In his previous book, Forgotten Science: Strange Ideas from the Scrapheap of History, the author took a look as some of the bizarre ideas that had been put forward to explain how the world works. He pointed out that many of those ideas, strange as they seem to us now, were not so ridiculous when examined in the light of scientific knowledge at the time when they were put forward, and mostly were only subsequently seen to be misplaced as our understanding evolved.
That is not really the case with the characters and ideas we are introduced to in this volume, as in nearly all cases they were promulgating ideas which are directly contradicting the accepted scientific consensus of their era. Now there are times and places when we should be taking a critical look at the 'accepted scientific consensus', but for the moment I'll let that lie, and accept that ideas such as the world being a globe, the sun being hot and the stars being quite a long way off are pretty well as settled as any scientific idea can be. But not to the people we meet here.
Perhaps the flat-earthers are the easiest to deal with, and quite a lot has been written about them. If fact I see that there is something of a flat-earth revival going on, based in Orange County, California. Well where else? The membership of this movement seems to consist of the same sorts of conspiracy theorists who believe the moon landing was faked, ranging from rappers and reality TV 'stars' to fundamentalist Bible-belters. What they share is a belief that the 'establishment' is in some way the enemy – whether this is seen from the political Right or Left doesn't seem to matter too much.
A British Flat Earth Society was around until the 1980s. In its later years it was run by a Labour member of the former Greater London Council, who saw it as a way of questioning established ideas generally. Its present web incarnation also seems to be a rather tongue-in-cheek archive and discussion forum, but I may be seeing irony where there is none.
A theme repeated throughout this book, is how so many of the unconventional ideas about how the universe is constructed seem to have a political doctrine buried somewhere in them, often not very deeply.
Ufology became politicised very early on, and Tucker examines the Cold-War propaganda and scaremongering from both sides that accompanied the UFO waves of the 1950s and the launching of the Soviets' first sputnik. He looks in some detail at the para-political messages that were contained in the contactee accounts of the 'fifties and 'sixties, with their descriptions of utopian, egalitarian societies on other planets, where all men (or perhaps more accurately 'beings') are equal, untroubled by such things as money and evil capitalism. It was hardly surprising that government intelligence agencies began to take an interest in such people.
Where I think he misses a point is that he sees these specifically in terms of leftist, 'communist' concepts rather than a sort of pan-political authoritarianism. It is difficult to imagine characters such as George Adamski, Daniel Fry or George van Tassel coming up with any coherent critique of the failures of late capitalism, but actually some of the early contactees seem to have had rather closer links to the political Right, than to the Left. A figure found in the background of a number of them is William Dudley Pelley, who was the founder of the pre-WWII American fascist organisation The Silver Shirts, but after being charged with high treason and sedition he was barred from all political activities.
In 1950 Pelley set up an occult group called 'Soulcraft'. Helping him with this project was George Hunt Williamson (née Michael d'Obrenovic), himself a contactee, and one of the people who allegedly witnessed George Adamski's first contact with the space brothers in the Mojave desert.
The sorts of societies which these contactees claimed were established on the planets they visited, whilst apparently very egalitarian and rejecting capitalism and the monetary system, also often displayed very centralised control mechanism, usually with a separate caste of 'elders' or 'wise ones' to keep the plebs in check and determine what exactly everybody's 'abilities' and 'needs' might be. This is a characteristic of planned societies from opposite ends of the political spectrum (or possibly from the bit where they meet round the back). There is still a great deal of work to be done on the political influences behind the contactee and early saucer movement, which in my view came largely from the Right.
This is not to say that leftist thinkers did not attempt to exploit the development of the UFO and contactee phenomenon, and Tucker shows how the Soviet government actively cultivated the idea that any extra-terrestrials we might meet would be good Marxists. Marxism, they claimed, was a scientific theory and all societies would eventually develop to a state of pure communism (unlike the impure communisms which seem to be the only kind we can manage on earth) so any society on another planet which had developed to the scientific and social level where it can launch faster-than-light ships into the cosmos must, by definition, be communist.
Much the same argument was used by some writers a generation or two earlier who claimed that the vast network of canals on Mars, built to bring life to a dying planet, must also have been the result of a vast collectivist, communist enterprise. Too bad about that idea.
One of the barmiest characters that we are introduced to here is the French philosopher Charles Fourier, father of a political movement later described as ‘Utopian Socialism’ (as if there is any other kind) and was spoken well of by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Some of his ideas on land and agrarian reform seemed fairly reasonable, but before too long he got onto the usual Utopian tropes of building barrack-blocks of sexually segregated dormitories whose precisely 1,620 inhabitants would have their work allocated to them according to the 810 personality types which Fourier had identified in humankind.
It might not have turned out quite as grim as it sounds, as apparently warfare would be replaced by competing pastry-chefs in some sort of Great Planetary Bake Off; presumably Mary Berry would become Supreme Commander. But these ideas seem almost practical when compared to his view of the cosmos.
Planets, he claimed, were sexual beings, each with a male North Pole and a female South Pole. Rather than magnetic fields emanating from these locations, the produced a sort of sexual fluid – he called it aroma – which not only inseminated the planet to produce the life-forms that dwelt on it, but could cross-breed with other planets, so a plant or animal on earth could be created by ‘aroma’ from Jupiter or the Sun. Apparently this cosmic gang-bang had resulted in some rather unpleasant life-forms developing on Earth – i.e, us – so at the moment we were outside this heavenly Playboy Mansion, but as soon as we sorted ourselves out, the earth would be welcomed back and the oceans would turn to lemonade. Unsurprisingly this part of his philosophy seems to have been skated over by Marx and Engels, but embraced enthusiastically later by the Surrealists.
Much of the book is taken up with accounts of attempts to communicate with other planets by means varying from laying out giant sheets across the Sahara Desert spelling out messages to observant Martians, to the numerous attempts, some claiming to be successful – using psychic powers of telepathy or teleportation. One of these was a former Town Clerk of Shoreditch who conducted a long-range radio romance with a charming Martian called Oomaruru, who despite a pair of Garry Lineker-sized ears, “was really very sweet”.
The book is sub-titled ‘our strange attempts to explain the universe’, but the more you read of such attempts it becomes clear that most of what is described are really attempts by the theorists to explain their own position in the world. Tucker describes the life of the Soviet astrophysicist Nikolai Kosyrev who after a successful scientific career fell foul of Stalin and was incarcerated in the Gulag for a decade. Perhaps influenced by the Siberian shamans who were some of his fellow-prisoners, he began to feel that the whole cosmos was in telepathic contact with him. He survived the dreadful conditions of the prison camp survived and lived until 1983. He had built up a following, which established an institute of 'cosmic anthropoecology'. By shielding oneself from the earth's magnetic field in a sort of Faraday cage they called a 'Kosyrev Mirror' it was possible to create hallucinations which they believed were actually the cosmic communications that Kosyrev had claimed to discover.
The individuals and ideas that are described in the book are ultimately, Tucker claims, largely mirrors of each other, the dreamer seeing their own visions of their place in the universe reflected back to them, whether as a giant, macrocosmic re-organisation of society on communist or fascist lines, or just a love-affair with a rather nice big-eared young lady from Mars. It is a timely warning that most scientific theories, even the sensible ones, are always viewed through a personal or political lens.
Throughout the vast range of outlandish ideas about the universe that are touched upon in this fascinating book, ironically the only one that seemed to be based upon what superficially is an actual physical observation, is that the earth is flat! – John Rimmer