24 November 2016


Andrew May. Pseudoscience and Science Fiction. Springer, 2017.

In this book Andrew May, known for his articles in Fortean Times, examines the influence that 'pseudoscience', i.e. Fortean phenomena and the paranormal, have had on science fiction and vice versa. As the book is aimed at an academic readership in a series entitled 'Science and Science Fiction' it adopts a suitably sceptical tone.
In the first chapter May examines the influence of Charles Fort on science fiction writers such as Edmond Hamilton and Eric Frank Russell. The latter’s Fortean novel Sinister Barrier is based on Fort’s suggestion that 'we are property' and one can see its influences on many of today’s conspiracy theories. I was rather surprised to see that May thought Fort drew his sources from “small local newspapers”, where in fact most came from journals such as Nature, Popular Mechanics and similar, although most were from the early years, before science had become professionalised and systematised.

May notes that many Fortean writers also engaged in science fiction, often under assumed names, Lionel Fanthorpe for example before becoming a minster of religion wrote a vast number of science fiction potboilers under assumed names. The lines between the two are very permeable and May shows how Fort and the Shaver mystery were united by pulp writer Ray Palmer to create the background for ufology. I hadn’t realised before that the other main creator of ufology, Donald Keyhoe, had been a pulp science fiction writer. 

Science fiction often anticipated allegedly real events; for example the first UFO abduction came in a fictional story by Dennis Wheatley The Star of Ill Omen. The fictional Terror above Us by Malcolm Kent anticipated many later developments in the abduction narratives. In later chapters May examines the role of ESP and other 'wild talents', exotic spaceship propulsion theories, zero point energy and all sorts of unusual devices, several of which were patronised by authors such as John Campbell. Science fiction writers have tended to avoid the overtly occult, and are more likely to give pseudo-scientific or pseudo-technical explanations of wild talents.

Another trope which comes eventually from Fort is the ancient astronaut hypothesis, which drew in elements from theosophy via Desmond Leslie, biblical fundamentalist via the likes of M. K. Jessup and many more, along with dreams of Atlantis. One of the key texts here was Dawn of Magic, which also introduced notions of secret societies and occult influences on Nazism. These, of course feed into the modern conspiracy theories. 

While many of the themes and examples given in this book will be familiar to a Fortean readership, this is not the target audience for whom this book is aimed, and it will make a useful introduction to those not familiar with the topics involved and is illustrated with some very striking colour illustrations of book and magazine covers.

One of the ironies of what May calls pseudoscience is that it is often the last refuge of the very authoritarian presentation of science through argument from authority that Fort was protesting against (and ironically could not understand science as a ongoing enterprise in which new observations and experiments can change opinions rapidly and which there often serious disagreements). Probably economics and logistics helped to give rise to this ideology of 'Todhunterism', named after the mathematician Isaac Todhunter (1820-1884), who argued that experimental science had no place in schools as it was mere repetition, which all too often had the unfortunate outcome of not giving the “right result”. Students should therefore just believe the word of their tutor “probably a clergyman of mature knowledge, recognised ability and blameless character” (i.e. someone like Todhunter). This is of course the essence of pseudoscience. -- Peter Rogerson.

1 comment:

Andrew May said...

Thanks for the nice review Peter!