17 June 2019


Satellite in Space by Professor A.M. Low. London: Brown Watson Ltd, 1956.

I found this piece of fascinating British SF in a secondhand bookshop in Cheltenham. A.M. Low was, as the book's blurb said, a former president of the British Interplanetary Society and the author of many scientific papers. 

Science Fiction, it has been said, is as much about the time in which it's written as about the future, and this book is fascinating for what it says not just about how the British in the 1950s viewed the future, but also about the fears and hopes haunting their time.

The book narrates the tale of the construction of the world's first space station by an elite team from the British aerospace company, Metro-Combine. Led by Richard Tyrrell, the head of aeroframe design, the crew includes Peter Hoy, a proud Scots engineer, Philip Van Roseweare, a Canadian, Nick Kenny, from Down Under and 'Mickey' Michaelovsky, a heroic Polish flight lieutenant, formerly of the RAF. 

They are trained in how to move in space by the firm's doctor, Dr. Archane, and the project is overseen and supported by the company's paternalistic managing director, Garfield Orchard, and the company chief, Lord Camborne. They are joined by Susan, Orchard's daughter, who begins a romance with and finally marries Tyrrell. Susan is also a doctor, and flies to the station to assist the men with two nurses, one of whom, Molly, also becomes romantically involved with Kenny.

Against them are the Americans, Germans, Russians and a group of mysterious space aliens from a long destroyed world. These have mastered the art of invisibility, and creep into the British space station and its German rival to steal their oxygen, poison them with radiation sickness and send them mad with power. Under their influence one of the British, Clinton, goes berserk and threatens the world with annihilation as he now believes he is the emperor of space. At first they believe his madness and the radiation sickness afflicting the crew and their German rivals are just the effects of the immense stresses of space, before Tyrrell sees and, with the help of his fellow crewmen, captures the aliens responsible.

The book is set sometime around the year 2000. The promise of the space age has not materialised. Although satellites have been launched into space, beginning with the Americans in 1957 and followed by the British, French, Germans and Russians, with predictions that man would land on the Moon by the year in which the book is set, this hasn't happened. Valuable scientific information was recovered, but the promised space stations were never built. Spaceflight has followed flying saucers off the front pages of the newspapers and finally ended up back in the pages of the comics.

But this changes when Tyrrell, talking in the design office library, states he believes that the company should build such a station, and speculates that they already have such plans in their safe. Orchard then reveals that he has accidentally stumbled on the truth, and now that the story has been announced to the world over the papers after it's been leaked to the press, they now have to move ahead and actually build it before another foreign power does. 

And so Metro-Combine builds a massive rocket base at Hartwell in Devon, so they can launch the rockets over the Atlantic. These spacecraft are immense. They're 300 ft long 3 stage rockets. The last stage, carrying the crew, is 80 ft in length, and possesses wings so that they can fly back to Earth. Unlike modern rockets, which are powered by chemical propellants like liquid oxygen and hydrogen, these are atomic. And instead of being launched vertically, they are launched from silos and ramps angled at 40 degrees.

International rivalry to build the first space station is intense. As the British proceed they face bitter opposition. The Americans, humiliated at not being the first to construct it, demand an equal partnership in the project with Britain. The Germans send up a rival space station from a secret base in Namibia, then Southwest Africa, crewed by White, ethnic Germans and Black Africans. This is smaller, and so achieves a higher orbit. Despite more than fifty years having passed since the end of the Second World, the Germans still behave like Nazis. They are arrogant and domineering. 

Rath, their leader, styles himself Spacefuehrer. They abuse the Blacks under their command, who have been forced to serve aboard their station. Suffering from radiation sickness, Rath demands that the British come aboard his station to bring medicine. There they are attacked as Rath and the Germans believe that it is they who are stealing their oxygen, and the Brits are forced to shoot their way out and back to the British spacecraft.

But the British themselves are also beginning to suffer from radiation sickness, and must send some of their own people back to Earth for treatment. And their oxygen is also being pilfered. The thieves are finally revealed to be a group of space aliens. These have lived in space since their home planet was destroyed, creating the asteroid belt. They communicate through a kind of buzzing, broadcast by radio, which Hoy decodes using a mechanical translator he devises. These aliens are sent down to Earth for further interrogation. 

However, the managing director's other daughter, Marian, firmly opposes space exploration. She becomes a member of the 'Stop the Space Maniacs' League, and escapes with three of the space aliens to the 'Red East', marrying one of the extraterrestrials. Angered by Britain's construction of the station, the Russians reoccupy the abandoned German station and use it to launch an all out attack on the British station under cover of the aliens' invisibility technology. They are on the point of winning when Tyrrell and his surviving crew lead a final attack on the Russian station. The British are victorious, but because the Russians have destroyed their radio equipment, the world believes that Russia has won. And the world is on the point of war.

Peace, however, is secured. Tyrrell and his crew, having returned to Earth, and now forced to go once again into the deep black. To do so, they have first to avoid an attempt to bomb the base from helicopters by Marian and her collaborators. They manage to outwit her, return to their station, where they restore the giant solar dish they were building to provide power for it. This is used as a weapon, a giant heat ray, whose power they demonstrate to the world by destroying Mt. Everest as a warning against further moves to war.

But this is not the last danger Tyrrell and his crew have to face. The world is now threatened by a giant asteroid of the type which destroyed the aliens' home planet. The aliens thus leave, abandoning the Earth to its fate. But all is saved by Tyrrell and his team, who fill the disintegrating German station with strontium bombs. They pilot the station to the asteroid, abandoning it just before it hits. The asteroid is blown to piece, Earth is saved, and Tyrrell rejoins Susan. Together the couple look forward to a new age, when they have their home down on Earth, 'But all all around – this space, these planets, the stars themselves – are they our heritage, tomorrow's treasure? I think so.'

The book clearly reflects the tensions, strains and hopes of the post-War world in which it was written. The international composition of Tyrrell's crew, Scots, Australian, Canadian and Polish, reflects the close connection that still existed between the the peoples of the British Empire, strengthened during the War, as it was then transforming into the Commonwealth, and the great assistance we'd received from the Free Poles during the Battle of Britain. 

At the time, Britain, Australia and America were jointly conducting rocket research from Woomera under Project Gaslight, sending sounding rockets into space and monitoring their re-entry. Woomera's contribution to space research is briefly mentioned in the book, when Orchard tells Tyrrell and his colleagues that some of the company's research has been done there. It was expected that Britain would be a space power, and we continued developing a series of rocket launchers based on the Blue Steel nuclear missile, Black Knight and finally Black Arrow. The latter spacecraft launched Britain's Prospero satellite in the first and to date only launch of a satellite by a British space launcher in 1975 before the project was finally cancelled. 

And it was a staple of the Science Fiction of the time that the engineer would be a Scotsman. Scotland is famous for its proud history of engineering excellence since the 19th century, and this found its way into the SF of the time. The late Bob Monkhouse in an interview in Focus magazine back in the 1990s, said that when he was writing comics early in his career, he had an idea for an Science Fiction strip. This would feature a British spaceship called 'Enterprise', whose captain would be a Scotsman called Kirk. Not surprisingly, the headline for the article was how the great comedian nearly invented Star Trek. 

And, of course, the depiction of the Germans and Russians as the enemies represents lingering suspicion on the one hand from the Second World War and the tensions of the new Cold War on the other. This wasn't just confined to Low's book. In Ian Fleming's Bond novel, Moonraker, the villain, Drax, is a former Nazi, who has taken on the identity of a British aristocrat in order to sabotage the British space programme. Instead of entering space, the Moonraker rocket will instead be used as a nuclear missile to destroy London. Of course, the superspy wins by altering its course so that it destroys Drax and his henchmen as they are fleeing across the North Sea in their ship.

The use of atomic power for the rockets also reflects the scientific expectations of the age. This was to be a new era of cheap and immensely powerful energy. There were visions of mighty ships crossing the oceans powered by only a few kilos of uranium. For a long time it was also believed that they would power space vehicles. A nuclear rocket would allow Mars to be reached in three months or so, rather than the better part of a year. And there are still hopes that such ships may be possible. However, the environmental damage created by its use would probably prevent launches direct from Earth. While many satellites use nuclear reactors as a source of power, since the 1960s or so it's been illegal to explode nuclear weapons in space or in the upper atmosphere. 

The international treaties outlawing them are obviously intended to preserve the peace, but they also have the effect of preventing the use of nuclear propulsion for space travel in such vehicles as the Orion spacecraft. This would have been propelled by hydrogen bomblets thrown out of its rear, the explosion of which would have generated thrust against a 'pusher plate' at the rear of the ship thus forcing it forward. The astronauts in the book also possess atomic rifles, but here the use of atomic energy is a bit more confused, as they seem to fire normal bullets, including tracers, like conventional firearms. There also seems to be little understanding of how dangerous radiation poisoning is. The sick crewmen poisoned by the aliens' radiation guns are back, fit and active, after only a few weeks' treatment.

There's little in the way of overt politics in the book, but it's clear that Marian Orchard and her 'Stop the Space Maniacs' League are based on CND and the anti-nuclear protesters of the time. And just like now, they are presented as willing collaborators with the Soviets. The company is presented as benign and paternalistic. Orchard holds informal evenings with his staff, and promises everyone working on the project that their wives and families will be looked after, no matter what may happen to them. It also has a mixed attitude to the unions. Although one of the characters initially believes that one of the delays affecting the project may be a strike, a trade union foreman is a vital part of the team going into space. As a trade unionist, he works according to regular hours, and so Tyrrell is partly alerted to the psychological strain space is putting on them when the union man begins to work longer and more irregular hours than usual. 

The book also shows the affects of the events on domestic politics. The government, headed by Lord Charles, keenly supports the project, but loses an election. However, the succeeding government falls when hostilities between Britain and the German satellite, occupied by the Russians, breaks out. Lord Charles is restored to power, and government support for our gallant heroes is secure. The identity of the two parties isn't named, but as Charles is a member of the aristocracy, he's probably a Tory. But the inclusion of the trade unionist in the crew, who remarkably isn't lampooned as ready to call a strike at a moment's notice, seems to reflect the influence of the wartime ideology in which we all had to pull together, regardless of class. And it was during those years that the trade unions achieved a strong measure of influence over industrial decisions.

But what will interest Magonian readers the most is the description of the aliens themselves. They are the classic UFO type, with large heads and small, atrophied bodies, aided by cybernetic limbs and medical transplants. They are described as a short sort of men, or apes, about five feet tall, with large heads, 'but not unpleasant – not weird. Rather like Japanese with tanned skins'. They have large chests, and squat, thick legs. They walk on sucker feet, which seems to allow them to move somewhat like snails. They are described as elderly, though their human interrogators do not know whether that means that they are old in human terms, like eighty or a hundred. The creatures are given a closer examination by Susan Orchard when they and their captors return to Earth.

Watching them move, Susan found that their large heads were closely encased in a slightly pliable type of mask or helmet. Their sucker feet rippled them forward. And then she discovered that the attachments she had thought were delicate arms and hands were mechanical devices joining their bodies slightly above the hips. Moved with pity, she leaves a further examination to Professor Archane. This reveals that these creatures lived a queerly artificial life...
 Contact lenses of peculiar shape sharpened to needle point the seeing their inner eyes. They wore a nose attachment that gave them a sense of smell. Yet strangely enough, although they had no teeth- they were extracted at birth, an answer had declared-they wore no artificial teeth. Nor had they hair upon their chests or on their bodies anywhere.
Their eyes and ears were almost rudimentary-from the outward signs. They had to use an aid to hearing. Yet this, so small, so inconspicuous, was almost hypersensitive enough to pick up sounds beyond the human range of hearing. Was this, the questioners asked each other, was this-and not telepathy-the answer to the interruptions at a distance?

Apart from the similarity to Dan Dare's Mekon, this is the type of alien described by the mighty Martin Kottmeyer in his series of articles, 'Varicose Brains' in Magonia back in the '90s. Martin showed that these aliens, dwarfs with large brains and small, puny bodies, were ultimately derived from Victorian ideas of human evolution. This predicted that humans would become increasingly intelligent at the expense of their physical frame and senses, with the result that the brain would expand while the body and its sensory organs shrank as a consequence.

The space men's existence on Earth causes public horror when details are leaked by the press. Lurid articles describe how the aliens extend their lives through transplant surgery. 
Then, in sentences of carefully veiled language, revealing so much, and then a little more as if by accident, the torrent was unleashed. Space men – and women – who suffered the loss of an eye, a leg, an arm, were fitted with a new one on the operating table. Spare living parts were maintained in saline fluid in a semi-frozen condition.
What was more, from those who died a natural death or through accident, internal organs of the body were removed and stored until they could be used again in someone else who lacked this or that perfect part.
The brain was an organ of this type. Lifted from a wasting body, it had been grafted to the young and healthy body of a child. A man's old brain had been set into the skull of a young woman-even into command of an animal body!
The newspaper breaking the news of the aliens' surgical techniques declares that it is 'garnered from some godless fount of infamy' and denounces it as 'so incredible, so fantastic, so horrific, that we would not dare to bring to bring it to your eyes in all its dastardly detail if it were not likely to influence our leading surgeons to practise the same shocking operations on you – and those you love!'

This is the horror of Frankenstein's monster, of creatures made up out of flesh and organs stripped from others. Although transplant surgery has become widely accepted since Christiaan Barnard performed the first heart transplant, it is still a major source of anxiety. And this anxiety finds expression in Science Fiction and the UFO mythology. The aliens in the 1970s Gerry Anderson series, UFO, capture humans in order to use them as a source of organs for such surgery. The Blake 7 episode, 'Power Play', saw Vila, Cally and the villainous Servalan taken to a world, whose technologically sophisticated inhabitants, Hi-Teks, hunt the people of the other, technologically primitive human culture, for use as spare parts. 

Later in the '90s, the crew of the star ship 'Voyager', in the Star Trek series of that name, encounter a similar race in their exploration of the Gamma Quadrant. These are aliens, who have fallen victim to a terrible plague, the Phage, which rots their bodies. Unable to find a cure, they have been reduced to hunting through space preying on other creatures for their body parts, which they use to sustain themselves. And that intense fear and discomfort remains. I know many people, who were deeply disturbed by the report in the press in April 2019 that surgeons had successfully transplanted the brain from one pig into the severed head of another. 

As for the transplantation of human brains into animals in Science Fiction, or rather the reverse, one of the victims was Dog Brain in the 2000 AD strip, 'Bad Company'. This was a future war strip, whose hero, Danny Franks, had been rescued by the Bad Company of the title. These were a rogue unit of human soldiers, who had been captured and brutally experimented on by the alien Krool. Their leader, Major Kano, was a Frankenstein's monster, whose head had been opened and one half of his brain replaced with that of their Krool enemy. Another had had his human arm removed and replaced with one of the alien world's carnivorous plants. And Dog Brain had had his human brain removed completely and replaced with a dog's.

And in the 1980s the classic alien abduction myth appeared, with its tales that aliens were abducting humans for use in strange, surgical experiments. The aliens were keen to interbreed with us, taking men and women in order to procreate children with them. But humans were also being dissected, and the secret bases the aliens had established here on Earth with the willing collaboration of the American government included vats of human body parts. Although not dependent on spare party surgery and of normal, human height, the invading aliens in the 1950s Ray Harryhausen film, Earth Versus the Flying Saucers, are similarly physically wizened, and have to rely on their suits to move around easily.

Low was clearly aware of the UFO literature of the time, and the aliens' spacecraft seems to be derived from the classic 'flying saucer'. It is described as a 'bulbous oval'. It and its alien occupants are able to make themselves invisible through a coating that makes ordinary light pass around them. This is the same technique which British scientists used a few years ago to create a kind of invisibility around suitably treated vehicles and clothing as a highly sophisticated version of military camouflage. 

There is also a brief discussion of the propulsion system used by the alien ships. This uses light to attract the ships to their destinations, while darkness repels them. This is pure pseudoscience, though it's no worse than some of the other ideas about UFO space propulsion then going round. Eric and Leif Nesheim's Saucer Attack! Pop Culture in the Golden Age of Flying Saucers (Los Angeles: Kitchen Sink Press 1997) shows how the classic imagery of disc shaped flying objects predates the appearance of the UFO flying saucer. Similarly Science Fiction magazines and comics showed their occupants as dwarfs with large heads from the early '50s onwards.

Low was clearly influenced by this literature in his own depiction of the aliens. This in turn may have helped create the type of alien experienced in the imagery of the abduction narratives. It also anticipates other aspects of the abduction mythology in the fears about dissection and transplant surgery as alien and dehumanising.

Fortunately, history hasn't followed the course predicted in the book. Yuri Gagarin made his historic flight into space in 1961, five years after the book was published, and two years before it was reprinted in 1963 by Digit. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin famously landed on the Moon in 1969, and the Russians launched the first of their Salyut space stations two years later in 1971. This was followed by the American with Skylab in 1975, the Russian Mir in 1986 and now the International Space Station. 

Unfortunately there have also been plans for military space stations. The Americans had plans for one in the Manned Orbiting Laboratory in 1965, though the programme was later cancelled. But the Russians launched a series of military space stations as part of the Salyut programme, the abortive Salyut 2 in 1973, and the fully operational Salyut 3 in 1974 and Salyut 5 in 1976-7. Mercifully, space has not become a battleground, although Ronald Reagan wanted to launch a series of military satellites that could strike at Earth as part of his wretched 'Star Wars' programme in the 1980s. And that spectre has returned under Trump, who has announced that he wants to see the creation of an American military space force.

The book has been out of print, as far as I know, since it was republished back in 1963. But it still makes for interesting reading. It is a stirring tale from the early post-War years, when Britain was still a major, though declining global power. But it also shows the cosmic hopes and fears that British space and science fiction fans had for their country's future in space, and for contact with alien life. Hopes that were dashed with the cancellation of Black Arrow in 1975, but which may yet revive with the establishment of the Orbix satellite launcher in Scotland. -- David Sivier

For anyone interested, a few copies of this book are offered for sale on Amazon:

12 June 2019


Some news for fortean philatelists and folklorists. On 9th July the Royal Mail will issue a set of stamps depicting ‘Curious Customs’, and a rather odd selection it is.

Two second-class stamps show the ‘Obby ‘Oss of Padstow; and the Burning Of The Clocks in Brighton, an event I have never heard of before. On the two first-class stamps we see Up Helly Aa, the Orkney Islands’ New Year Viking festival; and the very curious World Gurning Championships in Egremont in Cumbria, which is basically pulling funny faces through a horse’s collar.

Stamps at £1.55 show Cheese Rolling in Gloucestershire, perhaps to celebrate its rescue from elf’n’safety fanatics; and Halloween in Londonderry in Northern Ireland. I don’t know why Halloween is particularly connected with Londonderry, but I suppose it would be inadvisable to philatelically depict Northern Ireland’s other famous curious custom, the Orange Lodge marches!

On the £1.60 denomination stamps we find the very traditional Horn Dance at Abbot’s Bromley in Staffordshire and the rather less ancient Bog Snorkelling event at Lanwrtyd Wells in Powys, Wales.

Unfortunately the only illustrations of the designs that I have seen are of very poor quality, but if I find better images I will post them later.


Beckley, Timothy Green and Sean Casteel. Alien Strongholds On Earth; Secret UFO Bases Exist All Around Us. Inner Light/Global Communications, 2019.

Alien strongholds, or what John Keel would have called window areas, are believed to exist throughout the world. These areas are where aliens have their secret underground bases that maintain their fleets of flying saucer and where they can conduct their nefarious activities, often in league with mysterious human military units.

The book starts with UFO hot spots ‘In Your Own Backyard!’- that’s if your backyard happens to be the Tujunga Canyon or the Tehachapi Mountains, California. In the latter we are told about ‘Alex R.’ and a friend who got lost in the Lancaster/Palmdale area when looking for a parcel of undeveloped property. Going down a dirt road they were confronted by three young men in a late model sedan car who politely told them to go back to the main road. This understandably scared them and they felt even more intimidated by seeing another late model car following them on the Freeway. Like the previous encounter the men in the vehicle wore wraparound sunglasses. That evening they speculated these men were aliens who were protecting the rumoured underground bases in that region and they had agitated them because they had got too close to one of them. Reinforcing this idea, that evening they were leaving their local restaurant when they saw a triangular UFO and ‘lost’ two hours and five minutes of time. Had they encountered the notorious MIB and been abducted during the missing time?

That case just about sums up this book as it is full of anonymous reports and ‘friend of a friend’ stories that in chapter two even includes the UMMO hoax that featured letters and phone calls to Spanish ufologists in the 1960s, detailing how they established underground bases in the south of France and Australia.

Of equal merit are the claims that 15-feet-tall human-like aliens nicknamed the ‘W-56s’ set up a base in Pascara, Italy in the 1950s. The beings communicated either through radio or by telepathy and took delivery of truckloads of vegetables. The mission for this confederation of space people was to generate and collect love energy, but it was a failure.

The following chapters recount stories of alien strongholds in the deserts of the world, inside remote mountain retreats, Mexico, under the sea and of course at Dulce, New Mexico.

I particularly like chapter fifteen by Timothy Green Beckley, ‘Mind Control, reptilians and the Superstition Mountains.’ The appropriately named Superstition Mountains in Arizona are claimed to be the home for alien reptilian creatures. Unlike the love-energy seeking W-56s, these entities abduct and rape unwitting hikers, and blot out such memories until hypnotic regression releases it to full consciousness. Into the mix is that the mountains are said to hide vast quantities of gold which have caused people to kill or go mad in its pursuit.

Others have seen young ‘children’ playing in the area who appear more like men when seen close-up. On one occasion a teenage boy who was lost for several days was in a semi-conscious state when a group of these little men guided him home to safety. He was never sure if they were ghosts or real entities, or perhaps just a figment of his imagination. People who have actually visited the UFO base inside Superstition Mountains have had nervous breakdowns, completely lost their sanity or gone into voluntary solitude.

Only one person, Brian Scott, seems to have avoided such traumas after being beamed inside a craft parked inside the base. Bulky, 7-feet-tall, tough skinned beings with big ears who smelt of dirty socks undressed and examined him. After his first encounter in 1971 he experienced four more similar episodes that included meeting a human-like being who called himself ‘the host.’

The chapters by various authors go from being outright potty to the mind boggling. It is certainly not a detailed guide or listing of supposed alien bases, rather it is a buffet of wild stories and speculation. Timothy and Sean are the ringmasters of yet another ufological circus of weird delights that underpin the growing UFO mythology. -- Nigel Watson.

8 June 2019


Jacques Vallee. Forbidden Science 4, The Spring Hill Chronicles. The Journals of Jacques Vallee 1990 – 1999. Anomalist Books. 2019.

This is the fourth volume of a mammoth (2000 pages and counting) series released over the past 25 years which form chronological diary entries covering a decade in the life of one of the most important scientists in the field of anomaly research.

Vallee, a Frenchman moved to the USA five decades ago with support from Dr J Allen Hynek, who was then then an astronomer assessing UFO cases for Project Blue Book at Wright Patterson Air Force Base. He had computer skills vital to Hynek's work, but research into UFOs and other fringe science soon became Vallee's passion.

Today he is one of the last survivors of the early years of UFO research – whose book Passport to Magonia inspired the title of this publication, and was one that I read as a teenager. In no small measure his ability to think outside the box whilst retaining a scientific mindset was crucial to my becoming involved in the field. Had he and wife Janine not penned books in those formative days when junk science dominated the bookshelves, those lesser tomes may have been sufficient to turn me away.

A still youthful Vallee was part of the 'Invisible College' of scientists doing this 'forbidden' research. He was also the reason why in Spielberg's famous 1977 UFO movie, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a Frenchman played by Francois Truffaut runs around the USA chasing aliens and talking psycho-sociology. Lacombe was Vallee (even hinted by the name – combe in English and French means a valley).

Whilst the book format of a series of diary entries is limiting, Vallee's engaging style of observation is a big help in allowing the book to flow despite its length. There is a curious fascination in following his journey through a decade and coming upon moments when he hears of a major event or meets another researcher.

So we get descriptions of the weather from a train carriage window or a trek into the bush somewhere following a case with insight, vying with notes about the scenery. Being a Frenchman he observes food and clothing especially well, recalling in more detail than I ever could both what I was wearing and the food when we discussed crop circles in April 1992. His observational skills are the real delight here as you track the decade.

The book ranges over many topics in a haphazard manner and rarely goes into depth, as is the wont with diary entries, of course. So it is in that respect not a particularly coherent or analytical text.

Now and then you can see the insights as they arrive in unexpected ways. He opens up the promotion tour for his 1990 book Confrontations, the writing of which was a main theme of the previous volume of his diary. First up is Chicago, which has him reminiscing about his time at Northwestern University in Evanston and Allen Hynek who lived and worked there and had not long since died.

Then he meets a Colonel from the Lockheed 'skunk' works three days later in New Mexico and discusses the possibility that secret government experiments might be using lasers and hologram projections on troops to trigger 'UFO hallucinations'. Vallee immediately thinks that the 1980 Rendlesham Forest case might be a possible candidate.

At a gathering a few days later with scientists who recall using aviation technology in roaming vans searching for UFO sightings, he asks why they had not contacted him and Hynek at Northwestern to help their pursuit, as they were operating an international sighting computer data base far ahead of anything in the otherwise amateur unfunded UFO community of that period. The answer – commercial secrecy and fear of losing the edge of the project by sharing its existence with others - which brought typically sharp observation from Vallee – "But the secrecy was your undoing. It lead to your failure."

Never one to mince words, he meets Colonel Charles Halt in Washington in May 1992 to discuss his sightings in Rendlesham Forest eleven years before. "I remain cautious about his interpretation. We disagreed politely" – Vallee notes in typically understated reservation.

Seven years later, he meets the 'skunk work' Colonel again at the Vallee's new apartment in San Francisco. He reports the claim that British ufologists once 'kidnapped' Colonel Halt's son in an effort to 'force him to admit a truth he didn't have'. Janine's 'candid reaction' to this news is described. I know what really happened, as I was there. But such is the nature of this book that you get many snapshots of moments which you must ponder meaning behind, yet, knowing only one side of the facts, cannot easily form a value judgement.

So as a reader you are left fascinated and intrigued whilst wondering what parts of the story you are missing that might bring a different perspective.

That said, for those who have been watching the new US TV series, Project Blue Book, in which Irish actor Aidan Gillen plays Allen Hynek, and other real people mentioned in Vallee's book 'star', you will unquestionably get a more realistic insight from his diaries than you do on TV. I scream weekly at the screen as the latest hyped up plot-line supposedly involving real people unfolds.

Instead here as reader you get what really happened day by day from a true giant of the UFO field. That is worth any deficiencies the diary format inevitably brings. Roll on Volume 5! -- Jenny Randles

27 May 2019


Susannah Gibson, The Spirit of Inquiry: How One Extraordinary Society Shaped Modern Science. Oxford University Press, 2019.

This year sees the 200th anniversary of the founding of the Cambridge Philosophical Society, and to mark it Susannah Gibson, of Cambridge University’s Department of History and Philosophy of Science, has produced this lively account (oddly, published by Oxford) of its place in the story of British science.

It’s actually more of a centenary history, as Gibson deals almost exclusively with the Society’s first hundred years, taking 256 pages to get to the 1919 celebratory dinner (all nine courses of it). Another fourteen (pages, I mean, not courses) take the story on to the end of the Second World War, before the whole of the rest of the twentieth century is skipped for a brief final chapter on the Society today.

In a way, though, there being so little to say about the Society’s recent endeavours is a testament to its success: it has achieved what it was set up to do, which was to bring science into the mainstream, not just in Cambridge but in Britain as a whole.

The Society was the brainchild of two young geologists, Adam Sedgwick and John Stevens Henslow, who, frustrated with their University’s lack of interest in what was then a cutting-edge new science, came up with an idea to drag it into the nineteenth century. The Cambridge Philosophical Society was inaugurated in November 1819 for ‘the purpose of promoting Scientific Enquiries, and of facilitating the communication of facts connected with the advancement of Philosophy’ - but, being officially independent from the University while drawing its membership from graduates who studied and worked there, it really aimed to reform and modernise Cambridge through the back door, sidestepping the old fogeys who ran things.

The Cambridge of 1819 was an intellectually stagnant place, its main purpose being to train young men for a career in the Church, its curriculum focusing on theology, the classics and Newtonian mathematics. Anything new was unwelcome, a conservatism largely a reaction to the French Revolution, with its elevation of the ‘cult of reason’ - seen as a threat to religious orthodoxy - and the ensuing Napoleonic Wars: ‘The English elite could not accept the new scientific and mathematical ideas coming out of France because they were so associated with radical politics.’

For the first fellows, Gibson writes, the Philosophical Society was ‘solemn, sublime, lofty, and yet enormous fun. It was their playground: a place of intellectual freedom beyond the strict confines of the University curriculum, and a place of cooperation and friendships.’ And over the decades it cajoled Cambridge University into accepting the sciences as proper subjects for study and teaching, so that – very gradually – it caught up with its German and French counterparts. Gibson describes the Society as ‘the parent of modern science in the city.’

Indeed, it was at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science hosted in Cambridge by the Philosophical Society in 1833 that the term ‘scientist’ was first coined – and intended as ‘something of a put-down.’

The Society has certainly left its mark on the scientific world. Its membership has numbered some of science’s greatest names: Charles Babbage, John Herschel, James Clerk Maxwell, William Bateson (coiner of the term ‘genetics’), J.B.S. Haldane and Fred Hoyle to name just a few. It published the first scientific journal in Cambridge, for which it established one of the earliest systems of peer review. The much-admired museum and library that it built up eventually became the nucleus of those of the University itself.

The Society got Charles Darwin – a student of Henslow’s - his gig on the Beagle (after their first choice turned it down) and brought his name to the attention of the academic world through the reading at its meetings of the letters he sent back during his voyage (which it also published - without his permission). John Venn gave the first presentation on his diagrams to its members in 1880, and it published translations of Niels Bohr’s papers on quantum theory in 1923.

Given the symbiotic relationship between the Society and University, this is as much a history of the latter, particularly charting the way it opened up, both in terms of its curriculum and who it allowed in. It was, for example, only in 1871 that an Act of Parliament removed the ‘religious tests’ that restricted entry to members of the Church of England.

The other major – and painfully slow – opening up was, of course, to women, and the Society played its part in this process. Women could attend the Society’s meetings as guests from the start, but as membership was restricted to those holding Cambridge degrees – which women weren’t allowed to take until 1948 – they couldn’t join. From 1883 - its then president, the zoologist Francis Balfour, being a firm supporter of the equal participation of women in University life - the Society did allow women to present papers, the first being Alice Johnson on her research into the relationship between birds and dinosaurs. Women were finally, by unanimous vote of the fellows to waive the requirement for a degree, allowed to be full fellows of the Society in 1929.

Its original mission having been triumphantly accomplished, the Cambridge Philosophical Society today focuses on communicating science to the public, its meetings (still held every other week during term time as they have been from the start) now being open to all.

For me, the book’s main interest wasn’t so much in the ups and downs of the Society itself, or even of the University, but in the wider story of the transformation of science during the nineteenth century that Gibson vividly conveys.

A sign of how dramatically things changed is the apparent incongruity, to today’s eyes, of a society dedicated to science choosing to call itself ‘Philosophical’. The shift from ‘natural philosophy’ to ‘science’ (a word previously applied only to the individual fields within the whole) was deliberate, reflecting the move to the study of phenomena for their own sake, rather than, as before, for what they could tell us about God’s creation.

Ironically, the Society’s current president, who has written the foreword, is Simon Conway Morris, the biologist and practising Christian, whose heretical views on evolution and criticisms of materialist science could be seen as a reversal of that original ethos; a sign perhaps that the Society hasn’t lost its provocative edge? -- Clive Prince

22 May 2019


Patrick Armstrong. Critical Lives: Alfred Russel Wallace. Reaktion Books, 2019.

Although Alfred Russel Wallace and Charles Darwin discovered the principle of evolution through natural selection, the life of Alfred Russel Wallace can be seen “as a story of an individuals triumph over tragedy and hardship”.

The author explains that Wallace had a happy early childhood; he was the eighth of nine children, and was brought up in Wales because his father Thomas Wallace, according to Armstrong, “lived idly and enjoyed himself in London as a fairly well-to-do middle class gentleman” who eventually fell on tough economic times, relocating to Wales as it was somewhere they could live more cheaply. Their house was built along the bank of the River Usk, but in 1828 they moved to Hertford, and the young Alfred was educated at Hertford Grammar School, a Dickensian establishment were he was flogged by the cane and one of the masters used to “rap the boys knuckles with a ruler until they were black, swollen and had the skin cut”

He worked with his elder brother John, who was a Joinery apprentice, making doors, staircases and other building items. He did little manual work but liked to observe and mix with the working class and formed his Socialist, Leftist Radical leanings while there, equipping him with a questioning manner that ran through his later works.

Armstrong relates that in the summer of 1837, Wallace at fourteen years old, went with his eldest brother to Bedfordshire to train as a Land Surveyor, and at this time he gained an interest in geology when his brother showed the younger lad fossil oysters of the genus Gyphaea and belemites, both of which were common in the local area.

Wallace learnt the basics of surveying and mapping and rejoiced in the hard physical outdoor work. Having learnt the use of the sextant in surveying he then bought a cheap paperback published by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge giving the outline of the structure of plants - “Great was my delight when I found that I could identify a Crucifer, an Umbellifer, and a Labiate; as one after the other the different orders were recognised, I began to realize for the first time the order that underlay all the variety of nature”

Sometimes he found species which were not described in his book, leading him to use his meagre allowance buying more comprehensive titles, and borrowing books where he could. By carefully comparing plants he found with the various reference sources at his disposal, he set to work “with increased ardour “ to collect specimens all the plants he could find: “I therefore began to form a herbarium, collecting good specimens and drying them between drying papers and a couple of boards weighted with books or stones”.


His first scientific publication came a little bit later: it was a one-sentence reply to a correspondent of The Zoologist journal, who regretted that no specimen of a particular species of beetle had been collected for twenty years. Wallace replied “Capture of Trichius fasciatus near Neath. - I took a single specimen of this beautiful insect on a blossom of Carduus heterophyllus near the falls at the top of Neath Vale - Alfred R. Wallace”

Wallace decided to go to South America with the naturalist and explorer Henry Bates (1825-1892), and in 1847, his first substantial scientific paper On the Umbrella Bird was published. It was intended that the expedition should be funded through collecting insects and other specimens in the Amazon and selling them to private collectors and museums in the United Kingdom and Europe. The map Wallace produced of the area of the expedition became the standard map of the area for decades.

The author relates that the notion of the 'struggle for existence' or 'the battle of life' became a key to the concept of evolution by natural selection, described later by both Wallace and Darwin.

On his return to England Wallace fell ill, but later wrote six scientific papers and two books and established links with a number of British naturalists, including Charles Darwin, with whom he had a few minutes conversation in the Insect Room of the British Museum. His paper on 'Butterflies of the Amazon Valley' was read before the Entomological Society in 1853 were he spoke as an experienced collector and observer and he was beginning understand the way that organisms change over time. He was able to acquire funding from the Royal Geographical Society and decided to travel to the Malay Archipelago and the islands of the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia).

Despite falling ill again, he began to note the ways in which species differed and resembled each other, helping him formulate his theory of natural selection.

He sent his initial paper on the subject to Charles Darwin  to pass on to Charles Lyell if he thought it was interesting. Darwin took the paper to geologist Lyell and botanist Joseph Hooker asking for their advice. Darwin was clearly worried that despite over twenty years of work, he might lose scientific priority in publishing the Theory. Without Wallace knowing, the paper was combined with Darwin’s own theories and was published a few weeks later as 'On the Tendency of Species to Form Varieties and on the Perpetuation of Varieties and Species by Natural Means of Selection'. Just a couple of years later, in 1859 Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species.

Perhaps tiring of his travels and the resultant illnesses, Wallace was eager to settle down to make a steady living, but found that was unable to gain any proper salaried employment. Armstrong notes that “at one stage in the 1860’s he applied for the position of Assistant Secretary of the Royal Geographical Society – a post for which he might have assumed he was well qualified. It went to H. W. Bates – his companion on the expedition to South America”.

He was forced to tour the country presenting lectures, and obliged to sell some pieces from his private collections. This and his books were his main sources of income, and although he lived the typical life of a Victorian gentleman, he remained influenced by his early working class encounters and stayed true to his radical socialist ideals: “He felt that societies tended to progress (or evolve) towards the goal of a state where each person could fulfil their purpose.”

The book is well illustrated, comprehensive and is presented in a direct and readable manner, displaying clearly the many sides of Wallace's scientific career. The author gives us an enjoyably fascinating journey through Wallace' life story, noting that “Wallace['s] attributes were supreme courage and persistence, almost to the point of foolishness” Perhaps, reading here of the massive contribution Wallace made to scientific knowledge, we might conclude that we all need to display a little foolishness from time to time! – Gerrard Russell

15 May 2019


Serinity Young. Women Who Fly: Goddesses, Witches, Mystics, and Other Airborne Females. Oxford University Press, 2018.

This is in many ways a joy of a book – certainly an unusual joy for an academic feminist book. Without ever resorting to the tedious or impenetrable jargon (oh mercy!) so beloved of far too many grant-seeking scholars, it delivers a hard-hitting historical analysis in plain, but glowing, English. In fact, one of its joys – no doubt already discovered by many grateful dissertation and essay writers – is that it positively bulges with memorable quotable quotes. For a reviewer, it’s an embarrassment of riches, but a very welcome wealth. But - ha! - for once, I’m not going to lay these jewels out for you. That’s what the book’s for.

Obviously, I love it, but it had to win me over. I’m not a great fan, for example, of Wagnerian folklore and tend to get a bit impatient with female mystics whose idea of both fun and godliness is to starve themselves to death. Yet the Valkyrie and St Elisabeth/St Hildegard/St Teresa passages of this book held my attention (and I can’t say fairer than that), while I addressed with more predictable delight the chapters concerning goddesses, witches and female aviators. (Or ‘aviatrixes’ as the then establishment insisted on calling them, to highlight their weirdness. That’s OK because they don’t now, just as I’m thrilled to say the odd creatures known as ‘Editrixes’ or ‘authoresses’ are actually extinct.)

This is the first book to explore the flying woman in everything from Norse and Greek mythology through the witch hysteria to modern pop culture, and peer down at the attitudes that created and surrounded them through the unforgiving microscope of a modern feminist anthropologist. And yes, that really should intrigue rather than bore – or terrify…

Certainly, ‘The common element in the lives of aerial women is their uniqueness; they are the exceptional women, almost beyond mere mortals in their outstanding characteristics or abilities. They are women who have come close to rejecting the limitations not only of being female, but of being human.’

Yet even goddesses or supernatural beings are all too often brought down to earth – or to size anyway – by the machinations or betrayals of men. Few of these powerful and rare flying females are permitted to maintain their lofty characteristics, just as – on a much more mundane, but very real level – women who soared beyond their domestic expectations in ‘men’s work’ during both World Wars found themselves banished back to enforced drudgery when the boys came home. Only then, having tasted freedom and achievement, life tied to the scullery and nursery was even less attractive. Imagine what a come-down – literally and figuratively – it must have been for a goddess to thud back down to earth after being tricked by her human lover.

That’s not to say, of course, that men are the only tricksters around. Female fairies such as Morgan la Fay and innumerable other sprites have infamously toyed with man’s reality to their very destruction, often through seduction of industrial efficacy. Indeed, one of the reasons the witchfinders found it easy to spread the libel that Satan loves to make women his agents was that women already had something of a reputation for wiliness and subterfuge in order to get their way. (But with so few options in competing with men – duelling, warfare, commerce and academia being closed to them - what else did they have but their seduction and scheming?)

With all the stories of flying goddesses – and other women who soared above the usual expectations – one might reasonably expect the average housewife to have been inspired to rise above the ordinary over the years. Obviously we don’t know just how much the ancient Norse sagas got under the skin of Scandinavian girls, or how legends of classical goddesses fired up the imaginations of later Greek and Roman women. Not much, one suspects. They had too much to do dipping laundry in urine (brings it up nicely) and dodging black eyes from drunken menfolk. And they probably couldn’t read anyway.

Amelia Earhart, who ‘did all she could to advance other women’, found it impossible to pass on the baton of her achievements, which remained exceptional, glass-cased, almost mythical (although her mysterious early death only added to her fable). In this book we note that ‘Decisively, the various divine women… never translated their power into a higher status for women in social reality because most religions disempower actual women while empowering imaginary ones. In effect, female imagery is used to conquer and control a fear of female power.’ (Indeed, abuse of real women by modern pagan goddess-worshipping men is not unknown.)

Interestingly, the Norse warrior goddesses had earthly counterparts – touched on all too briefly here – in the ‘shield maidens’: real female soldiers who fought alongside the men in battle and who were accorded similar funerary rites. Not mentioned here is the fact that the recent discoveries on Scandinavian islands of shield maiden graves – women buried in full armour together with weapons of great expense and status, and even with horses to carry them off to the afterlife glories of Valhalla – have highlighted the reality of what had once seemed merely a myth. Perhaps it goes without saying that until the routine use of archaeological DNA testing on human remains similar graves, as in parts of Siberia, were traditionally assumed to belonged to great male warriors. Even the discovery of these few shield maiden graves is obviously the tip of a rather significant iceberg.

In religion, we find female mystics such as St Teresa of Avila or Hildegard of Bingen, experiencing ‘flight’ as part of a rapture that provides a mystical release from often crippling physical torment. The author notes wryly that women experienced the sacred through their bodies, while men did so through their intellects. This dichotomy is also seen in the witch persecution hysteria, where although men indulging in ritual magic – or sorcery – had become an acceptable intellectual hobby, when unlettered women experienced the conjuration of spirits for themselves it was automatically Satanic.

‘Witches’ were usually wayward or unusual women, often unconcerned with nurturing either a husband or a family, and exhibiting a behavioural freedom that was so unthinkable as to be ungodly. One English ‘witch’ – not mentioned here – fell foul of the local worthies by enjoying what we would call surfing the waves. Not even men did such a thing back then! Unsurprisingly, she and her surfboard ended up on the same fire.

Female shamans, operating on behalf of ancient, traditional tribes, often dress as men, though actually certain male shamans also choose to dress as women, a gender fluidity that has long been acceptable for such special communicators with the gods. Yet even so, this shows that it’s not deemed normal for ordinary women to turn shaman.

We also meet the strange world of angels, or ‘God’s messengers’, usually depicted and thought of as muscular winged males – until Victorian sentimentality helped popularise the slightly creepy chubby cherubs with their knowing leers so beloved of tombstone decor. Another Victorian innovation was the term ‘angel of the house’ – or the lady of the residence; all goodness, docility and religious obedience. Rarely has such an apparently flattering term hidden such a Pandora’s box of suppression, neglect and abuse. Their metaphorical angelic wings were protective of the children and the home, but not in the fierce way of ancient winged goddesses such as Isis – more ineffectual mother hen.

We even – tentatively, it must be said – dip a toe into the world of female superheroes. We meet Superwoman, who the author insists on calling ‘Princess Diana’, though we really could have done with much more on this subject, especially given the extraordinary depth and breadth of Jeffrey J. Kripal’s work on the subject of superhero mysticism. (And, come to think of it, surely there’s a couple of paragraphs in the whole story of the real Princess Diana, which if not exactly spanking new, would at least fit with the overall theme of women who rise and fall – and rise again?)

Most of the women in this book fly metaphorically, or only too literally, as with Ms Earhart. (There’s some mention of the resistance to female astronauts, though this does seem rather out-dated. And where’s the apparently small but telling fact that female astronauts were expected to wear suits designed for men…? Not such a tiny detail if you’re expected to wear one and carry out extra-vehicular activities, such as patching up damage to the exterior of a space shuttle.)

Some of the real women – as opposed to the goddesses, like Nike, or the Valkyries – however, were said to fly for real, without benefit of rocket thrust. They levitated and they flew, and were, occasionally, witnessed to do so. But as witches were said to fly to their unholy Sabbats, often on broomsticks, even flying female saints were regarded with considerably more suspicion and distaste than flying men (such as St Joseph of Cupertino).

Actually, any women who drew attention to their holiness tended to have unenviable outcomes. Bernadette of Lourdes and the children of the Fatima vision – and other girls who encountered the divine in such sensational fashion - were swiftly secured behind convent walls. Presumably before they could say or do anything that deviated from the Vatican’s party line, or – heaven forfend! – be personally and properly honoured in their lifetime for their sanctity.

Every chapter of this book is an eye-opener – obviously for men – but also for women, as it traces the rise and often the fall of flying women through myth, legend and social and religious history. Sometimes we’re surprised at how the ancient stories from Islamic or Japanese traditions overlap, and often saddened by the humbling of the heroine who has dared to fly. As ever, the fiction is informed not only by fact but by the attitudes that create the fact.

And today, the headline for an item on my newsfeed reads: ‘Game of Thrones has betrayed women who made it great.’ It was ever thus. -- Lynn Picknett

Lynn Picknett is co-author, with Clive Prince, of When God Had A Wife: The Fall and Rise of the Sacred Feminine in the Judeo-Christian Tradition, (December 2019)

10 May 2019


Jens Schlieter. What Is It Like To Be Dead? Near-Death Experiences, Christianity and The Occult. Oxford University Press. 2018.

Schlieter is a professor of 'the systematic study of religion' at the University of Bern in Switzerland. He has a penchant for comparative religions and connections between philosophies. This book is dense and unillustrated so not a particularly easy read – although not impenetrable. Paragraphs appear that are up to two pages long so you might want to read it in small doses rather than on the beach and an oxygen supply may come in handy too.

But is it worth the effort? I would have to say yes, because it does look into a familiar subject, near death visions and experiences, in a surprisingly different way. Less attempting to explain or prove them real but to understand them in a cultural context and see why they might have come to the fore in the 60s and 70s as they did. That perception of what he establishes to be an ancient topic often only seen in light of modern non religious 'paranormal experience' is a useful focus that his book provides.

The text is full of intriguing quotes from obscure papers such as an Augustinian monk in 1710 saying 'Who dies before he dies does not die when he dies.' If you can get your head around interpretations of comments such as these as to what they might mean then you will probably find this book illuminating.

Divided into five parts it first assesses what today we call the 'near death experience' (or NDE) as a religious experience in past ages from the context of a philosophical search for evidence of the nature of the soul. Schlieter then moves on to how different religions interpreted such enlightenment experiences in past centuries in context of their own different perceptions of that soul.

In part 3 he assesses why the 1960s and 70s were ripe for a total rethink on looking at the experience of the soul leaving the body as traditional religion was losing ground to mysticism and rational agnosticism. Whereas at the same point humans were widely experimenting with mind expanding techniques and substances.

Parallel with these things and, he argues, just as importantly, medicine was hospitalising death rather than allowing people to die at home, and finding new ways to prolong beyond what previously had been pronounced as dead because older medicine had no way of reviving at that stage.

Part 4 assesses the data from NDE reports in his own approach – case histories not being the purpose here. He asks “Is there a way to find out if certain traits of experiences near death rest exclusively on expectations of what to experience near death, or, on retroactive interpretations?”

In the final section the professor seeks to assess how the data can 'restore the meaning of religious experience in an age of uncertainty.'

This is less of a book about personal accounts that are providing evidence of survival beyond apparent death – though that is a part of it - and more a philosophical assessment of comparative meaning between how these things were looked at before and after the decline of day to day acceptance of religious belief in terms of of it being seen as a literal reality.

You will likely find your own personal high-point of interest from the many threads he weaves together. I was especially intrigued by his discussion of how the butterfly has been a religious image of rebirth for centuries. Because, of course, it is a creature that seems to emerge reborn from out of another one that dies. Its association with NDEs symbolically is one thing, but I saw deeper imagery that the author understandably could not.

That is how it also relates to modern day cultural transgender ideology, something I find myself often debating these days although I have no allegiance to its pseudo-mystical imagery of being reborn out of an old body into one of the opposite sex. Indeed a 2018 ITV drama series about a child transitioning into a girl was titled Butterfly for this reason.

That deeply entrenched imagery might also have relevance to why there are fascinating parallels that again the author understandably does not see between alien abduction cases and NDEs. These cases arose within the same time frame as he assesses (coming to the fore in the 60s, 70s and 80s). That may well be significant to his argument.

All in all this is not an easy book to read but is one that offers much of interest to the deep thinker on this topic. Though some familiarity with the modern NDE evidence in the first place is probably a good starting point. – Jenny Randles