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.
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In fact Fort himself was a science fiction writer manqué, with two unpublished novels titled X and Y which were based on the data that Fort was collecting and which formed the basis for Procession of the Damned.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

1 comment:

Count Otto Black said...

There is nothing whatsoever to be said about Charles Fort, any more than there is about André Breton, for approximately the same reasons, except that at least Charles Fort wasn't a psychopath. Therefore instead of commenting on this overpriced book, here's a link to an obscure country and western gospel song about how those goshdarn flying saucers are something to do with God and the End Times and all that kerfuffle. Note that this 78 rpm record came out in 1947. Is this the very first record about UFOs? It's certainly one of the first, and rather than being a novelty song it's already linking the mystery disks with religion. In the same year the same artists also recorded an entirely un-ironic song thanking God for His great gift of nuclear weapons.

https://archive.org/details/78_when-you-see-those-flying-saucers_buchanan-brothers-and-the-georgia-catamounts-cy_gbia0369105a