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Sunday 29 November 2015

Space-Gods and Venusians

Glastonbury is one of the few towns in this part of the world that still has a healthy number of second-hand bookstores. Even better, all these shops have sizeable sections devoted to Fortean subjects. On a visit there last week I bought ten books from three different shops, including these two classic “skeptical” works from the 1970s: The Space-Gods Revealed (1976) by Ronald Story and Can You Speak Venusian? (second edition, 1977) by Patrick Moore.

As I’ve probably said before, the striking thing about Fortean books of this vintage is how much less aggressive and bad-tempered they are compared with the situation today. Believers were content to get their ideas across in a calm voice, without gratuitous ad-hominem attacks on their opponents. And the same was true of skeptical authors, as these two books show.

On the face of it, Can You Speak Venusian? isn’t a skeptical book at all. Its subtitle is “A Guide to Independent Thinkers”, and the views of these Independent Thinkers (on subjects ranging from the Flat Earth, the Hollow Earth and Atlantis to Creationism, Flying Saucers and Astrology) are presented in an objective way with hardly any explicit criticism. Instead, the author relies on the old adage “If you give someone enough rope they’ll hang themselves”. The identity of the author is a clue, too. Until his death three years ago, Patrick Moore was the presenter of the longest-running science series on British TV, The Sky at Night.

Patrick Moore was famous for being an eccentric as well as a scientist. As a result, he seems to have had considerable respect for other eccentrics, even if their views were the opposite of his own. As he puts it: “The Independent Thinker is a genuine, well-meaning person, who is not hidebound by convention, and who is always ready to strike out on a line of his own – frequently, though not always, in the face of all the evidence.”

The book’s title is a reference to the last of the Independent Thinkers described in it, one Mr Bernard Byron of Romford. He claimed to be fluent, by means of interplanetary telepathy, in not just Venusian but also Plutonian and Krugerian (the language spoken on one of the planets of Kruger 60, a red dwarf binary star). The book includes an example of written Venusian (part of Mr Byron’s translation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet), while a sample of the spoken language can be heard in this YouTube clip.

Mixed in with Moore’s deadpan account of crackpot theories, there’s a hint of active mischief-making. In 1957 a UFO magazine called Cosmic Voice printed a series of pseudo-academic articles which included such dubious-sounding names as R. T. Fischall (artificial), E. Ratic (erratic), Hotère (hot air) and Huizenaas (who’s an ass?). Initially the editor – George King, the founder of the Aetherius Society – was happy to print these, but he later “came to the conclusion that some of his contributors were not quite so serious or so scientific as he had been led to expect”. King’s prime suspect was Moore himself – who of course denied the whole thing (the book also refers to the Adamski-style contactee Cedric Allingham, who is widely believed to have been another of Patrick Moore’s mischievous alter egos).

Can You Speak Venusian? contains only a couple of relatively brief references to Erich von Däniken, but he’s the central target of Ronald Story’s The Space-Gods Revealed, which also dates from the mid-seventies. I’ve written about the “ancient astronaut” hypothesis several times before (see for example this article and this blog post). I don’t think it’s the “stupid idea” many people believe it to be – on the contrary, it would be stupid NOT to consider extraterrestrial visitation as a potential explanation for certain ancient legends, images or artifacts. Where the ancient alien enthusiasts go astray (and lose the sympathy of most ordinary people) is in always preferring an extraterrestrial explanation to a terrestrial one.

But on top of that, there’s another annoyance about von Däniken in particular – the way he gets all the credit for ideas (sometimes quite clever ideas) that were expressed much more carefully and precisely long before he wrote Chariots of the Gods (see numerous books by Desmond Leslie, Morris K. Jessup, Pauwels and Bergier, Robert Charroux, Brinsley LePoer Trench and W. R. Drake, to name just a few). So I was pleased to see that The Space-Gods Revealed isn’t so much a debunking of ancient aliens per se, as an exposé of von Däniken’s slapdash style. Here are a couple of good examples:

  • In support of his ancient astronaut hypothesis, von Däniken makes an astonishing claim: that “ancient Egypt appears suddenly and without transition with a fantastic ready-made civilization,” and that it is “without recognizable prehistory!” Is he serious? If he had looked at almost any one of the approximately twenty thousand volumes of books and periodicals that have been written on the subject, he would have realized the absurdity of such a statement.

  • The “evidence” claimed by von Däniken to represent the science and technology of the ancient gods falls far short of what might be expected from an advanced race of beings capable of interstellar space travel […] Von Däniken refers to the Baghdad batteries as if they were indeed the products of an advanced alien technology […] If they are really batteries, then they would be the most primitive form of simple cell possible.


Anonymous said...
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Andrew May said...

Yes, Patrick Moore had some odd political ideas, particularly as most scientists tend to be left-leaning.

Back in the 1970s the most powerful batteries in common use were the lead-acid batteries in cars, and that's the sort of thing the Ancient Astronaut theorists think the Baghdad battery was. But just a few decades later we have lithium batteries with much higher energy densities - it's strange that the aliens didn't.

Terry the Censor said...

> Can You Speak Venusian?

A very entertaining book. I found it in a book bin for one shiny Canadian dollar. I was amazed he got some of those people to go on camera.

Andrew May said...

That's a good point, Terry. While some of them may have genuinely believed what they said (and been blissfully unaware that other people might be laughing at them) I wouldn't be surprised if some of them were the equivalent of modern-day internet trolls - i.e. they neiher believed nor cared about what they said, but simply said it for the pleasure of annoying other people. Flat-Earthers in particular I suspect may have fallen into this category.

Anonymous said...
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MUFOB said...

Moore is of sourse also believed to have been behind the 'Cedric Allingham' contactee hoax:

Andrew May said...

Good point. As I said in the above post, Moore mentions Cedric Allingham in this book too. He gives no hint that it was a hoax or that he was behind it, but the mere fact that he devotes quite a bit of space to a "contactee" who is pretty much ignored by the rest of ufology suggests that he had a special interest in the case, to say the least.

Kid said...

I'm sure I've got that Space Gods Revealed book somewhere. Must dig it out and re-read it, so thanks for reminding me of it. Talking of Patrick Moore, The Sky At Night doesn't seem the same without him, does it?

Andrew May said...

Strange as it may seem, Kid, I've never been a regular viewer of The Sky at Night - although Patrick Moore was so much one-of-a-kind I'm not surprised it's not the same without him!

I recently saw a cover scan of the first issue of Marvel Preview magazine, which is subtitled "Man-Gods from Beyond the Stars". I never had that issue, even though it dates from a time (1975) when I was buying a lot of Marvel titles. I might try to get hold of a copy - it sounds like it would make a good subject for this blog.

Kid said...

Talking of that very issue, I can no longer recall if I originally had it or not, but the cover is screamingly familiar so I must at least have seen it advertised at the time. Several years back, I saw it in a back issue shop in Glasgow and asked the fellow who worked there to put it aside for me. I knew him so it wasn't a problem. Next time I was in, it was a different person who was there and he couldn't find it. I asked for it several times over the course of my next several visits, but nobody could locate it. Funnily enough, I saw a copy of it just a few weeks ago in a shop in Glasgow. (Or was it a book that reprinted it? Can't remember exactly, but the cover jumped out at me.)

Andrew May said...

I looked on eBay and there was a copy for £4.99 + p&p so I bought it. I'll do a post about it as soon as it's arrived and I've read it.