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Sunday 7 April 2024

Fake Physics and Dubious Statistics

 

 With April Fools' Day last week, it brought to mind a book I wrote a few years ago called Fake Physics. Around a third of the books I've written weren't actually my idea, but originated in a suggestion from the editors - and Fake Physics is in this category. It arose when an editor at Springer Books drew my attention to the ArXiv website, which is normally home to serious physics papers but has a tradition of publishing spoof papers on the first day of April each year. Some of the more fortean-sounding examples include "On the Influence of the Illuminati in Astronomical Adaptive Optics" (2012), "Conspiratorial Cosmology: the Case against the Universe" (2013) and "Astrology in the Era of Exoplanets" (2016).

I chose the title Fake Physics to echo the "fake news" that everyone was talking about at the time, but it's very much about fakery for the purposes of entertainment rather than deception. The scope is made clearer in the book's subtitle, which is "Spoofs, Hoaxes and Fictitious Science". In the latter category are science-fictional creations ranging from the carefully explained (but entirely made-up) Blackett-Dirac equations of James Blish's Cities in Flight novels to the throwaway technobabble - "subspace field stress" and the like - of Star Trek.

As for hoaxes - in the world of academic physics, their most common purpose is to catch out gullible editors while amusing fellow scientists. These include such things as littering papers with references to popular culture from Star Wars to Rick and Morty, or using an AI-style computer program to generate convincing-looking technical jargon. As an example of the latter, specially created for this blog post, I used an online tool called MathGen to produce a paper on abstract mathematics by Charles Fort and H. P. Lovecraft. The result is 9 pages long, highly academic-looking and incomprehensible in a thoroughly realistic way. I won't inflict the whole thing on you, but I'll attach a screenshot of the opening to the bottom of this post.

Perhaps the most amusing items in Fake Physics are the numerous scientific spoofs, whether done specifically for April Fools' Day or not. These include an entire book called Mathematical Modelling of Zombies, published by the University of Ottawa Press in 2012 and featuring chapters with titles like "When Humans Strike Back: Adaptive Strategies for Zombie Attacks" and "An Evolvable Linear Representation for Simulating Government Policy in Zombie Outbreaks".

Even the most upmarket journals aren't above printing the occasional April Fool piece. A case in point is Nature, which Wikipedia describes as "one of the world's most-read and most prestigious academic journals". In April 2015 it printed a short article called "Here Be Dragons", which begins as follows:
Emerging evidence indicates that dragons can no longer be dismissed as creatures of legend and fantasy, and that anthropogenic effects on the world's climate may inadvertently be paving the way for the resurgence of these beasts.
The authors back up their claim with a graph - based on genuine, unaltered statistical data - showing a definite correlation between global temperature and the occurrence of dragons in fiction. This is an example of another category of "fakes" discussed in the book - ones that use valid data, but deliberately misinterpret it to humorous effect. There's a whole website devoted to such things - Tyler Viglen's Spurious Correlations - which is packed with bizarre relationships that his software has found while trawling through a vast database of statistical data. Here's an example, showing an indisputable correlation between UFO sightings in Massachusetts between 2011 and 2021, and patents granted to the Sony Corporation over the same period:

Despite the website's name, correlations like this aren't "spurious" - they're perfectly real. Where the error arises is in assuming (as is common among conspiracy theorists, for example) that, if two quantities are correlated, there must be a cause-and-effect relationship between them. As Viglen's strapline puts it, "correlation is not causation". If you go to the page where I found that graph, he gives a detailed explanation of what's shown, where the data came from, and what can and can't be deduced from it. You'll also notice that, just below the graph, he seems to imply that he's in the process of developing an AI that can fabricate its own explanations for all these correlations!

Finally, before I forget, here's the snippet from that maths paper by Fort and Lovecraft that I promised:



Sunday 31 March 2024

Popular Culture in Fortean Times


In the comment thread to last week's post, I mentioned that Fortean Times occasionally touches on various aspects of popular culture, from cult TV and movies to comics and pop music. So I thought I'd do a quick run-through of a few examples today.

To start with some very obvious topics, there are the three shown above. The X-Files (FT 82, August 1995) was not only one of the most fortean TV shows of all time, but its first appearance in 1993 coincided with the wider distribution of FT to "mainstream" retailers like WH Smith, and almost certainly contributed to the magazine's popularity at that time. Around a decade later, Dan Brown's novel The Da Vinci Code (FT 193, March 2005) was a publishing phenomenon, bringing fringe theories that had previously been the realm of specialist writers (and FT contributors) like Lionel Fanthorpe and Lynn Picknett to a much wider audience. Just over a century earlier, Bram Stoker had done something similar in his novel Dracula - the title character of which went on to become one of the most recognisable and ubiquitous pop-culture icons of them all, as recounted in the cover feature of FT 257 (January 2010).

At a less obvious level, you can find references to popular culture in almost every issue of FT. Taking the one I discussed last week, for example - FT 73 from February/March 1994 - there's an interview with cult author William Gibson, generally credited as the originator of the cyberpunk genre. And I spotted something else in that issue, too: a book review by comics legend Alan Moore. I don't mean a review of one of his graphic novels - I mean a review written by him of someone else's work. Looking online, I see he actually did quite a few reviews for FT in those days - which pleases me enormously, as I've done over 40 of them myself. It's always nice to discover that you have something in common with a famous person!

Sticking with books and comics for a moment, here are three more covers that caught my eye. No apologies for a second appearance of The Da Vinci Code (FT 212 this time, from August 2006) - both because it's one of my favourite novels, and because I love the illustration on the cover. In addition to people like Picasso and Orson Welles, it features Da Vinci himself in the act of strangling Dan Brown! The middle cover (FT 256, December 2009) features Dennis Wheatley - best remembered today for The Devil Rides Out (the only one of his novels that I've read), although in his day he was Britain's most prolific author of occult fiction. Finally there's the only comics-themed cover I could find - FT 320 (November 2014), relating to the Fredric Wertham-inspired anti-comics paranoia than swept America in the 1950s.


I found a few shorter comic-related pieces on interior pages as well. The most interesting of these was an article in FT 277 (July 2011) called "The Morning of the Mutants", speculating that Stan Lee and/or Jack Kirby got the idea for the X-Men from the seminal (though now largely forgotten) fortean conspiracy book The Morning of the Magicians, written in 1960 by Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier. There's also a feature about Marvel Comics' Doctor Strange in FT 349 (January 2017, to tie in with the movie), which discusses the character's origin and fictional predecessors.

Regarding the "popular culture" of the mid-20th century, I can't resist mentioning a couple of pieces by myself - in fact the only two full-length feature articles I've had in FT. First there was "Fanthorpe's Fortean Fiction" (FT 297, February 2013) about the large number of mass-market paperback novels that Lionel Fanthorpe churned out in the late 1950s and early 60s. This was followed by "Astounding Science, Amazing Theories" (FT 355, July 2017), looking at fortean themes in the pulp science fiction magazines of the 1940s.

Pulp magazines were a huge part of popular culture in the first half of the 20th century, but - with a few notable exceptions - they're only of interest to die-hard fans today. Of those exceptions, perhaps the most important is H. P. Lovecraft, whose Cthulhu Mythos first took form in the pages of Weird Tales in the 1920s and 30s, before going on to develop a life of its own to rival that of Bram Stoker's Dracula. I found no fewer than three Lovecraft-inspired FT covers: FT 184 (June 2004), FT 369 (August 2018) and FT 390 (March 2020 - this one tying in with the movie adaptation of The Color Out of Space). Here they are:


As regards cult TV shows, I've already mentioned the most fortean of all, The X-Files - which not surprisingly made several further appearances after the one pictured at the top of this post (including FT 85 from February 1996, which had a rundown of all the fortean references in the show's first season). Three other TV-related covers are shown below, the middle of which - FT 215 from October 2006, celebrating 40 years of Star Trek - needs no introduction. The other two relate to the screenwriters (both with wider fortean interests than you might expect) behind two of Britain's most famous sci-fi icons: Kit Pedler, who created Doctor Who's second-most-famous villains, the Cybermen (FT 209, May 2006), and Nigel Kneale, creator of Professor Quatermass (FT 418, May 2022). The latter may no longer be a household name, but back in the 1950s he was really the first great TV sci-fi hero, in this country at least.


Turning to movies - I was spoiled for choice here, so I've picked out three covers that really speak for themselves. First there's a celebration of 50 years of Hammer Horror films (FT 223, June 2007), then a look at one of the mainstays of those films, Peter Cushing, on the 100th anniversary of his birth (FT 301, May 2013), and finally a 40-years-on retrospective about The Exorcist (FT 313, April 2014):

To be honest, my favourite thing about The Exorcist is the music - the snippet from Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells that it uses, I mean - which brings me neatly onto the next subject. When I talk about "pop culture" on this blog, I most often mean fairly specialized things like pulp magazines, comics (from the pre-multimedia franchise days) and cult TV shows such as The X-Files. But to most people, pop culture means just one thing, and that's pop music. This is such a pervasive part of modern life that it's acquired a plethora of fortean connections - so much so that I'm going to split them into two distinct parts.

To start with, here are three cover features that deal with direct fortean influences on musicians. The first, from FT 88 back in July 1996, describes how various pop stars from David Bowie and Jimi Hendrix to Kate Bush and The Orb absorbed ufological and similar speculations into their music. Second, there's a somewhat more arcane take on the same subject by Ian Simmons (FT 244, January 2009), featuring the likes of Stockhausen and Sun Ra - a much-referenced source for my own book The Science of Sci-Fi Music. Finally, in the immediate wake of David Bowie's death, there was a cover feature about the numerous fortean influences on his work (FT 338, March 2016) - including the aforementioned Morning of the Magicians by Pauwels and Bergier.


Another aspect of pop music that's of fortean interest is the way weird conspiracy theories grow up around the subject. So to round off what I honestly believed would be a shorter-than-usual post when I started it, but has ended up as probably my longest ever - here are three cover features addressing this aspect. The one on the left (FT 166, January 2003) deals with the numerous legends and conspiracy theories associated with Elvis, while the one on the right (FT 384, October 2019) does much the same for the Beatles. As for the one in the middle (FT 258, February 2010), it concerns the notion that the "Illuminati" employ popular music - and the musicians themselves - to manipulate the thoughts, beliefs and behaviour of the general public. But that's not really a conspiracy theory, is it? I mean, if you substitute "global media" for "Illuminati", I'd say it's an indisputable fact.

 

Saturday 23 March 2024

30 years ago in the Forteanverse

 

I decided to dig down close to the bottom of my Fortean Times collection to have a look back at issue 73 from February/March 1994, 30 years ago. As you can see from the picture above, its eyecatching cover features an enormous shark that's apparently crashed down from the skies into a suburban house. That's something that would undoubtedly have caught the attention of Charles Fort himself, who was fascinated by reports of fish (usually much smaller ones than this) falling from the sky. But this one, of course, is a fake - made from fibreglass, and created as an artistic statement in 1986. Located in the Oxford suburb of Headington, there's a lot more to be said about this shark - but fortunately I don't have to, because there's a detailed account of it on Paul Jackson's blog Random Encounters with the Unusual, together with several pictures Paul took himself in 2016. You can find his blog post here.

Opening the magazine and turning to the editorial, there's an item that really brings home just how much the world has changed in the last 30 years:
We now have an e-mail address on Internet ... which will mean nothing to those without a modem, but everything to the very strange people who cruise the computer bulletin-board and news services.
I'd forgotten until I read that, but there really was a time when anyone who used the internet was considered "very strange"!

As for the fortean content of the magazine, less has changed than you might think. One of the main features deals with phantom hitch-hikers and similar roadside ghosts, while another concerns rumours of large, out-of-place animals (such as the alleged Beast of Bodmin) roaming the British countryside. Those are exactly the kind of "modern folklore" stories that still loom large in the pages of FT today.

The magazine also contains the results of a reader survey, which I found particularly interesting for a subsection of questions about conspiracy theories. Thinking back, I was only just becoming dimly aware of the existence of such things in 1994 (largely thanks to FT itself), and I'd guess the majority of the wider population had never even encountered the concept yet. But FT readers were clearly way ahead of the game. Regarding belief in high-level conspiracies to suppress the truth about various subjects, here are some of the results:
  • Inventions that would undermine big business and government - 64.3%
  • Crashed UFOs being studied by the military - 52.3%
  • International conspiracies above government level, e.g. Illuminati - 39.6%

Towards the end of the magazine, my eye was caught by a rather dubious-looking ad for "2-way mirrors". On looking closer, I saw that the same firm was offering other equally questionable items such as skeleton keys and electronic bugging equipment, as well as advice on how to beat slot machines and avoid paying TV licence fees, parking fines, road tax etc. Somehow I doubt that a similar ad would be allowed today! So for posterity's sake, here it is (just to be on the safe side, I've blacked out all the company details):



Sunday 17 March 2024

Medieval Monsters

 

A few years ago I discovered (by reading about it in a book, I'm sorry to say, rather than actually noticing it with my own eyes) that several of the village churches around where I live have strange demonic or cryptozoological-looking creatures crawling over their upper reaches. Colloquially you could refer to these as "gargoyles", although strictly speaking that word only refers to fancifully decorated waterspouts. The proper term for the non-functional ornaments I'm referring to is "grotesques" (which can be used as a noun as well as an adjective).

The main purpose of this post is to show off some of the photographs I took after my attention was drawn to these bizarre medieval carvings (a good excuse to give my 75 - 300 mm zoom lens an airing). Before that, however, it's interesting to speculate as to their purpose, since no one seems to know just why they were produced in the first place. Explanations I've seen include heraldic symbols relating to the local gentry, and depictions of local folklore - which here in Somerset would mostly mean dragons (as discussed in a previous post). But while some of the carved figures may well conform to one or other of those theories, they don't explain all of them - particularly the more demonic-looking ones.

By "demonic" I don't necessarily mean overtly so, in the sense of having horns and pointed ears or whatever, but just generally malevolent-looking - like the ape-headed, cloven-hoofed figure shown at the top of this post. This, and many of the other examples I've seen, are basically "chimeras" - fanciful combinations of two or more unrelated species. These were common in the mythology of ancient Greece and Egypt, but by the Middle Ages they'd become firmly associated with Hell (Dante's depiction of it, which I talked about last week, includes several chimera-like demons).

The decorations in and around medieval churches were, almost invariably, a form of communication with the congregation, who could understand imagery even if they were unable to read. So my own personal theory is that these demonic - or otherwise "ungodly" - creatures were depicted on the exterior of the church simply to emphasize that they weren't inside it. In other words, if you came into church you were safe from such monsters, but if you stayed outside you were at their mercy.

All the pictures in this post were taken on the same day in August 2019, at three different churches - Langport, Long Sutton and Huish Episcopi - the carvings on which date from circa 1450, 1490 and 1500 respectively. The ape-demon shown above, for example, is clinging to the tower of Long Sutton church - as you can see more clearly in the following wider-angle view, which also includes a vaguely pig-like face looking straight at you:

Here's another figure from Long Sutton, which reminds me a bit of a Chinese lion-dog statue:

Now two examples from Huish Episcopi. I've no idea what the first one is meant to be, partly because it's so badly weathered, but I'd say it's definitely in the demonic category. As for the much better preserved second one, it clearly depicts a chimera with a human face and four-legged body:

 Turning to Langport church, this one is absolutely covered in inter-species hybrids! Here are a couple of striking ones:

 ... and a few more:

 Langport also has a human head, but it doesn't look at all happy - possibly a soul tormented in Hell? Though it's difficult to make out from this angle, it's actually depicted wearing a crown, suggesting that maybe it's some recently deceased (and presumably unpopular) king. I mentioned last week that Dante used his description of Hell as a vehicle for political satire - perhaps that's what's going on here too! (incidentally, what looks like a bad case of chromatic aberration around the upper part of the head is actually a lead cover that's been added to protect it from the elements).

Sunday 10 March 2024

The Gates of Hell (with music video)

A long time ago on this blog, I did a post about Dante's Inferno - Hunt Emerson's comic-book adaptation of a 14th century epic poem set in Hell. As I said there, the comic does wonders for clarifying the whole point of Dante's original -  i.e. that it's basically a satire on Italian political history, rather than a serious attempt to depict the landscape and geography of Hell. But it does a strikingly vivid job of the latter even so, which has inspired a multitude of subsequent works from Sandro Botticelli's 15th century illustrations of Hell to Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle's SF novel Inferno (1976), which uses the same basic setting (and, of course, Hunt Emerson's 2012 comic-book version).

On the musical side, there's a distinctly horror movie-esque portrayal of Hell in the Dante Symphony (1857) by Franz Liszt (who featured in another early post on this blog, Lisztomania). This begins with a dramatic depiction of the Gates of Hell, which inspired me to create the following video. I've added four electronic tracks of my own (demonic voice, drum machine, saw bass and synth pad), but otherwise it's just a digitally distorted vinyl recording of the opening of Liszt's symphony. Visually the gates and demons are courtesy of Bing's AI image creator, while the depiction of Hell itself is by Botticelli. When it's all put together, I think the result is pretty cool ((even though I say it myself):

I've twisted the original a bit in having the words spoken by demons. In Dante's poem, these are phrases that (in their original Italian form) are inscribed over the gates of Hell, while Liszt has them depicted by orchestral instruments, rather than being spoken or sung. But since I like playing with free software, I couldn't resist adding the synthesized voice.

The other software I used here was Tracktion Waveform Free, together with various free instrument and effects plugins (or ones that came free with Computer Music magazine, anyway). These are all great toys to play with, as I discovered a few years ago when I was doing a book called The Science of Music. I was asked to do that one because I'd previously written The Science of Sci-Fi Music - but while the latter was about a subject I knew something about (avant-garde classical music of the mid-20th century), the new one strayed way outside my comfort zone into modern digital music production. And the quickest way to learn a new subject is to try doing it yourself!

One thing I mentioned in passing in The Science of Music is that, if people who aren't fans of classical music have heard of Franz Liszt at all, it's most likely through the rhyming slang phrase "Brahms and Liszt". And as it happens, Brahms is another composer I've swiped a vinyl sample from. Unlike The Gates of Hell, there isn't even a tenuous fortean connection in this case, but I think the result is one of the most musically successful things I've done (in a chilled-out "lo-fi" sort of way). Here's the result:

While I was writing this post, I suddenly remembered that I've actually seen the "Gates of Hell", or at least a monumental bronze representation of them by the sculptor Auguste Rodin. This was at the Rodin Museum in Paris, which I visited in 2013 - the photograph below is one I took at the time. If you look closely at the panel above the gates, you'll see Rodin's most iconic image - "The Thinker" - in its original setting.


 

Sunday 3 March 2024

The Evolving Treasure of Oak Island

 

(courtesy of Bing Image Creator)

This is basically a sequel to last week's post, about the way certain "fringe" topics evolve and adapt to changing times. There's another link to the previous post too, in the form of Britain's most fortean free-to-air TV channel, Blaze. This is home to Ancient Aliens, which prompted last week's musings, and The Curse of Oak Island, which set me thinking about this one (both shows originated on America's History channel, then came over to the UK's subscription-only Sky History, before ending up on Blaze where cheapskates like myself can enjoy them).

Wikipedia has a fairly substantial entry on the Oak Island mystery, which begins as follows:

The Oak Island mystery is a series of stories of buried treasure and unexplained objects found on or near Oak Island in Nova Scotia. Since the 18th century, attempts have been made to find treasure and artifacts. Theories about artifacts present on the island range from pirate treasure to Shakespearean manuscripts to the Holy Grail or the Ark of the Covenant.

As cool as that sounds, the legend of Oak Island isn't widely known, even in Canada (my cousin in Montreal said she hadn't heard of it until I asked her yesterday). Probably most people who have heard of it did so through the TV show, which is now in its 11th season. In contrast to Ancient Aliens - which is hugely entertaining, but ultimately mostly nonsense - The Curse of Oak Island is a really great show. I can see why some viewers are cynical about it (because it's a TV show first, and a serious archaeological project second) but this really doesn't bother me. I find it fascinating to watch them digging up the island's history even if, treasure-wise, it's mostly all dead ends. On top of that I really like all the participants, who strike me as much nicer people than the cast of most TV shows (several of them remind me of the sort of people I've worked with over the years).

Browsing through various online forums, I get the impression some viewers think the Oak Island "treasure legend" was artificially created for the series, simply because the people behind it own the island and wanted a premise for a reality show. But I was aware of the Oak Island mystery long before the TV series hit the airwaves in 2014. I first encountered it in the 1990s, either in a talk that Lionel Fanthorpe gave at one of the Fortean Times Unconventions, and/or his short-lived but fondly remembered Fortean TV series. It also features in a book I've got by Lionel and his wife, Mysteries and Secrets of the Templars (2005), as well as another book I read around the same time. That was when my then-work colleague (and subsequent co-author on Random Encounters on the London Tourist Trail) Paul Jackson lent me his copy of The Secret Treasure of Oak Island by D'Arcy O'Connor.

So I can vouch for the fact that most of the speculative theories (as well as historical snippets, such as the fact that future US president F D Roosevelt took part in an Oak Island dig in 1909) that crop up in The Curse of Oak Island were around long before the show started. Of course, there's nothing intrinsically fortean about a legend of buried treasure, but what makes Oak Island so fascinating is the sheer number of theories associated with it. While none of these are really far-fetched - nothing paranormal or involving aliens or other dimensions, I mean - several of them are sufficiently fringy to make them interesting. To paraphrase a list from the Fanthorpe book, here are some of the explanations put forward to explain Oak Island's elusive treasure vault:

  • Constructed by the British during the American war of independence to protect their army's payroll;
  • Built by Sir Francis Drake and his men to hide gold they'd seized from the Spanish;
  • Dug by William Kidd or some other pirate in the 17th century;
  • Designed to house precious manuscripts, possibly ones proving the true authorship of the plays commonly attributed to Shakespeare;
  • Constructed by ancient Celtic or Norse sea rovers as a burial place for a great chief;
  • Built by the Knights Templar to protect the secret treasures they'd uncovered beneath Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

What jumps out is that some of these theories are more exciting than others. To be specific, the first three (which personally I'd class as boring) could comfortably fit inside the scope of accepted history, while the last three (all of which I find a lot more interesting) are way outside it. Not surprisingly, the TV show gives more prominence to these "exciting" theories - as do the Fanthorpes in their book, where they firmly align with the Templar hypothesis.

The thing that worries me slightly (and the main point I wanted to make in this post) is that the exciting theories came into existence after the boring ones. The earliest speculations and "legends" were solely about pirate treasure (yawn), with no Templars, Celts or lost manuscripts in sight. As the Wikipedia article says:

According to the earliest theory, the pit held a pirate treasure buried by Captain Kidd; Kidd and Henry Avery reportedly took treasure together, and Oak Island was their community bank. Another pirate theory involved Edward Teach (Blackbeard), who said that he buried his treasure "where none but Satan and myself can find it".
So the rational part of my brain tells me that, if there's any truth at all behind the Oak Island treasure, it was probably nothing more dramatic than a pirate hoard. On the other hand, my mystery-loving side insists it could have been the Templars' secret hiding-place for the Holy Grail, or the Ark of the Covenant, or something equally spectacular!

Half-way through writing this post, I realized it could do with a picture of the two books I mentioned. The only problem was that one of them belongs to Paul Jackson, who lives 60 miles away. But thanks to the miracles of modern technology, he'd taken a photo of it and I'd saved it on my computer within 3 minutes of me asking him for it! So here's Paul's copy of The Secret Treasure of Oak Island, alongside my copy of Mysteries and Secrets of the Templars:

Sunday 25 February 2024

The Changing History (and Geography) of Lemuria


A peculiarity of certain fortean topics is the way the details develop and change over time. To pick an example, there's the legend (which, as we'll see, didn't even start out as a legend) of Lemuria. As lost continents go, it's far less well known to the general public than Atlantis, but just as intriguing to those in the know. It's been featured in at least a couple of Ancient Aliens episodes, in "They Came from the Pleiades" (2020) and "The Mystery of Mount Shasta" (2021).

In the first of these, we're informed that Lemuria was a now-sunken continent located in the Pacific, which Hawaiian folklore links to benevolent visitors from the Pleiades star cluster. In the later episode, we're told that survivors from Lemuria may still be living inside Mount Shasta - one of California's best known UFO hotspots. As with most things on the show, these ideas are wonderfully entertaining, and surprisingly credible-sounding if you restrict your knowledge of the subject to what you're being told by Tsoukalos, Pope, Childress et al. But as soon as you do a little independent research, things get a lot murkier (the Pleiades, for example, didn't even exist until the Earth was billions of years old and swarming with Cretaceous-era dinosaurs - so hardly a likely home for ancient astronauts).

My first encounter with Lemuria was probably in the Marvel Comics adaptation of Lin Carter's Thongor stories, though I've subsequently read the original 1965 Wizard of Lemuria novel, pictured above. A much more controversial novel was Richard Shaver's I Remember Lemuria (1945), which purported to be based on fact rather than fiction. My copy (edited by Ancient Aliens regular David Hatcher Childress under the title Lost Continents & the Hollow Earth) is also pictured above, together with a novel I've previously mentioned on this blog, Ron Goulart's Hello Lemuria Hello (1979). Also featured in the picture is the album Lemuria (2004) by symphonic metal band Therion.

In the lyrics of that album's title song, the name Lemuria is used interchangeably with Mu - as indeed it was on Ancient Aliens. But originally Mu and Lemuria were completely separate, and disentangling them involves going quite a way back into history. An excellent source in this context is the final book pictured above, Lost Continents (1954) by L Sprague de Camp. Best known as a fiction author, he turns his hand here to non-fiction - and does his background research far more conscientiously than Ancient Aliens ever bothers to.

The surprising fact, as I mentioned at the start, is that Lemuria didn't start out as a legend, whether in Hawaii, California or anywhere else. It began as a short-lived scientific hypothesis, developed in the latter half of the 19th century, to explain similarities between Mesozoic fossils found on the Indian subcontinent and in south-east Africa. The idea was that there used to be a land-bridge joining these two regions, stretching right across the Indian Ocean. Now mostly sunken, all that remained would have been the island of Madagascar - famous for its lemurs, from which the land-bridge got the name Lemuria.

You'll notice a couple of significant features here - first, that we're talking about a time millions of years before humans existed, and secondly that we're nowhere near the Pacific Ocean. What's more, we don't even need this hypothesis any more, because we know that, back in Mesozoic times, India was attached to southern Africa instead of being in its current position.

But instead of going away, the idea of Lemuria adapted and evolved. And it did so in a way that was peculiar to the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In those days, the notion that sensitive individuals could pick up valid information by psychic means - by going into a trance and "channelling" messages from spirit entities - was well accepted in certain quarters. And that's how a lot of the key facts about Lemuria came down to us.

One strand to the Lemurian story lies within the realm of Theosophy, whose complex and confusing teachings were largely derived through psychic means. In this context, here's a passage from de Camp's book that clearly foreshadows Ancient Aliens:
Beings from Venus, which had already developed a high civilization ... guided faltering humankind to the point where the Lemurians became capable of individual immortality and reincarnation.
Most Theosophists were content to leave Lemuria in its original setting of the Indian Ocean, but several American writers of the time endeavoured to move it to the more familiar (to them) locale of the Pacific Ocean. An important development in this context came in the form of a book, A Dweller on Two Planets (1894). A cynic might describe this as a work of fiction, but it's actually presented as the channelled autobiography of a spirit entity called Phylos the Tibetan. Here, too, the second planet in question is Venus, but Lemuria is now indisputably located in the Pacific - and the connection with California's Mount Shasta is also made for the first time.

The final step towards the modern "legend" of Lemuria came in the 1920s and 30s, with a series of books by James Churchward concerning a sunken continent called "Mu", which he proposed as a counterpart of Atlantis in the Pacific. Churchward's arguments were based (albeit shakily) on the interpretation of purely physical evidence, in contrast to the earlier mediumistic channellings relating to Lemuria - but the distinction didn't last long. The legend soon crystallized into the form most often encountered today - that Mu and Lemuria are alternative names for a single lost continent, situated in the Pacific Ocean and having strong links both with Mount Shasta in California and with benevolent aliens from outer space.

Since I love showing off my book collection, here are a couple of classics to round the post off - James Churchward's The Children of Mu (1931) and Ignatius Donnelly's Atlantis: The Antediluvian World (1882):


 

Sunday 18 February 2024

From Atlantis to the Roswell Incident, via Wikipedia

 

There's a game where players compete to get from one specified Wikipedia article to another in the minimum number of jumps, just by clicking on internal wiki-links within an article. I thought I'd try a fortean variation on this, navigating my way from the Atlantis article to the Roswell Incident. But instead of going for the shortest route, I've tried to make it more interesting by, wherever possible, including items from the tag cloud on the right-hand side of this blog. Here's the route I came up with:

STEP 0: Atlantis. A long-time favourite topic of mine, this scores 12 in my tag cloud (meaning this is its 12th appearance on this blog). My most recent brush with it was a video I made last year based on an old comic story by Steve Ditko. Historically, the oldest surviving references to Atlantis appear in the writings of the Greek philosopher Plato, who consequently is one of the very first wiki-links in Wikipedia's Atlantis article.

STEP 1: Plato. Wikipedia's article on him mentions his prominent appearance in Raphael's painting The School of Athens, with an onward link to its article on that subject.

STEP 2: The School of Athens. This is one of my all-time favourite "fine art" paintings - a fanciful depiction of a host of famous philosophers of various time periods all congregated together in a classical architectural setting. I've seen the original in the Vatican, and written a blog post about the fortean credentials of some of the people featured in it. An interesting bit of trivia mentioned early in the Wikipedia article is that Raphael's depiction of Plato (top left in the montage at the start of this post) is modelled on Leonardo da Vinci - whose article Wikipedia then links to.

STEP 3: Leonardo da Vinci. The second "hit" for my tag cloud, Leonardo scores 8 in it (which is either a measure of his fortean relevance, or my interest in him, or both). I've seen the originals of several of his paintings, including the most famous, the Mona Lisa, and the most interesting, The Last Supper. Both of them are linked from his Wikipedia article,  but there are no prizes for guessing which one we're going to click on.

STEP 4: The Last Supper (Leonardo). This, of course, is prominently featured in Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, which scores 11 in my tag cloud. And since Wikipedia's article on The Last Supper links to the one on The Da Vinci Code, that's where we're going next.

STEP 5: The Da Vinci Code. Of the many interesting links in this wiki-article, the one I'm going to pick out is another item from my tag cloud (with a score of 9), the Knights Templar.

STEP 6: Knights Templar. More than anything else, I associate this mediaeval organization with the legend of the Ark of the Covenant, but surprisingly their Wikipedia article doesn't mention it. So we'll have to take a roundabout route via something it does link to, the Temple of Solomon.

STEP 7: Solomon's Temple. OK, now there's a link to the Ark of the Covenant, so without further ado let's click on that.

STEP 8: Ark of the Covenant. This is another favourite fortean topic of mine, with 5 hits in my tag cloud. To most people, however, it just means one thing - Steven Spielberg's 1981 film Raiders of the Lost Ark - which Wikipedia conveniently links to.

STEP 9: Raiders of the Lost Ark. Astute readers will probably see where we're going now (if they haven't worked it out already)! This, of course, was the film that introduced everyone's favourite archaeologist, Indiana Jones - and the Wikipedia article helpfully links to all his subsequent appearances, including Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008).

STEP 10: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. By far the most fortean instalment in the series, I love this film - and it neatly provides the last (wiki-) link in the chain, straight to our target destination: the Roswell Incident.

STEP 11: Roswell Incident. With a count of 5 in my tag cloud, this is the ultimate "modern myth", which I thought was a fitting final destination after starting out from the "ancient myth" of Atlantis. Hope you enjoyed the tour!

Tuesday 13 February 2024

Mainstream Media vs Fringe

 

Unlike some people who write on fortean topics, I don't see the mainstream media as an arch-villain. I used "vs" in the title of this post to mean "as contrasted with", rather than "fighting to the death against". Anyway, you can't get much more mainstream than the Observer and the Guardian, which are among Britain's most prestigious Sunday and daily newspapers respectively (particularly, I suspect, among more thoughtful and well-educated readers).

So I was enormously pleased when the Observer printed a two-page feature about space telescopes by me in last weekend's edition (as shown in the picture above), and then the same article was also posted for a much larger audience on the Guardian website under the title Cosmic Time Machines. That's undoubtedly the high point of my writing career to date, easily beating my appearance in BBC Science Focus magazine which I showed off about a few months ago.

But I'm equally proud of the fact that I've had 21 articles published in Fortean Times, not to mention 47 book reviews and a few other mentions. And I've contributed to several other "fringe" media in the past, including Edge Science magazine and the Mysterious Universe website.

I don't really see a distinction, or even any serious conflict, between the two. If you're passionately interested in unravelling the world's mysteries, why focus on UFOs, psychic powers and Bigfoot and ignore exoplanets, quantum gravity and AI (or vice versa)? Fortunately there are at least a couple of regular Fortean Times contributors who also write for the mainstream media, but they're very much in the minority. There are plenty of well-known writers on anomalous phenomena who seemingly show zero interest in a topic if it's perceived as being too "mainstream", which I find very sad.

Anyway, I don't want to turn this post into a rant. My main purpose was just to show off about my appearance in the Observer and the Guardian - which, as I said, marks the high point of my writing career to date. Hopefully that doesn't mean it's going to be all downhill from here!

Monday 5 February 2024

Googling Retro-Forteana

Bing Image Creator (prompt = "black hole dinosaur Large Hadron Collider")


 What do the following have in common: "supermassive black holes", "Large Hadron Collider", "big bang theory"? If you said they're all fashionable science topics that large numbers of people might search for on Google, then that's the answer I wanted. If you type any of those phrases into Google, then among the top 5 or so results you'll see one from the Space.com website which (if you click on it) includes my name as one of the co-authors. I only spotted this recently, and while it hardly amounts to "fame" (since no one ever notices the author's name in situations like this, except the author themselves), it did start me thinking.

Google is where this blog gets most of its visitors from, after an initially flurry from my RSS and social media followers (all six of them). The result can be anything from under 50 views (as with a couple of my most recent posts) to over 5,000 (in the case of my luckiest half dozen posts). Years ago I set up Google Search Console to keep track of the blog's search performance, and then promptly forgot all about it. But I just had another look at it, and tried typing some of its suggested search terms into Google to see how they fare (just to clarify my methodology: I used a desktop rather than mobile browser, in incognito mode so it didn't know who I was, and I'm only counting hits from Google's main list, not the differently formatted items such as sponsored links, images, Reddit, Quora etc).

Suffice to say the blog doesn't score well on anything a normal person is likely to search for! Of course, it comes top for "retro-forteana", but only because it's a name I made up myself. Of the terms suggested by Google Search Console, it only makes the top 5 for "esoteric mathematics", "dinosaurs in the 16th century" and "spooky action at a distance in German" - all of somewhat specialized interest, to say the least.

At the opposite extreme, the three examples from Space.com I gave earlier really are the kind of thing the general public might search for. Those particular articles were joint productions with other writers, but there are a few other (admittedly less search-worthy) topics where the Space.com result is all my own work, such as "What is a parsec?" and "Blue stars".

"Blue stars", in fact, is the first search term I found where my article comes right at the top of Google's results. But if you want something more fortean, try "Beginner's Guide to Time Travel". As a search term it's a little contrived, but it has the benefit (from my point of view) that Google's first non-sponsored result is my article of that title on Space.com's sister site LiveScience.

As well as this blog, I've got a website andrew-may.com which I'm also monitoring on Google Search Console. The only remotely popular search terms it does well on are "Astounding Science Fiction" (a pulp magazine of the 1940s and 50s, for which my site places around third in a Google search) and "Heart Sutra in Japanese" (a chanted text used in Zen Buddhism, for which Google puts me just inside the top 10).

If you expand the second of those to "Heart Sutra in Japanese with English subtitles", then Google puts me right at the top - not with the website this time, but a video I uploaded to YouTube just a few months ago. Despite its good search performance, this hasn't had many views yet - but give it time! A much older video of mine, "Dirac on Einstein" (which also comes top in a Google search) is now up to 127k views - the one and only time I've seen a six-figure number in any of my online statistics!

One final thing, which I wouldn't have mentioned (honest!) if I hadn't just spotted it in the Google Search Console data. But another term my website scores highly on is "Andrew May astrophysicist". I'm not sure which is more surprising  - that my website comes out at number 1 ahead of LinkedIn, Space.com, LiveScience, Twitter, Amazon, Icon Books and BBC Science Focus - or that all those other sites are referring to me as well, not someone else of the same name!

Bing Image Creator (prompt = "science fiction Heart Sutra astrophysics")

Saturday 27 January 2024

A Transformer Toy on the Moon

JAXA/TOMY/Sony/Doshisha University

I've been fascinated by space exploration all my life, and now that a significant part of my livelihood comes from writing about the subject, I follow it even more closely than ever. I'm fortunate in that the magazine I write for is aimed at school-age readers, who are intelligent enough to be excited by all things space and want to know as much as possible about it. On the other hand, it's depressing how little interest the "grown-up" media takes in the subject, often focusing more on its failures than its triumphs. This happened recently with the Japanese space agency's lunar lander, where the media seemed less interested in the fact that it was the most precisely executed robotic landing on the Moon to date than that it ended up "upside down" (or to be pedantically correct, rotated through 180 degrees instead of the planned 90 degrees).

Obviously this wasn't ideal, because it means the spacecraft can't do all the post-landing things it was meant to, but these were secondary goals all along. It was primarily a proof-of-concept demonstrator for the terrain-matching landing software, which worked perfectly. And ironically there was another thing that worked perfectly too - the very thing that gave the media their much-shared image of the "upside-down" lander. This came from a tiny gadget called LEV-2 (sometimes referred to as SORA-Q) which was ejected by the main lander just before it touched down. And this finally brings us to the point of this post, because LEV-2 was made by the TOMY toy company.

 It just happened that TOMY had exactly the experience that JAXA, the Japanese space agency, needed for LEV-2. Designed in conjunction with Sony and a university, this takes the form of a metallic sphere just 8 cm across when it's first deployed. But then, as shown in the picture at the top of this post - and mimicking the Transformer toys that TOMY is best known for - it changes shape, extending wheels on either side and revealing a camera hidden inside. It was this very camera that took the picture of the lander that's now been shared all over the world:

JAXA

 

Sunday 21 January 2024

"Space-God" Debunking Revisited

 

 The possibility that "ancient aliens" visited Earth in the distant past is something that's always fascinated me. As I've written about before, it's an idea that was discussed in highbrow, pseudo-academic circles long before Erich von Daniken, but it's since become inextricably associated with his name due to the enormous popularity of his books. Von Daniken gives his target audience exactly what they want - easy-to-understand sensationalism, without having to worry too much about historical or anthropological credibility. The flipside is that he's a sitting target for debunkers.

Back in November 2015 I did a post called Space-Gods and Venusians, the latter part of which dealt with an early book-length debunking of von Daniken, The Space Gods Revealed (1976) by Ronald Story. Though I missed it at the time, a few months earlier (on 21 January 2015 - coincidentally 9 years ago to the day) fellow blogger Kid Robson produced a post of his own about another book, also from 1976, in a similar vein: The Gospel According to Science Fiction by John Allan (pictured above alongside Ronald Story's book).

Kid's blog usually focuses on comics and collectables, occasionally touching on other aspects of popular culture and nostalgia - and it's highly recommended to anyone interested in such things. Kid has recently been good enough to post a few guest pieces by myself, and he's just drawn my attention to that earlier post - Chariots of the Frauds - thinking it might be of interest to me. It certainly is, and with his permission I'll summarize the gist of it here (or you could just read the original by clicking on the link in the previous sentence).

As Kid points out at the start of his post, when von Daniken's books first came out they were such a hit with the public that ideas from them found their way into 1970s popular culture. To quote Kid:

Comic-book readers saw such themes played out in the four-colour pages of Jack Kirby's The Eternals, and TV programmes mined the topic for its rich seam of interest and controversy.
He goes on to talk about John Allan's book, which he says was written from a religious perspective, although that doesn't detract from the book's interest. Here's Kid again:
What I found interesting was how it dealt with so-called 'evidence' that, on a superficial level at least, seems quite persuasive. For example, according to von Daniken, there's an island in the Nile called Elephantinos, which has been so named for centuries, and is shaped, apparently, like an elephant. However, this shape can only be noticed from the air - so who, von Daniken wonders, went up to find out - and how did they do it?
This is characteristic of von Daniken. He poses a seeming mystery and leaves it at that, without investigating further. But as Kid says:
The Greek word elephantinos doesn't translate as 'like an elephant' as von Daniken claims, but simply means 'ivory'. Guess what, though? The island was once the site of an ivory market, hence, unsurprisingly, the name.
Even more tellingly, Kid points out that aerial pictures of the island don't actually look anything like an elephant - something I'll come back to in a moment. He concludes his post with a rhetorical question:
Was von Daniken ignoring the facts and loading the dice in his favour for the purpose of selling a few books, or was he serious in his speculations on the origins of mankind?

I'm sure everyone will have their own views on that question. Personally I'd put most weight on the first alternative - that, unless von Daniken was extraordinarily stupid, he must have realized he was twisting the facts and stretching the truth to get an interesting "story" across to his avid readers. But speaking as a writer myself, if that was a cynical ploy designed to sell books, then all I can say is more power to him! It's fair enough to speculate that ancient humans may have been helped along by aliens (I wouldn't rule out that possibility myself), but most of von Daniken's so-called evidence is flimsy to say the least. As I said earlier, this makes him an easy target for debunkers. I even had a go at it myself, ten years ago, in an online "Classroom" article called What Are the Flaws in the Ancient Astronaut Theory?

As for the specific case of Elephantine Island, Kid is quite right that it's shaped nothing like an elephant. Ronald Story makes the same point in The Space Gods Revealed, amusingly noting that the island "looks more like a spaceship than an elephant!" It's the large, vaguely phallic-shaped island in this image from Google Maps:

Thursday 18 January 2024

Unidentified Doesn't Always Mean Anomalous

How It Works magazine, November 2021

Just over ten years ago, in a post called Anomalous Progress, I bemoaned the fact that "there’s been no perceptible progress in understanding anomalous phenomena in the last 20 years". Having closely followed ufology during those 20 years, this lack of meaningful progress was something I found genuinely depressing. As I said in that earlier post, I wasn't talking about superficial "progress" in terms of the evolving sophistication of the UFO sightings themselves (which undeniably did occur), but tangible progress in understanding what was behind them.

So it's heartening to see how the situation has improved in the decade since I wrote that post. First there were the so-called "Pentagon UFO videos" released from 2020 onwards, as summarised in the text box above (extracted from a longer cover feature I did for How It Works #157 back in 2021 - you can still buy an electronic copy of it for just £3.99). Soon after that came the setting up of the Pentagon's All-Domain Anomaly Resolution Office, followed by NASA's Unidentified Anomalous Phenomena Independent Study Team. As regards the kind of "genuine progress" I was hoping for, the latter is particularly significant because (despite what some people believe) NASA is a purely scientific organization, not a military one. An added bonus for me is the fact that the NASA team was chaired by David Spergel, who I used to know (I'll come back to that later) - so I know he's a first-class scientist and not a mere bureaucrat.

With the renewed interest in UFOs - or UAPs as they're often known in official circles - I've been seeing more about the subject in the media, and something has just dawned on me which (in all the decades I've been interested in UFOs) had never occurred to me before. An assertion you often see, made equally by UFO believers and open-minded investigators, goes something like this:

The great majority of UFO reports, when subjected to thorough examination, turn out to be natural phenomena, human-made technology or hoaxes. But there's always a small number of cases that can't be ascribed to these categories, and so remain unidentified.

Now, there's nothing wrong with that statement as it stands. But many people saying or hearing it (including myself, until recently) understand it to mean that those few remaining cases have been proven not to be natural phenomena, human-made technology or hoaxes. By definition, therefore, they must be anomalous - i.e. either alien spacecraft or some exotic or paranormal phenomenon. But is this really true?

The answer depends on the quality of the data. If you have high-definition video, together with multiple independent eyewitness reports, a precise record of the time and location, and maybe radar data as well, then yes - if it still defies explanation it probably is a genuine anomaly. But most UFO sightings aren't like that. If you can't ascribe an obvious explanation to them, it's most likely a consequence of poor quality data. It's true they remain "unidentified", but that's not the same as saying they're anomalous. To give an extreme example, if you see a single black pixel in a single video frame of the daytime sky, then it may well be "unidentified" but it's highly unlikely to be "anomalous". It's more likely to be an insect or an instrument glitch.

When the military first started using the term UAP, it stood for "Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon", which - as a purely descriptive term - is a definite improvement on UFO for "Unidentified Flying Object". If you see something in the sky that you can't identify, how do you know it's a "flying object"?  That's a form of implicit identification in itself, since it rules out misidentified astronomical objects or unusual meteorological phenomena. But now UAP seems to have morphed into "Unidentified Anomalous Phenomenon", which - in light of what I've just said - is a backward step, because it misses the point that "unidentified" may simply result from poor quality data.

If you think about it, "Unidentified Anomalous Phenomenon" is a pretty sloppy term. I mean, it implies you could have an "Identified Anomalous Phenomenon", which is a contradiction in terms. I hope it wasn't my former colleague, David Spergel, who came up with it! If you look at his Wikipedia page, you'll see that he "went to the University of Oxford as a visiting scholar in 1983, where he studied with James Binney." A little later, in 1984-86, I worked for James as a postdoctoral research assistant, and saw David on several occasions when he came over from the States during that period (the work I did at Oxford was an extension of Spergel's). As proof that I'm just one degree of separation away from NASA's top UFO expert, here's an excerpt from James Binney's bibliography that has my name at the top and Spergel's at the bottom:


 

Thursday 11 January 2024

A few rare (non-existent, actually) Fortean comics

 

With a little help from Bing's AI image creator, here's a selection of retro-fortean comics of the "never really existed but should have" variety. To start with, pictured above are two issues of The Fortean Four, in their original 1970s incarnation on the left, and the 1990s reboot on the right.

I thought the AI understood "1990s comic-book style" much better than "1970s", so I stuck with 1990s for subsequent attempts. After all, 1990s is still pretty "retro" to most people, even though it doesn't always seem like it to me!

Next up, a couple of issues of another non-existent super-team, The Ufologists. To me, the word "ufologist" conjures up a particular image that isn't terribly flattering (not quite a synonym of "ineffectual fantasist", but somewhere along those lines). So rather than using my own mental image, I went for something closer to the way I imagine ufologists picture themselves. Here's the result:

The AI tool I use has the great advantage of being free, but it does have a number of limitations compared to its more expensive rivals. For one thing it only produces square images, so they have to be stretched or cropped to fit the space available. Another problem is that it has no memory from one image to another, so you can't ask it to draw the same group of characters a second time. So I was pleasantly surprised that the two Ufologists covers could almost portray the same trio of protagonists (allowing for a change of cover artist).

Perhaps the biggest problem (mental health wise) with having a free tool that can produce any picture you ask for, all in a matter of seconds, is forcing yourself to stop playing with it! With a major effort of self-discipline, though, I limited myself to just one more experiment - The Bigfoot Hunters, pictured below. Again, there's a kind of consistency between the two images, particularly in the way Bigfoot himself is portrayed (and, at a pinch, you could say the solitary human character in the second image is the same as the central figure from the first one).

Wednesday 3 January 2024

The Arid Lands - book review


 Ten years ago I reviewed Kate Kelly's first novel, Red Rock, in the January 2014 issue of Fortean Times. A fast-moving conspiracy thriller aimed at young adult readers, it was overflowing with great ideas - as this excerpt from my review shows:
The governments of the world are puppets controlled by a secretive, authoritarian space agency, which is hiding the truth about what lies on Mars while pursuing a sinister agenda of its own. There are hints of a powerful new form of energy ... pursued with equal vigour by our heroes and the evil space agency, while a mysterious order of Maltese monks will seemingly go to any lengths to prevent either party from succeeding.

Since then, I've reviewed two other novels by Kate Kelly, both on Goodreads: The Sleepers (2022), which is a conspiracy thriller aimed at an older audience, and more recently The Arid Lands (2023). The latter is less fortean than Red Rock but just as imaginative, so I thought I'd put an expanded version of my review here, where I can go into a little more detail on a couple of points (and even work in a bit of retro-forteana at the end).

While the first two books were issued by mainstream publishers, this one - a variation on the "climate-change dystopia" theme - is self-published (not because there's no market for this genre, but, I suspect, because the market is already saturated to breaking point). One interesting feature of the book is its cover - a literal rendering of an early scene from the novel, which Kate produced using an AI image creator. It was reading about her experiments in this area that prompted me to play around with AI image creation myself - something that's featured in several of my recent videos as well as a book cover  of my own.
 
As a thriller, The Arid Lands is just as intriguing and exciting as Red Rock and The Sleepers. Like them, it combines an original and well thought-out scenario with an intricate, fast-moving plot that never quite goes in the direction you expect it to. This story is set further in the future than its predecessors, at a time when war and climate change have significantly altered the geopolitical landscape. But the book cleverly avoids all the obvious clichés here. For one thing, the "Arid Lands" of the title have nothing to do with global climate change, but result instead from a purely local phenomenon (which, as I've just learned from Kate's blog, is based on a real historical occurrence).

Another cliché the book avoids is the idea of a "post-apocalyptic" future that's equally dire all over the planet. Instead, the global community has become highly fragmented, with some places maintaining a relatively comfortable 1950s-ish level of technology and social structure, while others have reverted to a pre-mediaeval subsistence culture. I'm not sure how credible this is, but I found it a fascinating scenario even so. In any case, there's no time to worry about whether it makes sense or not when our protagonist has just a few days to work out what's going on and save the world!

Another thing I mentioned in my Goodreads review (and which provides the retro-fortean connection I promised earlier) is the way the plotting echoes a particular video game genre I'm fond of, namely puzzle-focused "point-and-click" adventure games (which I've discussed previously on this blog). I've lost count of how many times such games feature a young female protagonist thrust into a totally unfamiliar environment in search of a missing friend or relative.

The point is, that's pretty much how The Arid Lands works. It's full of other standard adventure game tropes too, such as locked rooms we have to escape from, a posh walled house we have to covertly break into, characters who won't help us or give us information until we do something for them, and even a pile of garbage we have to hunt through in search of something useful. So if you're a fan of such games (or if you like this kind of storyline in general) you'll probably enjoy The Arid Lands just as much as I did.

The picture below shows three particularly fortean examples of the genre I'm talking about, from the days when I bought such games on disc rather than Steam. Two of them conform to the "female protagonist in search of missing relative" stereotype I mentioned earlier. The exception, NiBiRu: Age of Secrets, is the earliest of the three, dating from 2005. But it's pure retro-forteana, the title alluding to the hypothetical planet Nibiru associated with the ancient alien theories of Zecharia Sitchin, but here tied in with a Nazi plot to take over the world using an extraterrestrial artifact located inside a Mayan pyramid.

The first game I ever played in this genre was Secret Files: Tunguska (2006), which I assumed would be something like The X-Files. It is, in terms of subject matter - which includes alien artifacts, mind control, a secret Antarctic base and the eponymous Siberian impact event - but not in terms of characters, centring as it does on a young female motorcycle mechanic desperately searching for her father and other kidnapped scientists.

A young woman searching for a kidnapped relative - in this case an uncle who's an archaeologist - also features in Chronicles of Mystery: The Scorpio Ritual (2008). This begins with a prologue showing what appears to be the Knights Templar carrying the Ark of the Covenant - both eminently fortean themes, of course - but it turns out it's actually a different monastic order, the Knights Hospitaller, and a different, though equally powerful, artifact. Coincidentally, in light of what I said about Red Rock at the top of this post, much of the action takes place on the island of Malta (and these really are just coincidences - after I posted my Goodreads review, Kate told me she'd never played a point-and-click adventure in her life!).