19 September 2019


Jeb J. Card. Spooky Archaeology, Myth and the Science of the Past. New Mexico University Press, 2018.

We know what archaeology is not like, don’t we? Intrepid adventurers with fedora hats hunting down Nazis, saving the Ark of the Covenant, discovering cursed skulls and uncovering lost cities and ancient pagan cults. Archaeology isn’t anything like that is it?

Well Jeb Card, a visiting professor in the Department of Anthropology at Miami University isn’t so sure, and in this history of the subject he demonstrates that Indiana Jones was by no means untypical of many archaeologists.

One of the first issues he raises is a consideration of what exactly constitutes archaeology. Card sees the subject as emerging from ‘antiquarianism’, which explained historical physical artefacts as the remnants of a mythical past, largely accessed through literature and myth, where stone arrow-heads for instance were regarded as ‘elf-shot’, used by supernatural entities to harm humans.

Barrows, stone circles and other early structures, as well as natural geological phenomena, became the dwellings of a fairy race in the stories of the people who lived among them. However, as such features became objects of study by antiquarians the more overt supernatural explanations were dropped, to be replaced by speculations on the nature of the ‘fairy race’ which it was now believed may have dwelt in them. Mystical folklore was being secularised by scholars.

In the nineteenth century, as amateur antiquarianism started the process of transforming into archaeology, these fairy folk began to be seen as ‘primitive races’, and the traditional accounts of meeting supernatural beings was now interpreted as encounters with the last vestiges of those races. This provided a justification for treating those who believed in the supernatural entities as ‘primitive’ peoples, who would benefit from the imposition of an ‘advanced’ colonial regime. The 'colonial regime' in some cases was from the same country as the 'primitive natives'!

This marginalisation was a part of the concept of 'hyper-diffusionism', the belief that 'civilisation' gradually spread across the world from a small number of key points centred usually around the Mediterranean and the Middle East. This idea downplayed the ability of any other indigenous civilisation to create advanced architectural or technical achievement on its own. Card rightly sees this idea being utilised by the 'ancient astronaut' theorists who once again deny the ability of indigenous people (including in this instance Western Europeans) to develop any sophisticated technology without outside help, and recognises it for the racism it is.

Card’s specialisation is the archaeology of Central America, the Maya, Olmec and Toltec civilisations, and he provides an account of the way in which North American and European archaeologists collaborated with government agencies to use the surviving beliefs of the indigenous peoples of the region as a means of influencing political power. A number of distinguished archaeologists operated as spies for various agencies throughout the twentieth century, up to and beyond the Iranian Revolution of 1978.

As the early 'antiquarians' looked at the past through the prism of literature and legend, there were significant lacunae in the periods they studied. An interesting study quoted by Card examines the 'national days' in countries across the world, finding that the majority of them commemorate events and people from within the previous 200 years, or else historical and mythical figures and events from over a thousand year previously, with few from the intervening eras. The only exception were days commemorating the European expansion into the New World. These are broadly the eras represented in the antiquarians' fields of mythology (literature) and folklore (memory).

The transition from antiquarianism to archaeology has been long and at times painful, and not yet thoroughly defined. Nor was it limited to the jungles of Central America, or the sands of Egypt and the Middle East. In England figures such as Frederick Bligh Bond in Glastonbury, and Thomas C. Lethbridge at the Gog Magog Hills in Cambridgeshire traversed the sometimes porous boundary between scientific archaeology and antiquarianism. It was the beginning of the period when the amateur archaeologist was squeezed out through the emergence of a fully professional, scientific discipline, financed through governments and institutional funds.

This process was intended to, but not totally successful in, replacing amateur, dilettante 'antiquarianism' with a rigidly scientific archaeology. Card suggests that one of the drawbacks of that process is that it failed to engage with public interest in the past, and often regarded that interest as irrelevant, or even hostile, to its own academic aims. But as this book shows, it is impossible to totally separate the two approaches.

Throughout the book the author looks at topics which may be considered 'Fortean' and discusses how they have influenced both the work of archaeologists and the manner in which that work has been transmitted to and received by the general public. Chapters examine the way archaeological finds have been interpreted and promoted for political motives.

Topics such as the lost continent myths surrounding Atlantis and Mu have appealed to 'scientific' archaeologists as much as to the 'antiquarian' fringe'. Indeed there seems to be a mutually reinforcing cycle between the two arms of the topic, demonstrated in Card's discussion of Egyptology and the significance of hieroglyphs, pyramids and the 'alternate' Egyptology of the past thirty or so years.

An example Card discuses at length is the works of H P Lovecraft. His stories of hidden horrors emerging from the distant past, strange cults and degenerate races were based on the ideas which emerged from the racist and colonialist basis of much nineteenth century archaeology. In turn his stories influenced the thinking not only of fiction writers who later developed the 'Cthulu Mythos' but also seeped into the ideas of occult-minded 'alternative archaeologists' and conspiracy theorists.

This book is published by an academic press, with over 200 pages of notes, references and index, but it is written in a very accessible manner for non-specialists, and Card is not afraid of allowing humour into his writing. I was impressed by the author's familiarity with Fortean topics, from ancient astronauts and psychic questing to UFOs and ley hunting. Unfortunately the price of this book – typical of academic works – will prevent it being read by many people who would appreciate and enjoy it. I wonder if the publishers might consider an rather slimmed-down edited version at a more accessible price. It would then certainly be a title that every Magonian should have in their library – John Rimmer.

6 September 2019


Nick Redfern, Flying Saucers from the Kremlin. Lisa Hagen Books 2019.

With a title like this, you could be forgiven for thinking this was a book about UFO sightings from Russia and the former Soviet Union, following Ion Hobana's and Julien Weberbergh's 1972 UFO's from behind the Iron Curtain. But the book isn't about that. Subtitled 'UFOs, Russian Meddling, Soviet Spies and Cold War Secrets', the book is an attempt to show that the Russians have been manipulating the UFO phenomenon and its witnesses since the days of the Contactees right up to the present.

Redfern believes that the phenomenon is genuine, but considers that some of the accounts of sightings and encounters have been deliberately faked by the Russians to undermine US and western society. This is set out in the introduction, which claims that the Russians must be doing so, because they meddled in the 2017 American elections. It states that the Russians are not Americans' friends, nor their buddies, and are a threat to their way of life. But this view is flawed on several counts.

Firstly, it doesn't quite show that the Russians have been using UFOs to spread disinformation and black propaganda. There are no Kremlin documents cited or statements from former Soviet agents, who have come forward, to show this. What there is, is plentiful evidence that the American espionage agencies and the FBI have been concerned that the Russians have been doing this. Thus, in 1952 the Assistant Director of the CIA, H. Marshall Cladwell, contacted the NSA about setting up a body to research and identify UFOs, leading to the foundation of the Robertson Panel. This secret organisation was not interested in UFOs as a possible extraterrestrial phenomenon, only in its use by Soviet intelligence.

The FBI also set up a working group under the Defense Intelligence Agency to investigate the Majestic 12 papers, after being contacted about them by that incorrigible skeptibunker, Phil Klass. Richard L. Huff, the Bureau Co-Director in the Office of Information and Privacy, revealed that the FBI also had a main file on the MJ-12 papers marked 'espionage'. And there's tantalising evidence that the British secret services also believe the Russians are using the phenomenon for espionage purpose. This comes from information uncovered by the investigative reporter, Glenn Greenwald, that a powerpoint presentation at GCHQ in Britain on how covert agents infiltrate the Net contained photos of UFOs. Unfortunately, further information on the presentation is not available, so it's unknown how much the British secret services know about this.

Secondly, this largely ignores the massive interference America has done in other nations' politics around the world from the Cold War onward. That long-term critic of American imperialism, William Blum, dedicated two whole chapters of his book Rogue State: A Guide to the World's Only Superpower, to listing the various coups and interference in other nations' elections country by country. Other critics have argued that the 2012 election in Ukraine, which ousted their former pro-Russian leader, was very carefully orchestrated by Hillary Clinton's State Department under Victoria Nuland, and the National Endowment for Democracy.

It has been argued by critics of US foreign policy towards Russia that, Putin, while domestically extremely authoritarian and dictatorial, is sincere in his belief in a multi-polar world. His foreign policy, in their eyes, is essentially defensive. There are also other grounds for questioning whether Russia now is still a threat to the American way of life. It certainly was under Communism up until Glasnost in the 1980s, particularly under Stalin. And the Russians were capable of covert operations against American state officials, as shown by the 1966 microwave attack on the American embassy in Moscow.

But Putin's Russia is a Christian, capitalist nation. In many ways it's similar to America, or at least the American right-wing ideal. It's extremely nationalistic, and the dominant Christian denomination is Russian Orthodoxy rather than Southern Baptist. But it is definitely no longer Communist or aggressively atheist, as the prosecution of Pussy Riot for invading a Moscow cathedral to perform a song insulting Putin showed.

Thirdly, the Americans themselves have been more than willing to exploit the paranormal for covert purposes. The Project Grudge Technical Report discussed using fake UFOs for psychological warfare against the Russians. The Rand Corporation also produced a document on the exploitation of superstitions. Redfern further suggests that the similarity of a wartime robot created by the British stage magician Neville Maskelyne to terrify the Fascists in Sicily to that of the Flatwoods monster indicates that it was a similar faked apparition.

This is the territory explored by Mark Pilkington in The Mirage Men: An Adventure into Paranoia, Espionage, Psychological Warfare and UFOs, which Redfern refers to later in the book. Redfern's book also claims that the Serpo documents were another CIA hoax. These purport to describe a programme by which twelve American servicemen and women traveled to the alien homeworld. Instead, it is argued that the documents were forged by the late American SF writers, James Tiptree Jnr.

Most of the book is about the American, British and Australian police and intelligence services keeping an eye on leading ufologists, investigators and contactees, who were suspected of Communist sympathies. The old fraud George Adamski was under investigation because he was reported to have made pro-Russian, pro-Communist statements, as well being seen talking to a group of Russians about Communism in Los Angeles.

Orfeo Angelucci [left] told the FBI he was met several times by a group of four men, who wanted him to make his lecturers more pro-Communist. He patriotically refused, but was nevertheless intensively questioned about his patriotism after having taken some kind of drug by 'Adam'. He was supposed to be another investigator. The incident, however, is similar to an interrogation the expatriate American artist Glickman was given in a Paris bar. Which suggests that both were actually operations by the American secret services trying out the techniques of MK Ultra and its use of drugs in espionage and interrogation.

Truman Betherum received death threats from an angry group of American patriots, who thought that his alien contact, Aura Rhanes, was not an emissary from the stars but another Communist agent. Over in Britain George King, the head of the Aetherius Society, was investigated by Special Branch after channeling a message from Venus that said that Britain should respond to the Russian peace overtures. Oh, and they also took part in the Aldermaston marches against nuclear weapons by CND.

It's at this point in the book that Redfern repeats the libel that Michael Foot, also a member of CND and another participant in the marches, was a KGB agent. This is based on the accusation of Soviet defector Oleg Gordievsky. Redfern acknowledges that Foot sued for libel against the Sunday Times, which published the smear, and won. But he still believes it's true, because Gordievsky was right about everything else. Private Eye and the a number of left-wing websites have attacked this smear. Gordievsky himself confessed to being a liar.

Foot was a determined critic of the lack of free speech in the USSR, and the Sunday Times was a known conduit for disinformation from the IRD. This was a British intelligence organisation which specialised in black propaganda, including smears against Labour politicians linking them to the IRA or Communist powers. The accusation that Foot was a KGB spy therefore seems to be a piece of British covert disinformation, rather than proof of real treason.

Other UFO investigators were targeted for investigation and worse because it was feared that their researches would turn over genuine military secrets to the Russians. This included the American physicist Paul Bennewitz and his obsession with crashed UFOs and aliens at Kirtland Air Force Base, and the Australian airforce pilot and UFO witness, Peter Royal. Sometimes it appears that the Russians, if they were involved at all, were using scams and hoaxes set up by others. The book identifies the author of the UMMO hoax as the Spanish scientist, Jose Luis Jordan Pena, who wanted to investigate the incidence of paranoia in Franco's Spain. But some of the cosmic information in the UMMO communications seem to have come from the private notes of Russian nuclear scientist and dissident, Andrei Sakharov. This seems to indicate Russian involvement.

The book also claims that the 'Falcon', who contacted Bill Moore offering American government UFO secrets, may have actually been two men. One, a named American officer, and the other an anonymous Soviet agent. It is also argued that the MJ12 papers that appeared in the 1990s were a Russian plant, because they state that the AIDS virus, or something like it, was developed by the Americans from alien bodies recovered at Roswell. There was also another story found among the late Bill Moore's papers claiming that the object that crashed at Roswell was really a V2 stuffed with radium, other radioactive materials and bio-warfare agents developed by I.G. Farben, the German company that produced the cyanide gas for the Nazi death camps. These seem to be attempts to revive the old KGB smear that AIDS was created as a bio-weapon by the Americans at Fort Detrick.

On the other side of the political fence is yet another story about the Roswell crash told by an employee of an American construction firm with defence contracts.. This time the crash was a failed Russian attempt to fake a UFO encounter, using adapted Horten tailless planes from Nazi Germany and dwarf children experimented on by the Nazi doctor, Mengele. Stalin was nasty enough to wish to create human-chimp hybrids in the 1920s as soldiers for the Red Army, but there's no evidence the millions of poor souls incarcerated, tortured and murdered in his Gulags were experimented upon. Mengele himself died in South America. If he had really been captured by the Soviets, I doubt he'd have left Russia alive.

The book also claims that the MJ12 papers were also a Russian hoax, because the talkative EBE attacks America for its maltreatment of Blacks and indigenous peoples, as well as religion. It also cites a passage in Bukharin's and Preobrazhensky's The ABC of Communism, to show how aggressively atheist Soviet Communism was. The alien also talks about how his people landed 7,000 years ago in the area that used to be Yugoslavia to help the people there develop civilisation. This, it is argued, also shows that it must be a Russian hoax, because Yugoslavia was a Communist, eastern European country. The inclusion of prehistoric Yugoslavia seems to be a reference to Lepenski Vir, a Mesolithic settlement in the Iron Gorges region, which is one of the key sites showing the spread of the very beginnings of settled villages in Europe.

But while Yugoslavia was a Communist country, it was not aligned with Russia or the Communist bloc. Tito broke with Stalin in the late '40s and very early '50s in opposition to Soviet attempts to Russify his country. It also ignores the atheism of some strains of western Ufology. Erich von Daniken's claims of ancient aliens were controversial, particularly in his native Switzerland, because he claimed that the God of Christians and Jews, as well as the deities of other religions, was really a garbled memory of extraterrestrial visitors. And the Raelians are an atheist organisation. A decade or so ago they tried to join the wave of New Atheist activism by taking part in an atheist women's rights march. That part of the '90s MJ12 papers could therefore have been cooked up by an atheist Yugoslav hoaxer, or an American of Yugoslav origin, rather than a Russian Communist.

The book is a fascinating account of the American state's fears that the UFO phenomenon was being used by the Russians for psychological warfare, and its attempts, real and suggested, to do the same. In the case of George Adamski, the suspicions of Communist sympathies appear well founded. And some other investigators too may very well have had the same sympathies and possibly were working for the Russians. Others, like Bethurum and King, whether you believe their tales of alien contact and interplanetary brotherhood or not, almost certainly weren't. They were targeted simply for pleading for a peaceful, better world against the spectre of nuclear Armageddon.

As for the Russians, the evidence presented here is entirely circumstantial. Some of it is highly suggestive, others much less so. And with some of the various military characters, who have come forward to dangle spurious information about secret alien bases, crashed UFOs and alien bodies, others have argued in the pages of Magonia over the years that they may not have been members of any secret conspiracy except their own. Rather than doing it on behalf of the American secret state, they could have been simply the usual fantasists and yarnspinners, doing it simply for their own amusement.

Until more information about the world's intelligence services' use of the UFO myth and particularly that of the Russians, comes out, we'll never really know. -- David Sivier

29 August 2019


Caleb Howells. King Arthur - The Man Who Conquered Europe. Amberley, 2019.

Scholar, enthusiast or nerd? No, not King Arthur. I often found myself wondering what kind of author had written this tome as I ploughed diligently through more than 250 pages of the minutest detail, obscure names, excessive speculation and overload of information. The trouble may be that this is such specialised and unfamiliar territory. Anyone who has studied and researched a subject to this depth would seem to be a scholar, yet it is a fine line between that and the nerdish qualities of obsession with details to the extent that a non-specialist reader loses the plot entirely.

There is a phrase that has come into common use in this internet age, that of 'clickbait', most often meaning an intriguing headline that gets you to click on it out of curiosity. It's a clever technique to generate more traffic to that website, increasing advertising revenue and connected sales. Book publishers and authors evidently use a similar technique, that might be referred to as 'titlebait'. Anything with 'King Arthur' in the title is bound to attract attention. Now add the subtitle 'The Man who Conquered Europe' and you have a bestseller, possibly. Who could even have imagined that King Arthur fought on mainland Europe, let alone conquered it? This is something that demands further examination.

The author's bold claim, as announced in the blurb on the book's cover, is that he has finally cracked the question that has defeated all historians and researchers until now: Who was King Arthur? He states that, although there is no consensus, "there is one conclusion that virtually all investigators agree on: he was some kind of war leader who fought against the Saxons in Britain". This is a fair conclusion, but it misses - or ignores - something crucial. That missing element forms the bulk of Howells' thesis and exhaustive research. It all depends on dubious source material relating that Arthur engaged in a great campaign in mainland Europe and waged war against the Roman empire.

This is where it gets really complicated, because apparently the King Arthur we all know and love was not the only one. Somehow, two 'Arthurs' got conflated into one. That is the simple essence of Howells' argument but arriving at that conclusion is very hard work indeed. He himself says at the outset of his introduction: "One could write reams about virtually any aspect of the [Dark Ages] era because it is so poorly documented." Referring to the period of 400 to 600 CE as the 'Arthurian Era', King Arthur features as the main subject of "countless books, academic and mainstream, factual and speculative". So now we have another one to add to the list.

The main source material for this theory comes from Geoffrey of Monmouth's major work Historia Regum Britanniae ('The History of the Kings of Britain') dated around 1137. It traces the purported history of Britain from the arrival and settlement of Brutus of Troy up to the rise of Anglo-Saxon rule in the 7th century. Now considered to be pseudo-history, it nevertheless has had a great influence as a work of medieval literature, containing the first known version of the story of King Lear and his three daughters. It is of course most famous for being a source of lore and legend concerning King Arthur and the prophecies of Merlin.

Part of Geoffrey's narrative states that 'Arthur' waged war in Europe and defeated the Roman Empire, thereby qualifying to be emperor, but then had to return to England to deal with the rebellion of his son Mordred, whom he kills at the Battle of Camlann. But Arthur is mortally wounded and is carried off to the isle of Avalon. Some of the details are very familiar, but the European interlude is inconsistent and generally considered to be fabricated by Geoffrey, as so much of his material demonstrably is. For example, his account of the two invasions led by Julius Caesar differs greatly from the highly detailed account written by Caesar himself. Howells goes to great lengths to justify Geoffrey's variance in one case after another, having convinced himself that the report of 'Arthur's' conquest of Europe must have a valid historical precedent, somewhere, somehow.

He may of course be right, in that, even when the original source is lost, a legend may contain some historical event or personage. In his introduction, by way of illustration, he takes the example of the myth of Atlantis and its destruction as described by Plato in the 5th century BCE. The massive volcanic eruption of the island of Thera, now known as Santorini, is identified as a possible source of the myth. Thought to have occurred around the 16th century BCE, this was one of the biggest eruptions on Earth in recorded history. Resultant earthquakes and tsunamis devastated communities and settlements in the region and far afield. It may have contributed to the downfall of the Minoan civilisation. While there is still much speculation and conjecture about the source of the Atlantis myth, the Thera eruption is one of the leading 'candidates'.

Similarly, in the quest to identify the 'Arthur' who fought in Europe, Howells checks the credentials of all the various candidates. These include Constantine the Great and Riothamus. At first, the former seems feasible. "He became emperor in Britain and was even believed to have been born in Britain by some later historians, such as the writer of Geoffrey of Monmouth's source." He did make war against Rome, eventually emerging victorious as the emperor of both the western and eastern parts of the empire. The ancient city of Byzantium became the new capital of the Roman Empire and was renamed Constantinople in honour of Constantine. Also, he was famously the first emperor to convert to Christianity. However, there are not enough similarities with the Arthurian account for it to be him.

Riothamus, a Romano-British military leader active in Britain in the latter part of the 5th century, is favoured by Geoffrey Ashe, a British scholar and King Arthur specialist. Howells argues strongly against Ashe's conclusions with much detailed analysis, completely dismissing Riothamus as a possibility. It naturally leads to a fundamental question for the reader: if specialists with access to the same available texts disagree so fundamentally, what hope is there for the rest of us in coming to grips with the King Arthur conundrum?

After considering the pros and cons of other candidates in history as the "identity of the first Arthur", Howells make the case for his own choice, Andragathius. His quest to prove this part of his theory is perhaps the most labyrinthine of the whole book, starting with an attempt to show how that name may have been corrupted into 'Arthur'. To add to the confusion, Howells claims that this Andragathius was also referred to as 'Anthun', which at least is much closer to 'Arthur', but also 'Dunod', which is totally different. If these are one and the same person, as Howells claims, it appears that he was the eldest son of Magnus Maximus, Roman commander of Britain in the late 4th century.

The reasoning behind this conclusion is based on some obscure Welsh genealogies referring to wives and sons of Maximus, despite the fact that a son named Victor, referred to in the contemporary Roman accounts, is "the only recorded son who can definitely be said to have existed". Whether or not Andragathius was related to Maximus, there is independent evidence that he was Magister equitum (Master of the cavalry). More relevantly, he did capture and kill the Roman Emperor Gratian in Gaul in 383, fulfilling one of the author's criteria for identifying the 'earlier Arthur'. Another criterion was that he had to be the 'King of Greece'. Evidently getting as far as the Balkans was enough to earn this epithet.

Caleb Howells has clearly worked hard at amassing a vast amount of textual references from various sources to throw more light on the mystery of the true identity and time of our iconic British King Arthur. I admire his tenacity but am sorry to say I found his research, arguments and tortuous speculations not only painstaking, as they are, but also painful. There is no pleasure in reading this book, apart from acquiring a little more knowledge about Roman Britain and the Dark Ages. But what is knowledge without wisdom?

There is no romance here, nothing of the 'quest for the grail' that the King Arthur story represents. Admittedly, the author did not set out to do that, and his book may appeal to a very limited readership of the same leanings as himself, digging for historical truth in obscure places. The mass market for the romantic legends will always be T.H. White's wonderful novel The Once and Future King. It may not be historically accurate, but who cares? Fantasy can be as strong as truth. Moreover, this would be a good time for King Arthur to return. England, and Britain, are in disarray. We need wise leadership now. And if he does return and reveal himself, then he might also tell us who he was, although that will put a few writers out of business. – Kevin Murphy

26 August 2019


Star Trek Speaks! [1] was a mass-market paperback, published in 1979. I picked up a copy at a secondhand book sale in Cheltenham nearly 30 years ago. Subtitled "Wit, Wisdom, Humor and Philosophy Culled Directly From the Scripts Of The Greatest TV Adventure Of All Time Created By Gene Roddenberry!", it's a collection of quotes from the Classic Trek TV series on various subjects touched on by the programme.

These are grouped into the chapters 'Universal Truths, Vulcans and Aliens, Emotion and Logic, War and Peace, the Military, Men and Women, Love, Life and Death, Society and Government, Science and Technology, Humanity' and 'Odds and Ends'. There's also an appendix, in which the authors thank those, who helped them, including Roddenberry for his optimistic vision of the future, and listing the individual episodes mentioned in the text, crediting the writers.

As is clear from the chapter headings, some of the quotes selected are merely about the fictional aliens of the Star Trek universe, such as the Vulcans and their logicality, the Klingons and their ethic of conquest and domination, Romulan militarism and the nature and ideologies of some of the other races that appeared briefly in the show. Like the Kelvans, invaders from the Andromeda Galaxy who appeared in the episode 'By Any Other Name'. But most of the quotes are comments on human nature and morality. It is this aspect of the programme that the writers found attractive, and which in their view caught the attention of millions of young people voicing their new, radical opinions during the turbulent decade of the '60s. In their introduction the authors state that
”Star Trek” spoke about aspects of life, death, humanity, society and a host of other universally understood concepts in a way seldom seen before on television. Indeed, its phenomenal success and loyal following is directly attributable to its unyielding optimistic outlook for the human race. The U.S.S. Enterprise is viewed by millions as our ambassador to the rest of the galaxy. Her crew is the embodiment of all the good we, as a race, can be, exhibiting the right combination of strengths and weaknesses that allow for the true human spirit to be evident to all.
Star Trek's audience, they state, was 'to a degree, in the forefront of a great change that swept the land. From the anti-war movement to the civil rights movement to the ecology movement, young-thinking people everywhere were expressing their opinions and deeply felt sentiments about the sorry state' of their country. Roddenberry, the show's creator, realised that he couldn't be as explicit in expressing his opinions as the people demonstrating in the streets. This was because television exists to sell sponsors' productions, thus giving the censors more power than the creator. And so Roddenberry had to put them in the vehicle of a Science Fiction show. This was not only good entertainment, but meant that 'no parallels could be drawn between purple, polka-dotted people and ourselves!' Roddenberry could put his observations on human nature and the future into the programme without appearing to rock the boat.

The show's fans love and admire it for its optimistic view of the future – humanity has survived the tensions of the Cold War and expanded out into space – and its liberal ethos. Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise stood for peaceful exploration, democracy, diversity and inclusion. In an America still marked by segregation and very obvious entrenched, institutional racism, the ship was remarkable for having a multiracial crew including Black and Asian officers beside Whites. The Russians were also represented in the form of Chekhov, and Spock was created partly to show that the crew wasn't just international, but also interplanetary. This ideology of cultural and racial diversity was symbolised in the show by the Vulcan IDIC, an abstract pattern whose name was an acronym for 'Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combination'. This was mean to express the way differences came together to produce a beautiful and harmonious whole.

At the same time, the show also had a progressive view of women's expanding role in this new universe. Roddenberry had initially wanted a 50/50 split between men and women, but this was turned down by the network. They feared that in the cramped conditions of a spacecraft, it would mean that there would be a 'lot of foolin'' going on. Nevertheless, women were represented on the Bridge in the form of Uhura, the ship's communications officer. In the first pilot, 'The Cage', the second in command was to be a woman. Down in the sickbay with Dr McCoy was Nurse Chapel, female yeomen worked alongside the men and brought Kirk his famous log. The show was nevertheless of its time in that the majority of its officers were male and humanity was described in terms of man or men.

Among the quotes about women are the statement that they are 'a mass of conflicting impulses', more easily terrified than men, and that 'worlds change, galaxies disintegrate, but a woman remains a woman'. Contemporary women might find these comments sexist and patronising, and the last quote appeared on a programme a little while ago to show how creepy the classic Star Trek was in its attitude to women. At the time it was probably considered suitably appreciative and it and similar pronouncements were probably regarded as no more than banal truisms. Not that men entirely get off without a few adverse comments about them. One quote comes from a female character complaining about the male ego.

Other quotes celebrate democracy, freedom of choice and movement, the freedom of people to choose the form of government that suits them. Murder and violence are condemned. At the same time, the series also felt that humanity needed challenges without which it would wither and die. It also believed that society declined and stagnated when dreams became more important than real life, as happened to the telepathic aliens that kidnap the Enterprise's captain and manipulate him and the crew using illusions created through the power of their minds in 'The Cage'. It also saw gambling as a positive part of human nature.

On the negative side, there are quotes recognising that humans were also savage killers, who consciously had to resist the urge to kill, and that they found it easier to understand the death of a single individual than millions. And human history was also a long succession of tyrants seeking power, like Genghis Khan and Adolf Hitler. At the same time, Kirk and the Federation weren't pacifists. They were locked in a cold war, often flaring into violent combat, with the Klingons and Romulans for control of the galaxy. In this tense situation, in which fiction mirrored that of the all-too real Cold War, the programme advocated instead a 'balance of terror' in which both sides possessed equal military strength, as a way of preserving the peace and each other. It's also very much of its time in that it rejects polytheism in favour of monotheism, coming as it did when the New Age movement was just emerging and modern paganism was still very much a fringe, countercultural phenomenon.

Looking back on the show, the Fantasy/Horror writer and critic Kim Newman once remarked that its liberalism was genuine, but limited from today's perspective. The short skirts worn by the female crew members were cited as evidence of this, showing that sexist attitudes still prevailed. But even if some of the show's observations now seem trite or even somewhat offensive, it probably was influential in spreading some of these liberal ideas. Through Star Trek ideas about racism and feminism could reach a far wider audience than the books and writings of anti-racist and feminist activists. Presented in a fictional form, it could also make them more attractive to people, who might otherwise be more conservative and resistant to them. People, who could respect Martin Luther King, but might baulk at more obviously radical Black voices, and those, who would not dream of reading anything by Gloria Steinem, for example.

But the book's also interesting for what it shows about Star Trek as a sociological and cultural phenomenon. Long before the emergence of the true postmodern religions of Jedi, various Churches of Elvis and the Church of the Subgenius, Star Trek was beginning to take on the form of a quasi-religion. This is the term sociologists use to describe those social, political or ethical movements that take on some of the character of religion. These include nationalism, Communism and Humanism. In the case of the latter, sociologists also use 'quasi-religion' to distinguish them from true religions, partly because so many atheists vehemently reject the idea that atheism, or forms it, can also be considered a form of religion.

The Church of All Worlds, [symbol left] a neo-pagan religion founded in the late 1960s, was consciously based on the Martian religion of Robert Heinlein's book, Stranger in a Strange Land. Frank Herbert's cult SF epic, Dune, and its sequels and prequels, are also admired by its fans for its observations and insights into power politics and religion, although these were lost when the book was filmed by David Lynch in 1985. And part of its attraction to some of its readers was its concern with spirituality. One writer, reviewing the film for the Observer, said that he had had the book recommended to him by one of his students, but it never spoke to his 'messianic needs'. The emergence of various forms of quasi-religion explicitly based on science fiction also mirrors the UFO phenomenon, which was also promoted by an SF magazine editor, Ray Palmer, and which frequently draws on the imagery of popular science fiction.

I've no doubt that to most of its devoted fans, Star Trek is no more than a piece of harmless fun. The people going to conventions dressed as Klingons, Romulans, Vulcans or Star Fleet officers are no different than the fans of other SF shows, like Dr. Who, who also go to conventions dressed as the Doctor and various aliens and characters from the series, like the Daleks. Or indeed Star Wars fans or those of various Marvel and DC comics characters, like Spiderman, the Hulk, Superman and Batman. But Star Trek's distinct and explicit moral and political outlook – its belief in progress, the peaceful exploration of space, anti-racism and anti-sexism – has meant that it's taken on the quality of myth in the religious and political sense. It's a narrative that provides the basis for a shared cultural ideology in which people can find meaning.

Thus in 1996 an American fan, called up for jury service, caused controversy when she turned up for court wearing a Star Trek uniform. She did so, she explained to the news media, because of the Federation's concern for equality. One young man interviewed said that his love of the show had led to him become active in advocating the exploration of space. Reviewing the show's history, the ' 90s television special Thirty Years of Star Trek also featured a 'church of Trek'. This was a Unitarian church in Florida, whose minister was a fan of the series and based his sermons on the show. He was shown preaching to his flock about how 'we are all on a Trek'. Among the music included in the programme was a song with the refrain 'Born again Star Trek', which had the lines 'We'll make the whole world follow Star Trek, and, if we must, use force'. Which was surely a comment on the show's obsessive fandom, comparing it to 'born again' Protestant revivalist zeal.

That said, there are no organised Churches of Star Trek like the self-conscious churches of Elvis, another centre of quasi-religious veneration. And the other Star Trek themed song the programme used was The Firm's 'Star Trekkin'', an affectionate, but less than respectful track that contained the lines 'Ever going forward 'cause we can't find reverse', 'It's worse than that, he's dead, Jim!' and 'We come in peace, shoot to kill'. Lines that gently spoofed some of the show's cliches.

If few Star Trek fans go as far as the above juror or the Unitarian minister, the show's quasi-religious quality, marks it as cult SF in a real, deep sense. Since then the fans of other shows have published similar books about the wisdom of their favourite SF/Fantasy series. Looking through Waterstones you can find books like The Wit and Wisdom of Tyrion Lannister, a character from Game of Thrones. Nevertheless, Star Trek Speaks was one of the first such books. It would be too much to claim that it was in any sense a literal holy book for the show's fans, but it does show the desire to produce a central text of its core ideas. And in that sense it's similar to the writing and compilation of religious texts preserving the ideas and teachings of the religion's founders. -- David Sivier.

[1] Star Trek Speaks!, by Susan Sackett, Fred Goldstein and Stan Goldstein (New York: Pocket Books/ London: Futura 1979)

20 August 2019


Sam Wiseman. Locating the Gothic in British Modernity. Clemson University Press, 2019.

Until reading Sam Wiseman’s brilliant book I hadn’t comfortably connected elements of the gothic with what constituted modernity. It’s not that there aren’t thematic overlaps in the sense that they can both seriously attack rationality or create a new rationale. That a ‘natural’ (Modern Life) under stress and the stress of the supernatural (Gothic Rupture) affected each another. In fact a pivot between romanticism and modernism is still very much part of our culture and is particularly so in Wiseman’s chosen period of study – from 1890’s fin de si├Ęcle up to the Second World War. Yet perhaps my definition of a gothic style being a brooding, but essentially melodramatic, romanticism and early modernism as solely radical experiments with the text was perhaps too limited, too neatly compartmentalised. If so then my assumptions have been very effectively challenged by Locating the Gothic in British Modernity.

“I share with those critics a belief that the modernist era witnesses an ongoing evolution and proliferation of Gothicized literary representations, but my analytical focus is upon experimental and formally conventional texts alike…it is one of the aims of this study to explore the gothic of the geographical edge lands, sites where country and city bleed into one another, which form a recurring presence throughout the book.”

But before consider Wiseman’s aims and intentions we should maybe have a definition of the gothic. I’m happy to go along with Wiseman quoting gothic specialist Judith Wilts who is principally concerned with its material setting.

“No single aspect of plot, image or word says ‘Gothic’ to us so clearly as the aspect of place. The castle, the tower, the graveyard, the prison, the rocky crag hung between wind and sea…”

Yet does such iconic imagery more comfortably belong in the 18th century context of The Castle of Otranto than late Victorian gothic? That the harsh, wild psychology of The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Picture of Dorian Grey and Dracula are leaving that setting behind as they enter the 20th century? Wiseman argues that the older gothic locations (Jayne Eyre et al) are moving from the country to the city and sometimes retreating back to it in very fluid, sinister and unexpected ways.

I also wondered if the mechanisation of the world, technological innovation and a growing belief in science didn’t undermine the gothic sensibility. Yet Wiseman takes a most unlikely novel, D.H.Lawrence’s Son’s and Lovers (with its heightened naturalism) and convinced me that the gothic power that protagonist Paul Morel senses in rural life is also infecting a London metropolitan modernity.

One of the delights of this book is to include not just canonical writers such a Joyce, Lawrence, Wilde, T.S.Eliot and Virginia Woolf but draw in neglected figures such as Mary Butts and Nancy Cunard along side of narrowly defined horror fiction writers such as Algernon Blackwood and Arthur Machen.

At chapter 3 “In the Black Ruins of the Frenzied Night” Wiseman tackles the effects of the First World War on the combatants and the after effects on civilians in an urban setting. Arthur Machen’s story 'The Bowmen' (about the Battle of Mons in Belgium) and Eliot’s The Waste Land appear to be infiltrated by ghosts. A foreign battlefield and the consciousness of Londoners are seen as related. Modern communications meant that letters and newspapers were quickly received by soldiers at the front. The dreadful presence of the trenches contrasted with urban normality. This paradoxically created a sense of disconnect with reality and an odd fusion: a spectral, gothic sensibility of dread hanging over spaces in different lands. Between these locations came the Zeppelin raids, these flying apparatus assuming a gothic menace as powerful as any castle, tower and rocky crag.

In his discussion of The Waste Land (1922) Wiseman astutely draws out how haunted the poem is by the memory of those who died in the battlefields: that their death has affected the lives of Londoners now moving across the city in a zombie-like manner.

Unreal City
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.

The suggestion also being that the dead are reinforcements of soldiers going from England daily to the line, who live on inside and through the living.

“Eliot’s poem thus connects with Machen and Lawrence’s wartime writings in its articulation of a metropolitan environment that feels fragile, hallucinatory, and protean, liable to shift form or dissolve altogether.”

The whole of Sam Wiseman’s book is concerned to discuss sites that “bleed into one another.” where a fragmented sense of the complexity of the modern world is still attached to gothic strains both paganistic and supernatural that would threaten to destabilise a rational world order. The past and the present are seen to accompany each other and prove to have a troubling ambivalence. Ancient powers damn the new, for modernism is always threatened and may not last. And the new can dangerously tamper with and suppress much of a Gothic inheritance that we still need to deal with.

“…but as modernity enters different phases the Gothic becomes increasingly ironic, reflexive, and allusive, layered with cultural histories, commingled with literary spectres…”

To all that I would say yes. I was completely convinced by Wiseman’s subtly written and nuanced argument. Locating the Gothic in British Modernity is a scholarly achievement of great distinction, wide ranging, generously attentive to detail and genuinely manages to break new ground exploring this fascinating literary territory. -- Alan Price

16 August 2019


Charles F. Gritzner. North Carolina Ghost Lights and Legends. Blair, NC. 2019.

Have you ever stood on a dark, windy hilltop in the middle of the night, shivering in the cold, trying to keep warm with a Thermos flask of coffee, watching for lights in the ink-black sky; wondering whether those lights were from distant cars, aircraft, meteors, satellites, swamp-gas, extraterrestrial spacecraft, or pranksters with a flashing light rigged up on the roof of a parked car?

Well if you were in Warminster in the nineteen-sixties and 'seventies (or even the 2000's in some cases) then you probably have. Charles Gritzner is someone who has shared that experience with you, although his lights are thousands of miles away in North Carolina.

The 'ghost light' phenomenon may not be as widespread on this side of the Atlantic as it is in the USA, and in the USA it seems nowhere is it more widespread than in North Carolina. I think most people familiar with Fortean phenomena will at least have heard of the 'Brown Mountain Lights', and they are in this book, although the author saves them pretty much to the last.

But there are many other intriguing luminous phenomena scattered plentifully about the state, and Charles Gritzner has made it his target to witness them all. Or at least visit their locations as some seem to have retired from active service. Gritzner is a geographer, and has lectured on 'geomythology' and the 'geography of the paranormal', which he describes as being “on the margins of traditional geographical enquiry.” Maybe, but I'd still like to have been at one of his lectures!

He takes a traditional geographical approach to his topic, closely examining the locations of the phenomena, studying the immediate environment, and looking, wherever possible, for an explanation in conventional scientific terms. However, he also takes a sociological approach to the subject, and attempts to put the lights into historical context, as well as surveying folklore and local legend and rumour.

North Carolina appears to be the epicentre of ghost-light phenomena in the US, and he puts this down to a number of factors. It is a state which has an unusually high rural population, scattered in small settlements, so the phenomena is not obliterated by the lights of big cities. It is also a region which was settled very early by colonists from the British Isles who brought much of their native folklore with them – a folklore which included will-o-the-wisps, corpse-lights, boggarts and fairies.

This was overlaid by a later folklore, as the settled communities began to interact with their new environment and the new people they came into contact with. Much of the folklore surrounding the North Carolina lights involved railways, and in the gazetteer of lights which comprises most of this book a great proportion are situated on or adjacent to railway lines, and specifically bridges.

There is a consistent story which occurs over and over again at different locations, that lights along the lines are the result of a tragic accident. Usually this involves a railway worker, driver, fireman or unfortunate passenger who was decapitated in a crash or explosion. The light represents the lantern his spectre is carrying as he, or in one or two cases she, searches for the missing head. Although, as the author points out, it is difficult to understand how the headless revenant would be able to find their head without the use of their eyes!

Gritzner meticulously researches the alleged history of these stories, and in some cases does find an historical incident which may have been the origin of the legend, but more often than not it seems that this is a sort of standard explanation that has been attached to widely separated light phenomena. If fact some 'lights' although reported in one or other source, were completely unknown to local residents, libraries and historical societies, and appear to have been made up out of whole cloth. Lights which were visible at one time have faded from view, often when the railroad tracks they hovered over were lifted in the 1970s, but others stayed on despite the removal of the iron way.

The author speculates on the role that the tracks may have played in creating the phenomenon, either by some trick of reflection, or the metal itself attracting an electrical phenomenon, but he does not pretend that any one explanation can account for all the lights. This is a book as much about stories, legend and rumour as it is about physical phenomenon.

Gritzner has visited all the locations he writes about, and in quite a few cases has witnessed the lights himself. Sometimes he has been able to deduce an explanation, but mostly finds there to be no really convincing explanation. In some cases he has been able to determine that the reported phenomenon was clearly a joke or a hoax, and in other instances the reports were so vague that it is likely nothing was ever seen at at the alleged site. When reading about the individual cases it would be useful for the reader to be able to access Google Earth, as locations are given very precisely and it is possible to imagine yourself at the spot as the author describes the phenomenon.

Towards the end of the book Gritzner tells us about his visit to Brown Mountain, and reports a spectacular array of lights across a wide area. These seem to be a true anomaly, with many thousands of witnesses over decades. They seem to have a great deal of documented history behind them as well as a tradition of folktales. I have no idea what might be going on there, and neither does the author, but of all the lights – and stories of lights – that he encountered in his extensive journeying, this is the display that impressed him most.

This is an interesting and enjoyable account of a search that did not end in any simple explanation for the phenomena, but reveals the complexity involved in studying any Fortean phenomenon 'in the wild'. I'll never visit North Carolina, but I found myself drawn into its mysteries through the accounts in this book. – John Rimmer.

14 August 2019


John B. Kachuba Shapeshifters - A History. Reaktion Books. 2019

All of us are shapeshifters whether we realise it or not. Simply to grow is to change shape, and it is all too human to find that, for whatever reasons, we have grown rather too much for our liking. So it is a common experience to want to change the shape and appearance of our human body for the better, and this is naturally within our power to achieve with sustained effort of will and action over time. 

But there is another kind of shapeshifting altogether that can only be called supernatural by virtue of the purported ability to change shape totally and instantaneously, from human to animal or any other form. Just a brief consideration of the subject reveals many possibilities and aspects, some to do with human psychology and others in the advanced realms of quantum physics and esoteric knowledge.

As this new publication reveals in its title, Shapeshifters - A History, the whole phenomenon can be viewed from a historical perspective. This means taking a wide-ranging survey of ancient mythology, folklore, literature, films, social trends and cases from many different countries and cultures to analyse what is really going on. John B. Kachuba is a seasoned writer and researcher on ghosts and other occult matters, both in fiction and non-fiction. This book is concise yet remarkably comprehensive, covering everything from werewolves and vampires to costume play and masquerades. It is also well-written, equally as entertaining as it is informative for any reader.

I gathered somewhere online that Kachuba teaches Creative Writing at Ohio University. He demonstrates his own creative writing skills in the opening words of the Introduction, where he describes the archetypal transformation of a man into a werewolf: "As night falls, a desperate figure cowers in the forest, terrified and yet excited as he ponders what is about to unfold. The Moon rises full and round over the forest, and he is caught in its ghostly luminescence." The description of a painful transformation, with bones stretching, clothes shredding, nails lengthening into razor-sharp claws and fur sprouting all over the body conveys an impression of what human-to-animal shapeshifting might actually feel like. It would certainly be better to find a forest and not do this at home. Your resultant howls might disturb the neighbours.

Werewolves and vampires often appear as shapeshifters in popular culture, the latter not being so obvious until you remember that they often transform into a bat to journey from the grave to the object of their compulsion. Kachuba reminds us that until the Middle Ages it was not thought to be within the power of mortal men to transform from human to animal and back again. This was reserved for the shaman and his hunting magic. Indigenous cultures, such as those in North America and Siberia, often dressed themselves in the skins of the animals they were hunting, and might use hallucinogenic herbs and magical techniques to enter into the mindset and behaviour of their prey.

Ancient cultures, such as that of Egypt, feature several gods with animal heads and human bodies. They believed that the spirit or energy of the gods could inhabit a statue as well as an animal or a human. Also, "Greek and Roman mythology is rife with stories of fantastical shapeshifting, but, here too, it is the gods who are the perpetrators of such transformations, working them upon the human race." The chief of the Greek gods, Zeus, transformed into all manner of forms to have his wicked way with attractive humans of both genders. His abundant progeny gave rise to his popular moniker 'the father of the gods'.

Ovid's famous poetic work Metamorphoses is quoted for what may be the first known reference to a human becoming a werewolf. The story is drawn from Greek mythology, in which Lycaon, cruel king of Arcadia, serves human flesh to Zeus in order to test him. Jove (the Roman name for Zeus) punishes Lycaon by turning him into a wolf: "...his arms were legs and his robes were shaggy hair. Yet, still he is Lycaon, the same grayness, the same fierce face, the same red eyes, a picture of bestial savagery." Lycanthropy, the clinical condition of being a werewolf, usually of course a psychiatric delusion, is named after him.

It is not only Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cultures who had shapeshifting gods. The supreme god of the Norse Pantheon, Odin, whose name lives on in English as the day of the week Wednesday, is an eternal shapeshifter. He is said to roam the world in his guise as the Wanderer, a tall one-eyed elderly gentleman wearing a broad hat, "bringing wisdom and knowledge to heroes". There are rumours that he attends Magonia meetings in the guise of chairman, but these cannot be substantiated.

According to Hindu tradition, the god Vishnu incarnates on Earth from time to time in various forms to restore the cosmic order. The last two we know of were Krishna, who appeared as a pleasant young man with a blue complexion, and Gautama Siddhartha, the one known as 'the Buddha'. We are now awaiting his arrival as "Kalki, the 'Destroyer of Filth', who will usher in the end times, arriving on a white horse and bearing a blazing sword". This corresponds with the Book of Revelation vision of Christ returning to Earth to bring peace and justice, not the 'meek and mild Jesus' who turned the other cheek.

Interestingly, the author refers to an ancient Coptic text, nearly 1,300 years old and now held at the Morgan Library in New York, which implies that Jesus was a shapeshifter. Part of the text reads: "Then the Jews said to Judas: How shall we arrest him, for he does not have a single shape but his appearance changes. Sometimes he is ruddy, sometimes he is white, sometimes he is red, sometimes he is wheat coloured, sometimes he is pallid like ascetics, sometimes he is a youth, sometimes he is an old man." The Jews coming to arrest Jesus needed a way to identify him because of his ability to change appearance. This understanding of Judas' kiss is also found in Origen, the second-century theologian.

The question obviously arises at some point: Is shapeshifting an actual transformation or an effect of perception, either mistaken or manipulated in some way? After considering several different cases, Kachuba says: "An internal shapeshifter believes he has fully taken on the consciousness and behaviour of some animal, even though he retains his human form." He then proposes that, by being convinced through the effects of suggestion and ritual, observers may experience a kind of hysteria. After all, it would be difficult in any particular case to prove that a full physical transformation had occurred, as all is dependent on perception. Those of us who have been amazed to see a good stage conjurer apparently transform one thing into another are all the more delighted when we could detect no sign whatever of sleight of hand. This is the effect of real magic and shows the power of the mind, including our own.

'The Power of Transformation' is the chapter where Kachuba really grapples with the deep philosophical and occult questions around shapeshifting. He starts with the gospel account of the Transfiguration, accepted by many Christians as a miracle to show Jesus' divine nature. Three of his closest disciples reported what they witnessed on the mountain top as a transformation from human form to a radiant being of light. They were forbidden to speak of the experience until after his death. What to make of this? If it really was a genuine shapeshifting then it would indicate that he had acquired, or had access to, higher powers. Such demonstrations can serve to strengthen the faith of disciples and catapult them in turn to breakthroughs of physical limitations.

However, such phenomena have been reported from Swamis in India, and other holy men. The one known as Buddha was reported to have transfigured twice, at the time of his enlightenment and at the moment of his death. Anyone with spiritual knowledge knows that humans have other, more subtle bodies beyond the physical, but being able to demonstrate a glorified appearance would not in itself be useful or helpful except in very particular circumstances according to wisdom. Or it might occur spontaneously as a by-product of ecstasy, a word which literally means to stand beside oneself.

This may explain why we don't see much shapeshifting in public. It could be very inconvenient as well as causing a panic in the general population. Kachuba does not shy away from the theory associated with David Icke that some members of royalty and the ruling elite are 'shapeshifting reptiles' who originally came from the star system Alpha Draconis. To his credit, Kachuba does not simply mock Icke or his work but rather asks why an estimated twelve million people believe such a theory. "Perhaps it might be that many people are at a loss to explain the chaos and misrule so evident in the world, and have an easier time believing alien reptilian shapeshifters are behind it all. . ."

Encounters with aliens or UFOs are fraught with such questions as how 'real' they are. A writer by the name of M.J.Banias is cited for his 'Co-Creation Hypothesis', explaining that a contact event with an 'NHI' (non-human intelligence) "is so totally alien that the human brain cannot comprehend the event in an objective way. What occurs instead is a sort of experiential analogue, the human brain generates a working, albeit false, reality to understand the NHI encounter event." We have to get used to the idea that NHIs exist, possibly without any discernible body, before we can have any meaningful communication with them.

In the same chapter is an excellent overview of the findings of Carl Gustav Jung. It is useful to have a list of primary archetypes: the Persona, the Shadow, the Wise Elder, the Divine Child, the Trickster, the Great Mother, and the animus/anima, also called the Shapeshifter. Every human contains both masculine and feminine elements, "but not necessarily always in balance. It is the imbalance of the natures that is representative of shapeshifting." Furthermore, it is not only having options of forms, which can be changed, but also formlessness itself. We are paradoxical in nature, having present form while still existing as a formless spirit.

A good example from modern culture of the power of transformation is the Incredible Hulk, the superhuman green monster that mild-mannered Bruce Banner becomes when he flies into an uncontrollable rage. It is a common feature of superheroes that they gain their awesome powers while in the altered state. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson is an example given of the corruption that can happen if one over-indulges the wild side. Nice Dr Jekyll finds himself being overtaken by his psychopathic alter-ego Mr Hyde and it ultimately destroys him.

Naturally for this theme, Kachuba devotes a whole chapter to folklore and fairy tales from around the world', some of which will be familiar. Tales such as 'Beauty and the Beast' or the Brothers Grimm's tale of 'the Frog Prince' are directly about shapeshifting magic and the wisdom to see beyond appearances. The lesson is often that pure love and a good heart can overcome powerful evil. Other chapters look at shapeshifting in modern culture, such as Dr Who on BBC, not only changing form as a man but in the latest version presenting as a woman. Gender-bending is clearly a feature of the current zeitgeist.

Shapeshifting in literature and film is surprisingly prevalent. Bram Stoker's Dracula and Franz Kafka's horror novel Metamorphosis are prime examples among hundreds. J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series of novels is another. The classic vampire film Nosferatu opened the floodgates to a great wave of shapeshifting films on the dark side. My favourite sentence in Kachuba's enjoyable book is his description of the famous series of British horror films that we are so familiar with: "Hammer films were instantly recognizable by their bevy of busty beauties and bountiful buckets of blood". That's the way to do it! Shapeshifting may be over the top sometimes, but on the other hand it can be a lot of fun for those that know how to play. – Kevin Murphy

9 August 2019


Andrew May. Cosmic Impact: Understanding the Threat to Earth from Asteroids and Comets. Icon Books, 2019.

Twenty one years ago actress Tea Leoni stood on the east coast of the USA watching as a tsunami raced towards her across the ocean. She knew there was no escape from imminent death. Happily this was just a fictional climax to the Hollywood movie, Deep Impact, where human civilisation was about to be obliterated by a comet on collision course with Earth.

But that fiction was very much reality 66 million years earlier when almost all dinosaur species and many other forms of life perished following a similar impact in the Gulf of Mexico. Humans only became the dominant species today after that stellar object smashed into our planet and tiny mammalian ancestors living underground evaded the wipe out.

The difference between fiction and terrifying reality is the subject of this thought-provoking primer by an astrophysicist. Only in the last 100 years or so have we become aware of the inevitability that this will happen again. Perhaps a million years from now. Or next week. For the first time in the 4.5 billion years history of Earth a species living here has the intelligence and technology to try to do something about events that occur regularly across the universe.

The object that did for the dinosaurs was only 10 km wide – a pebble on the scale of space. Until the last century we had no idea it existed. All the species on Earth faced explosions in the sky as their universe disintegrated. Death came both swiftly from the firestorm circling the globe and slowly via the long nuclear winter as the debris blotted out sunlight.

Today our growing knowledge of astronomy and geology has found overwhelming evidence in the rocks of this explosion five billion times more powerful than the bomb over Hiroshima. Satellites in orbit can even show the impact crater under the ocean much like those on the Moon – with the one on Earth 200 km wide. Study of rock strata show these impacts may be instant death for those nearby but equally costly thousands of miles away. They are apocalyptic.

Worryingly, objects bigger than the dinosaur killer are out there and countless others just as deadly theoretically could cross paths with ours. They and our world move in a never ending cosmic ballet where orbits weave intricate courses that avoid being in the same spot at the same moment 99.999% of the time. But it is never 100% - making collisions with our planet a matter of when, not if. The Earth is hit many times each day by tiny ones that burn up in our thick atmosphere. They are not the problem. The rare big ones are.

May is an engaging conveyor of the facts in this easy to read investigation of the search for solutions. He reveals a race against time to find something we do not have – a reliable Earth defence system. So - if we see one coming - we can prevent humans from going vanishing in a blink.

The book takes us through the different problems posed by comets and asteroids – both potential killers but not defeatable in the same way. Hollywood often makes it seem easy – brave astronauts plant a bomb and blow up the rock. Unfortunately real life is never quite as simple.

May tells how our advancing knowledge and space programme put a telescope in Earth orbit so we could predict a year ahead such an event was due. Thankfully comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 was going to impact onto the surface of Jupiter in July 1994. Not us.

We could watch from safe distance as it did so, having been broken up by Jupiter's immense gravity into nine separate objects around a km wide. One after the other they struck the thick atmosphere of the gas giant exactly as predicted – Jupiter's vast size and attractive pull making it the target struck by killer impacts on the most regular basis. But this was the first time in human history that we could watch in awe and see the aftermath – multiple huge explosive blotches the size of Earth that scarred the upper atmosphere of Jupiter for weeks.

Something similar will happen again or Earth may be next and we must hope we have enough time to put in place one of the theoretical methods to try to break apart, slow down, or nudge off course any behemoth heading our way. Right now all we can do is find and chart the big ones and calculate risk of future collision.

 To our shock one of these – now named Apophis – has already been discovered heading our way to very nearly hit us in 2029. At a third of a km it is a killer. Apophis is bigger than one that exploded over Siberia in 1908 flattening a vast area. It would have taken out a city if times were slightly different. Apophis is an even greater threat to millions. Thankfully, in 2029 it will pass inside Earth orbiting satellites and in cosmic terms be the narrowest of squeaks. We are safe. This time.

However, there are others out there not yet found. One of them very likely has our number on it – be that number reading ten years or ten thousand. The race is on to be ready to both see it coming and have enough warning to then act.

Of course, by the time it gets here we must perfect a way to make sure it does not fulfil its date with destiny. The political will needs to be there to find the necessary money. but after reading May's book you will urge world leaders that it must be. -- Jenny Randles.