by its auditors – and ... should cast grave doubts on the commonly accepted view of the universe."

The formula has of course been used by Mr Clarke himself, in Tales from the White Hart, as he says, and earlier by Lord Dunsany, in whose fables X was Mr Jorkens. Chesterton used it still earlier in The Club of Queer Trades and Tales from the Long Bow, and Max Beerbohm had already made fun of it in "A.V. Laider", so the formula was old before our century.

In these television days the formula has been tried at least once ("The Club of the Damned") without success, for what must be obvious reasons: what's so fascinating about a tale is that someone is telling it – there's a chance, just a chance, that it really happened. We may contrast the TV failure with Kingsley Amis's unexpected radio success a year or so ago, when he told the plot of The Green Man as a personal anecdote, and, I believe, had listeners writing in about it.

Sterling Lanier's tales evoke nostalgia for the radio days, I must admit, and his X, Brigadier Donald Ffellowes, has just the right touch of unreality, even in his pretentious name. Ffellowes has apparently been in all branches of Her Majesty's forces, from the RAF to MI5, but none of his stories are military. He's been everywhere on earth and of course speaks Basque, Greek, Swedish, etc., so is properly equipped for adventures. As it happens, every time he goes to an out-of-the way place, he has an encounter with something strange and unpleasant. Has he ever told you why he can't eat crab? Or of a Gaelic fox hunt of a rather peculiar, frightening nature? Then there was that terrible thing in Africa that kept eating cattle and men, but even that wasn't as nasty as the thing in the sea off Scandinavia which seemed to have – well, a kind of telepathic power of reaching into your mind and – but it's better to let Ffellowes tell you about it. He is, after all, a superb storyteller.

Mac the Naif

The Mechanical Bride (Routledge, Kegan Paul, 45s.)
The Gutenberg Galaxy (Routledge. Kegan Paul, 30s.)
Understanding Media (Sphere Books, 10s. 6d.)
The Medium is the Massage (Allen Lane The Penguin Press, 42s.)
The Medium is the Massage (Record, Columbia, CL2701 – U.S.A.)
all by Marshall McLuhan

The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man

In the great yawn that was 1951, it became fashionable to expose advertising as ruthless mind-manipulation aimed at parasitically exploiting the unsuspecting and subliminally harassed consumer, etc. The Hucksters had already made a wealthy splash, The Hidden Persuaders was on the way. Meanwhile there was nothing to do but like Ike and read this collection of articles.

Like the authors of other, similar books, Marshall McLuhan gets shocked at the Freudian content of ads, gets indignant at the stupidity of the public, takes a few swipes at other mass media and calls it a day. Unlike other authors, McLuhan is enough charmed by (respectful of, envious of) the success of advertising to try a few of its techniques himself. He will never outgrow this need to play ad-man, though he is obviously not suited for it.

To each essay is assigned a full-page photo of some ad or cartoon, and a column of his comments in bold-face type. These act like the pages in Life, i.e., you can get through the whole book during your fifteen-minute wait at the barber shop.

On an ad, "A earns $25,000 a year ... but he's heading for failure ... B earns $100 a week ... but he's heading for success" (if he buys insurance), McLuhan's comments are:

"You want to feel secure? Well, nothing recedes like success.
"This way to the American way of life?
"Is the future a 10,000-storey bureaucracy beside a suburban cottage?
"The Yanks are Kremlin?" (p. 38).

Whatever that means. Sometimes his incoherence bubbles up beautifully. He seems choked with rage over an ad showing a clean-looking woman wearing a flowery hat and sipping a glass of coke:

"Lead, kindly coke?
"Love that bottle because of your baby training?
"How about a shot of Abe Lincoln looking starry-eyed at a coke?" (p. 118.)

He even manages to top the tastelessness of a silly ad for water-tight grave vaults ("there's deep consolation...."):

"How dry I am?
"I cried until they told me it was watertight.
"The more the burier, said Digby O'Dell?
"More stiffs are turning to the watertight brands?" (p. 14.)

McLuhan is a reader, though perhaps not really an appreciative reader, of Mad magazine. Bad taste ought to be funny. The total effect of this is like being at the movies with someone who keeps elbowing you in the ribs and repeating punch lines for you.

The articles themselves are only more of the same, with a halitosis of pomposity:

So Hollywood is like the ad agencies in constantly striving to enter and control the unconscious minds of a vast public. not in order to understand or to present these minds, as the serious novelist does. but in order to exploit them for profit. The novelist tries to get inside his characters in order to tell you what is happening on the invisible stage of their minds. The ad agencies and Hollywood, in their different ways, are always trying to get inside the public mind in order to impose their collective dreams on that inner stage. (p. 97.)

Get it?

A large crowd always craves some strong emotion to provide a sense of cohesive meaning and start moving the udershaft of collective dynamism. (p. 122.)

I have italicised the part I don't understand. Here's an even more puzzling example:

Quantum and relativity physics are not a fad. They have provided new facts about the world, new intelligibility, new insights into the universal fabric. Practically speaking, they mean that henceforth this planet is a single city. (p. 3.)

I find myself unable to make the quantum jump from quantum mechanics to the city at all. But what is clear is that here is a seminal McLuhan idea, the global city, which will appear in all his subsequent books. He will later attribute it to electronics, which at this point he has not really discovered.

This book is still wrapped up in mechanics, the car as sex symbol, corsets as machines, and other ideas gone stale, i.e., ready for popularisation. Yet there is already present the tone of his future works:

No longer is it possible for modern man, individually or collectively, to live in any exclusive segment of human experience or achieved social pattern. The modern mind, whether in its subconscious collective dream or in its intellectual citadel of vivid awareness, is a stage upon which is contained and reenacted the entire experience of the human race. There are no more remote and easy perspectives, either artistic or national. Everything is present in the foreground. That fact is stressed in current physics, jazz, newspapers and psychoanalysis. And it is not a question of preference or taste. This flood has already immersed us. (p. 87.)

The unmistakably messianic overtones are there already, as they are in Billy Graham's Peace With God:

"Time is running out. The seconds are ticking away toward midnight. The human race is about to take the fatal plunge." (p. 13.)

There is in each quotation an hysterical urgency, and a Noah-like insistence on the inevitability of what is being said. McLuhan is here impatient with details (nowhere does he elaborate on his notions of jazz, current physics and psychoanalysis in this book) just as he will later become impatient with English prose.

The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man

In 1962, Herbert Marshall McLuhan published this story of printing. It is print, his thesis goes, which created the ways of life and thinking which persisted from the Renaissance to the late 19th century. The idea isn't new, but he has given it new elaborations. Printing, and its counterpart, perspective (for some reason he ignores chiaroscuro), have made medieval oral man into Renaissance-Reformation visual man. His main points are:

1. The phonetic alphabet, by translating sounds into sights, destroyed oral tribal culture and created the Greek civilization.
2. Rome was founded on roads, paper and mounted messengers.
3. Printing contributed to the rise of nationalism, schizophrenia, scientific curiosity (and repeatable experiments), the Industrial Revolution, mass production, the divorce of poetry from music, the divorce of art from science, the divorce of mathematics from writing, the drying up of architecture and sculpture, alienation, coherent and consistent prose ... and it did all this before the telegraph, non-Euclidean geometrics, and non-Newtonian physics changed things once more, ushering in the modern age.

These ideas are merely sketched, not developed, because:

The present book develops a mosaic or field approach to its problems. Such a mosaic image of numerous data and quotations in evidence offers the only practical means of revealing causal operations in history. (Facing p. 1.)

It also enables him to use great chunks of other people's prose (65 per cent, by my reckoning), and break his own book into small enough sections so that each may be built around what is, in fact, someone else's work. The development of each section is thus in a direction skewed to all the rest; the book is truly a "galaxy" of 107 short, hardly-related monographs.

The first, for example, is an analysis of King Lear as a description of "left-wing Machiavellianism". Interesting as a literary essay, it has no place in a social science document. It is up to McLuhan to prove his theses about the 17th century, or to show how they might be proved, not to show us Shakespeare was able to hold and express certain beliefs.

The evidence promised on page zero is streaky, inter-larded with the semantic tangles of social scientists like Siegfried Giedon and the shadowy ambiguities of aestheticians like Gyorgy Kepes:

And yet there was a medieval comfort. But it must be sought in another dimension, for it cannot be measured on the material scale. The satisfaction and delight that were medieval comfort have their source in the configuration of space. Comfort is the atmosphere with which man surrounds himself and in which he lives. Like the medieval Kingdom of God, it is something that eludes the grasp of hands. Medieval comfort is the comfort of space. (S. Giedon, Mechanisation Takes Command, p. 301.)

The image was "purified". But this purification overlooked the fact that the distortion and disintegration of the image as a plastic experience had not been due to represented meaningful signs as such but rather to the prevailing representation-concept which was static and limited, and consequently in contradiction to the dynamic plastic nature of the visual experience. (G. Kepes, The Language of Vision, p. 200.)

Such is not evidence, but scripture, quotable to any purpose.

Understanding Media, the Extensions of Man

Published in 1964, this is meant to carry on the narrative of the last book. You'll recall we left Western man just inventing the telegraph. The point here is to explain how we are shifting from a print to an electronic technology. The alphabet and print "detribalized" us. and now electronics are "retribalizing" us. McLuhan lines up the score-card as follows, if I may condense and clarify:

Audile-tactile world

Tribe, closed
Oral tradition
Roles, related to other members
Sacral texts, preserved by priests
Public life only
Complex mosaic of imagery; no perspective
Science of causes
Associative time sense
Unique manufacture

Visual world

Open society, abstract structure
Written history
Phonetic alphabet
Goals, specialist jobs related to society
Profane books, available to all
Public/private life split; schizophrenia
Visual point of view; perspective
Science of structures
Linear time sense
Mass production

And so on. Electronics is to form the global village, where everyone is in instantaneous contact.

"The Medium is the Message", his most famous slogan, simply means that media have effects greater than may be explained by their contents. It is probably the most important thing McLuhan has ever said, and certainly seems a truth so obvious, now that he has said it, that it seems incredible no one ever thought of it before.

"Hot Media" and "Cool Media" are evidently analogous to hot and cool jazz. People seem to have trouble remembering how he classifies media under these categories, and I suspect it is because the categories are archaic. There is no reason why new media should fit them, any more than there is reason to classify Ornette Coleman as "hot" or "cool".

McLuhan classifies as hot those media like radio and movies, print and photography, which he says require little attention or participation; and cool media include T.V. and the telephone and telegraph, which require more. But not only are the categories confusing, but it is never clear why he makes the split where he does. Is T.V. cool because it has a mosaic image that the eye must complete? Then surely a crystal set with earphones is cooler still. Is the telephone cool because its fidelity is low, or merely because of its use for two-person communication, which would imply more participation than radio listening? Rut what of the two-way radio? What of the television phone? What about a broadcast telephone conversation? For whom are these hot or cool, and why? The details seem never to be filled in by McLuhan, who is busy drawing the bold outlines:

When IBM discovered that it was not in the business of making office equipment or business machines. but that it was in the business of processing information, then it began to navigate with clear vision. (p. 17.)

In paragraphs like this he provides substance, and a reason for the reader to find himself reading this book. Unfortunately much of its (380 pages of) prose is merely compulsive chatter:

In the chapter on the wheel it will be shown that transport without wheels had played a big role before the wheel, some of which was by sledge, over both snow and bogs. Much of it was by pack animal – woman being the first pack animal. Most wheel-less transport in the past, however, was by river, and by sea, a fact that is today as richly expressed as ever in the location and form of the great cities of the world. Some writers have maintained that man's oldest beast of burden was woman.... (p. 103.)

This isn't even information.

The Medium is the Massage (Book version, 1967)

This is hardly worth reviewing. It is merely a condensation of Understanding Media, rife with the kinds of puns and slogans with which McLuhan replaces logic and metaphor:

"Art is anything you can get away with." (pp. 132-136.)

As you may suspect, the layout of this book, with big Bauhaus headlines, typography games. interest-catching photos (porous closeup of a foot, multiplied noses, etc.). is the real point of the book. Quentin Fiore has become an extension of Marshall McLuhan for the purpose. The result is of slightly less interest than an old copy of Horizon. But it reads quick.

"When faced with a totally new situation, we tend always to attach ourselves to the objects, to the flavour of the most recent past." (p. 74.)
"We look at the present through a rear-view mirror." (p. 75.)
"In the name of 'progress', our official culture is striving to force the new media to do the work of the old." (p. 81.)
"Our official culture is striving to force the new media to do the work of the old." (p. 94.)

Get it? Get it?

The Medium is the Massage (Record version, 1967)

This should be reviewed on tape, except that it isn't worth it. Just imagine the worst of Spike Jones; Ken Nordine's Word Jazz; the Sounds of Sebring; Victory at Sea; and throw in an old radio quiz programme. This extension somehow just has that 1950 sound.

* * *

There will be no pretense at summing all this up here. He's long- winded, unable to resist corny jokes. and certainly to paraphrase a current popular song, thinkin' ain't for him. His self-esteem is already at this level:

I am in the position of Louis Pasteur telling doctors that their greatest enemy was quite invisible.... (Understanding Media, p. 26.)

-- and does not seem to be dropping. But in spite of all this, there are one or two ideas Marshall McLuhan has earmarked which are good ideas.

And that's the hell of it.

A-Plus for Pohl

Man Plus
by Frederik Pohl
(Random House, 1976, 215pp, $7.95, ISBN 0394 48676 5; Gollancz, 1976, 215pp, £3.75, ISBN 0575 02206 X)

We might expect a Frederik Pohl novel to be solid, competent, thoroughly readable sf, well-plotted and brilliantly dramatized. Man Plus is all of these, and it is also horrifyingly believable, a dark mirror held up to today's world.

The plot sounds simple: Earth supports a population of eight billion. It also supports more wars, famines, plagues, riots, pollution and general misery than we ever thought possible – but according to delphic computer predictions, the human species is about to reach a critical point. The three big powers have for some time been exploring the solar system, but finding all its other planets uninhabitable. Now NASA elects to colonize Mars, despite high radiation, barren soil, unbearable temperatures and a lack of air and water. The easiest way around these problems is to create a new race of men independent of them. NASA builds a cyborg, Man Plus.

In former days, cyborg stories had a way of concentrating on all the gee-whiz results of linking up a human brain with powerful mechanical muscles, ultraviolet eyes, etc. (see Six Trillion Dollar Man, Woman, Dog and no doubt dozens of future spin offs). How the cyborg is made was usually glossed over in a paragraph.

In this novel making the monster occupies the centre of the stage. Astronaut Roger Torraway begins as a good-looking, intelligent, popular young man with a more or less happy marriage, more money than he needs, and of course a fascinating job. The adaptation to Man Plus requires the removal of his lungs and limbs, the draining of his blood, the flaying of his skin, blinding, deafening and even castration. He suffers every kind of pain and trauma, every physical indignity to become this:

He did not look human at all. His eyes were glowing, red-faceted globes. His nostrils flared in flesh folds, like the snout of a star-nosed mole. His skin was artificial; its color was normal heavy sun tan, but its texture was that of a rhinoceros's hide. Nothing that could be seen about him was of the appearance he had been born with.

Add huge bat-ears (to pick up sound in the thin Martian atmosphere) and giant bat wings (really solar panels, to power his auxiliary equipment) and the visual change is virtually complete. Inside are no lungs, no heart, no stomach or colon – everything has been by-passed or replaced or eliminated, including the sensory parts of his brain. The author is relentless in working through every pain-wracked step, showing Torraway coping with the loss of his looks, his manhood, his sense of reality and finally perhaps his earthly nature. In a way, his humiliation is a kind of triumph.

But what about the surgical engineers who make Man Plus? What about the military and political people urging the project on? Aren't they becoming monsters, too, examples of Man Minus? Pohl is not the kind of author to overlook that possibility, and indeed uses it as a second, underlying theme. The coldness of the Man Plus Project is the coldness of official paranoia, and it shows up at the very beginning of the novel. Torraway, still human, is to meet the President. First, he is frisked:

They were being unusually thorough. His armpits were investigated. His belt was loosened and the cleft of his buttocks probed. His testicles were palpated. Everything in his pockets came out; the handkerchief at his breast was shaken open and swiftly refolded, neater than before. His belt buckle and watchband were studied through a loupe.

Later, of course, he will be stripped even of his testicles and buttocks for NASA and the President. But the novel does not allow NASA or the President to remain faceless monsters – like Man Plus, they are frail and human when stripped of their official faces. They are, after all, moved by impersonal forces such as popularity polls, political forecasts, projections of the world's energy resources, forces beyond which there is no appeal – or is there? The stripping-away of false faces goes on throughout the novel, up to its eerie and unsettling last line. Man Plus is probably Frederik Pohl's best novel so far, and surely one of the most exciting, brilliantly conceived and capably-written sf novels of the past decade.

Fossil Astronauts

Chariots of the Gods? and Return to the Stars
by Erich von Däniken

The distant past has always provided forgers with a decent income. During the Renaissance, there sprang up an army of men skilled at mutilating statues to meet the sudden demand for Roman antiquities. Our own age has its labour force of pseudo-archaeologists – men like Robert Charroux, John Michell, Peter Kolosimo and Erich von Däniken – ready to deliver the armless and headless theories we seem to need.

Evidently our need is great. Von Däniken's two books, Chariots of the Gods? and Return to the Stars, have sold a million copies in as many minutes (a statistic that might have interested Phineas Barnum). Any archaeologist who can manage this, especially a man without formal training in archaeology, must have something timely and sensational to offer.

He offers us a fossil astronaut. That is, the hypothesis that men from space landed on our planet in the dim, dumb past, condescended to be worshipped as gods by the natives, and then blasted off to further adventures. The exact time and place of this invasion are left open, which allows von Däniken to cull evidence from every culture (Japan to Egypt to Mexico) and every age (Late Tertiary to Jonathan Swift).

Occult sources provide some of his evidence, as shown by the index of Chariots. Here are the hardy perennials: Edgar Cayce, Ezekiel, Easter Island, Madame Blavatsky, Mu, pyramids and Rosicrucians. Certain omissions (Atlantis, Cabbala, Teilhard de Chardin) are made good in his second book. Hardly a hopeful sign in an author who speaks of "uncontrovertible facts" and a longing to "examine evidence with the greatest scientific care."

The examination goes like this: Beginning with doubtful or spurious data, he moves along the preferred path of all high priests of hokum, whereby the barely possible becomes the absolutely certain. Do cave drawings show men with clubbed limbs, large heads or antlers? These are nothing but space suits, bubble helmets and antennae! As for a Mayan carving:

Could primitive imagination have produced anything so remarkably similar to a modern astronaut in his rocket? Those strange markings at the foot of the drawing can only be an indication of the flames and gases coming from the propulsion unit.

My italics indicate the flames and gases coming from von Däniken's logic unit. The carving in question shows a man reclining against a heap of Mayan ornament. The remarkable similarities seem to be:

1. The ornament looks like machinery. But then most Mayan pictures look like machinery (with rivets) to most of us.
2. The reclining figure. Astronauts do recline, but then so do corpses. The carving is taken from a coffin lid.

There are other anomalies not explained by von Däniken. The "pilot" is outside the spacecraft (which is just as well, because the flames and gases seem to be inside). Some of the machinery seems to be suspended in midair (free-fall?), and some of it is suspended from the tail-feathers of a large condor (the co-pilot?).

Von Däniken performs this kind of naive analysis on hundreds of other items, too tedious to list. Let's move at once to some of the silliest examples.

In Return to the Stars he shows a wooden plaque from Australia, marked with twelve circles. Is it, he asks "a drawing of a planetary system?" Sure, why not? Especially if a pair of feathered wings in an Assyrian picture can be a "flying machine", and polka dots in the background of a Peruvian painting can be "strange flying objects". The threshold for acceptable evidence is low here, but it gets even lower. Von Däniken displays the photograph of a hole in the ground, with this intriguing caption:

Close-up of a hole. Diameter 23 ins., depth 5 ft. 7 ins.

Again, this is in Return to the Stars, whose subtitle is "Evidence for the Impossible".

The overripe mystique of pyramidology provides von Däniken with a heap of impossibilities. For a century the pyramidologists have been puzzling over "unsolved riddles" of the Great Pyramid: How could the Egyptians have quarried millions of tons of stone, moved it several miles to a building site, cut it to fit neatly together, and oriented the whole so that it faces the four true directions? Earlier pyramidologists have imagined that it was all the work of Noah, under the direction of God; or used the Pyramid's dimensions to deduce that the British are the Lost Tribes of Israel. Edgar Cayce figured that the stones were moved by writing magic formulae on pieces of papyrus, placing the stones on these, and flying them to the building site by levitation.

Hard-headed von Däniken prefers a "scientific" explanation: The stones were quarried with lasers, and transported by helicopters. Nor was the Pyramid, as others assert, a time machine, a secret Rosicrucian temple, or a repository for the Philosophers' Stone. Von Däniken recognizes it at once as a cryogenic chamber, used to freeze astronauts for stellar travel. Thus at one blow he smashes my belief that the Pyramid was a kennel for sun-dogs, and all other occult theories, he answers all the questions that no one but occultists have been asking for years, and he refutes all the wild scientific theories, such as the notion that the Egyptians built the Pyramid. [1]

From his privileged perspective, [2] von Däniken can easily see that all past cultures are, basically, moronic.

Where did the narrators of The Thousand and One Nights get their staggering wealth of ideas? How did anyone come to describe a lamp from which a magician spoke when the owner wished?

The idea here is that Aladdin's lamp was a radio. Notice that, to promote it, von Däniken must first debase the original story (a genii with mountain moving powers becomes a voice) and then ask how it got so interesting. Repeatedly, he mutilates the poetry of myth to make it resemble the prose of gadgetry. Sindibad's Roc "can only be" a helicopter, and Ali Baba's magic Sesame "can only be" a supermarket door. [3]

Well, where did the Arab writers get their ideas? Von Däniken dismisses one obvious source, just as he speaks of the Mayans' "primitive imagination". The Egyptians didn't build the Pyramid, and the Hebrews didn't make up the Bible. He seems to have nothing but contempt for the ancients. None of these dolts ever dreamed up anything interesting – they merely kept chronicles of real events, leaving all the creative work to modern European hack journalists.

To summarize, the space visitor theory, as von Däniken puts it, has serious flaws. First, it accepts evidence from spurious sources, such as pyramidology and the Book of Dzyan. [4] Second, it accepts virtually anything as evidence – even a hole in the ground. Third, any facts which enhance this theory are called "proofs" (e.g. that there is probably life in the universe), while facts which diminish it are ignored (e.g. that the universe is very, very large). Finally, it is smugly ethnocentric, assuming that modern Western technology is a key to all previous cultures, that the ancients had defective imaginations, and that the vastly superior "space gods" were exactly like us.

Few of these flaws are shared by any scientific hypothesis. But all of them are the earmarks of an occult doctrine, and of the easiest type of space fiction. The theory could be true, but only in the special sense that the earth could be flat.


1. All of the questions raised by all of the pyramidologists so far have been answered again and again. The best answers may be found in Richard A. Proctor, Myths and Marvels of Astronomy (London: Longmans Green, 1896); Martin Gardner, Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science (New York: Dover Publications, 1956); and I.E.S. Edwards, The Pyramids of Egypt (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1961).

2. "Privileged perspective". I refer of course to von Däniken's being a modern man, and not to the place where he wrote his second book (a Swiss jail).

3. A dull idea even when Poe tried it, in "The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade" (Sindibad is amazed by the electrical telegraph, the railway, and other modern wonders).

4. The Book of Dzyan is usually claimed to be an ancient text of wisdom revealed to Madame Blavatsky. It is, however, cribbed from N.H. Wilson's translation of the ancient Indian Vishnu Purana and similar documents. Von Däniken spends half a chapter finding "proofs" in it. For an account of Dzyan, see L. Sprague de Camp and Catherine de Camp, Citadels of Mystery (London: Fontana, 1972).

"Mac the Naif" first published in New Worlds 178, December 1967. "Fossil Astronauts" first published in Foundation: The Review of Science Fiction 4, July 1973. Man Plus and The Peculiar Exploits of Brigadier Ffellowes reviews first published in Foundation: The Review of Science Fiction 13, May 1978. The Forge of God review first published in Foundation: The Review of Science Fiction 42, Spring 1988. Text copyright © The Estate of John Sladek, 1967, 1973, 1978, 1988.

Author biography About the author  Links Links