23 January 2022

HOW CHARLES FORT CONQUERED THE WORLD

Tanner F. Boyle. The Fortean Influence on Science Fiction; Charles Fort and the Evolution of the Genre. McFarland, 2021.


The Fortean influence on science fiction goes back to the time of the original publication of Fort's quadrology. The early SF magazine Astounding Stories serialised his third book, Lo! In 1934. just two years after his death. The birth of the 'pulp' SF magazine is exactly contemporary with Fort's work, Astounding being first publishes in 1919, the same year as the publication of The Book of the Damned.

In fact Fort himself was a science fiction writer manquΓ©, with two unpublished novels titled X and Y which were based on the data that Fort was collecting and which formed the basis for Procession of the Damned. Fort's one published SF story was 'A Radical Corpuscule', in which a group of cells become aware that they are part of a larger entity. This idea, Boyle suggests, is at the base of Fort's subsequent work and the inspiration for much later science fiction.

The Fortean link with science fiction has not always been welcomed by writers and readers of the genre. H G Wells despised Fort's writings. He had been sent a copy of Lo! by Fort's literary friend Theodore Dreiser, and after looking at it wrote back, “Lo! has been sent to me but has gone in my waste-paper basket” His opposition to Fort was based on Fort's criticism of what he saw as 'dogmatic science' which had to be forced to accept new ideas. Wells exploded: “The next you'll be writing is the 'dogmas of science' like some blasted Roman Catholic priest on the defensive. When you tell a Christian you don't believe some yarn he can't prove, he'll always call you 'dogmatic. He concludes, tellingly, “Scientific workers are first rate stuff and very ill paid and it isn't for the likes of you and me to have Forts thrown at them.” 

Boyle looks at Fort's work, and that of many subsequent Fortean writers, through the perspective of ‘maybe fiction’, a term he uses to describe the spectrum of writings about anomalous phenomena and events, where ther are no clear demarcations between 'fact', 'fiction', 'belief' and 'memory'. These are records of fantastic stories, remarkable accounts and contentious data, which are claimed to be true, and which link to other accounts which seem to confirm the original text. Boyle quotes Jeffrey Kripal’s concept of the ‘Super Story’ which contains a “deep, often unconscious narrative that underlies and shaped much of contemporary popular culture.” [Kripal, Mutants and Mystics, Chicago 2015.] 


Included in this category are works like The Blair Witch Project, originally promoted as being based on actual events, although later outed as totally fictional. In a more purely Fortean context, ‘maybe fiction’ can be attached to works such as the ‘psychic questing’ genre of the 1980s, the ‘ancient astronaut’ speculations from the previous decade, and almost certainly such phenomena as the Brentford Griffin. 

Often these texts are presented as describing true events, but ones which are so outrageous or dangerous that they can only be written about in the form of a fictional narrative. Boyle sees the Shaver Mystery texts as one such. The key feature of such narratives is not really whether they are factually true, but that they create their own universe, “a vast web of intertextuality” as other writers and readers contribute their own ideas and experiences, expanding, adding to the complexity, and offering a contextual reality the original writer's creation. Fort referred to this 'universe of intertextuality' as 'truth-fiction', saying that “there is a fictional colorization to everybody's account of an 'actual experience' and there is at least the lurk somewhere of what is called 'the actual' in everybody's yarn.” 

This is a concept which I explored many years ago in a piece for the former MUFOB : “Could it then be that with the continuing diffusion of the UFO myth throughout society, many people are finding it a suitable medium for the expression of their own personal hopes and fears, and are also ‘remembering’ with every degree of verisimilitude events which never took place?” [Rimmer, Facts, Fraud and Fairytales, MUFOB New Series 9] 

Fort has provided science-fiction writers, percipients, hoaxers and artists with a repertoire of story and imagery, which can be utilised in their creations, consciously or unconsciously, through direct quotation or as metaphor. Boyle explores the works of science fiction, fantasy and horror writers who have explored and been drawn deeply in to the Fortean realms. 

Writers like Eric Frank Russell and Arthur C. Clarke have developed Fort's concept that 'we are property' drawing us into worlds in which the human race is, knowingly or unknowingly, controlled by some greater entity. Boyle shows the direct links between Fort and many SF writers, like Philip K. Dick, who were members of the Fortean Society, and its subsequent incarnation, the International Fortean Society. 

Boyle is clearly a genuine Fortean, and this book is not written as some sort of academic treatise examining 'texts', it is written for his fellow Forteans. He knows the subject, clearly has a passion for it, corresponded with leading figures in the field, and and has delved deeply into the literature, from Fortean Times downward – I was naively delighted to see Magonia getting a name-check! I would say all Forteans should get a copy of this book, but McFarland's 'academic' pricing will put it out of the reach of many, although the kindle version is a little more accessible. 

But definitely five stars for this excellent contribution to the understanding of Charles Fort and his works, and their influence on science fiction, popular culture and wider society.
  • John Rimmer

13 January 2022

THE IRON MASK

Josephine Wilkinson. The Man In The Iron Mask: The Truth About Europe's Most Famous Prisoner. Amberley, 2021.


Imagine finding yourself under arrest following the orders of a great king. and being transported to the other end of your country where your destiny was to languish in a rough and dank castle cell with little light and no company, subject to frequent bouts of illness and under the strict commandment that you were to communicate with no one save your jailers. How long would you be able to last?
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5 January 2022

THE GAP IN THE PLOT

John Buchan. The Gap in the Curtain. Handheld Press, 2021. 

John Buchan is chiefly remembered for his spy novels featuring the adventurer hero Richard Hannay: the most famous being The Thirty Nine Steps. Yet he also wrote a considerable amount of supernatural and weird fiction – four collections were published from 1902 to1928. In 1932 came the novel The Gap in the Curtain exploring the idea of precognition. 
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20 December 2021

BALANCING THE UFO DEBATE

John Michael Greer. The UFO Chronicles. Aeon, 2020
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This book is an updating of an earlier title The UFO Phenomenon, Fact, Fantasy and Disinformation, but it needs very little updating, as its premise is as valid now as then. Greer has a background in esotericism, and is a member of a number of occult orders, which has perhaps allowed him to step outside the extraterrestrial skeptic/believer argument that has bedeviled ufology.
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14 December 2021

THEY'RE HERE ALREADY!

Don Siegel. Invasion of the Bodysnatchers (1956) BFI Blu Ray. 2021.

Director Don Siegel was a shrewd operator who survived well in Hollywood. He understood that the movie moguls were always searching for the predictable to market and make a financial killing. Yet he managed to break the rules and individualise his film projects. Siegel wasn’t a mere number on the Hollywood production line. He was Don. Or the don of B pictures in the fifties who teamed up with Danny (screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring) to brilliantly dress up SF as a noirish thriller in the classic Invasion of the Bodysnatchers.
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7 December 2021

CRIME, PUNISHMENT AND SONG

Stephen Sedley and Martin Carthy. Who Killed Cock Robin?: British Folk Songs of Crime and Punishment. Reaktion Books, 2021.

Music, especially popular music, can be held up as a mirror of the times from which it came. The lyrics can tell us about what society regarded as noteworthy, thus giving us valuable insights into our collective past. Although music seems to be mostly taken up with affairs of the heart there are other subjects that are included in the massive body of work that comprises human-produced music. 
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1 December 2021

SEPARATING BELIEF AND REALITY

Ralph Blumenthal. The Believer: Alien Encounters, Hard Science and the Passion of John Mack. High Road Books (University of New Mexico Press) 2021.


My first thoughts on beginning this account of the life and works of psychologist, ufologist and abductionologist John Mack, was 'when did it all start to go wrong?' I would say round about Chapter 15, but I will go into that later. Mack was born into a wealthy, middle-class secular Jewish family with academic connections and involvement in liberal politics. An early disruption in Mack’s life was the death of his mother before his first birthday. 
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26 November 2021

SPOOKS AND SAUCERS

Jack Brewer. Wayward Sons. NICAP and the IC. Independently published. 2021.


Using information from the websites of intelligence agencies, material gained through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena (NICAP) records, Brewer pieces together the formation, structure, management and eventual decline of the world’s largest UFO group. At its height under Donald Keyhoe it had 14,000 members.
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18 November 2021

DOUBT, MYSTERY AND VISION

Kristoffer Hegnsvad. Werner Herzog, Ecstatic Truth and Other Useless Conquests. Reaktion Books
2021.

Is Werner Herzog crazy or is it a mad world? If the world has now gone too crazy then has it superseded Werner Herzog – no question mark required. For me filmmaker Herzog is wildly and responsibly sane: an uncomfortable provocateur passionately driven to discover what’s possible in order to re-think the world: to achieve this he desires to present the viewer of his films with ‘a new grammar of images.’
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13 November 2021

WRAPPING IT ALL UP

Nasser Zakariya, A Final Story: Science, Myth, and Beginnings, The University of Chicago Press, 2017

A Final Story is a study of those sweeping scientific epics, presented in books such as Steven Weinberg’s The First Three Minutes or television extravaganzas like Carl Sagan’s classic Cosmos, which confidently set out the entire story of the universe from Big-Bang beginning to middle (our time) and on to its possible ends, pulling all the great discoveries of science into a single narrative to give the big – the biggest – picture, and putting humanity in its place (in all senses). 
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