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Sunday 6 December 2015

A Few Fortean Novels by Ian Watson

UFOs and the Men in Black – Temporal anomalies and the Tunguska event – Tantric Sex and the Tibetan Book of the Dead – Alchemy and the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch – Space Gods and a Martian Inca… The novels that Ian Watson wrote in the 1970s and 80s certainly aren’t short of Fortean ideas. I don’t always remember to make a distinction on this blog between fictional works that are “good” (i.e. enjoyable to read) and ones that are “interesting” (i.e. thought-provoking). So I’ll say right away that Ian Watson is very much a master of the second category, without always finding his way into the first. I’ve read six of his novels in three short bursts – three in 1997, two in 2004 and one just last week. Some are definitely better than others, but here’s a quick rundown in the chronological order that I read them:

Miracle Visitors (1978) is one of the books on my Charles Fort in Fiction list. I bought my copy in 1997, from Watkins esoteric bookshop in London. They’d shelved it among the non-fiction UFO books, which is quite appropriate really. Although the story has “characters” and a “plot”, they’re primarily vehicles for the author to get his ideas across. I’m not averse to novels of this type, as long as the ideas are good ones – which they are in this case. There are countless science fiction stories about UFOs, but almost all of them are based on some variant of the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis (ETH). What’s unusual about Miracle Visitors is that Watson opts for a Psycho-Social Hypothesis (PSH), in which the whole UFO Phenomenon (with a capital P) is a manifestation of a higher state of consciousness. Still more unusual, he actually manages to make the PSH sound interesting – he even works the Men in Black into the Phenomenon as well as the different kinds of Close Encounter.

I was sufficiently impressed with Miracle Visitors that I went out and bought two more Watson novels. The first of these was Chekhov’s Journey (1983). This has nothing to do with Star Trek – the title character is the playwright Anton Chekhov, who really did go on a long and somewhat mysterious journey in 1890. The novel is set a century later in 1990, when a documentary film is being made about Chekhov’s journey. Since so few facts are known about it, they use a form of “past-life regression” hypnosis to fill in some of the details. This brings all sorts of wacky weirdness to light, including a connection to the Tunguska explosion (which occurred in 1908) and a spacecraft from the future which is hurtling backwards in time. Of all the Watson novels I’ve read, this is probably my favourite – certainly in terms of being exciting and enjoyable to read.

The other Watson novel I read in 1997 was Alien Embassy (1977). This is set in a strange future society based on Tibetan Buddhism, in which the space program ostensibly uses Tantric sex rituals as a mystical means of travelling to the stars. Now I may be wrong, but this strikes me as the single most brilliant idea for a science fiction novel that anyone has ever come up with. Unfortunately the execution doesn’t live up to the concept, and Watson heads off on a deeply undesirable tangent. Ignoring all the potentialities of sex, mysticism and space travel, the novel is almost exclusively about (wait for it) … politics. Aaarghh! It’s not surprising that it was another seven years before I picked up another Watson novel.

When I did, it was another really good one. The Gardens of Delight (1980) is based on the intriguing concept of a planet modelled on The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch. This extraordinary triptych can be seen in the Prado Museum in Madrid, which I’ve visited a couple of times (that’s my souvenir postcard at the bottom of this post). It’s arguably the strangest, most baffling artwork of the Renaissance period, and there are innumerable theories and speculations as to its meaning. According to one school of thought, it depicts an allegory of the alchemical process… and that’s the interpretation Watson opts for here. The result is a really fascinating and original novel, which ought to be read by anyone who’s a fan of Bosch’s painting.

The other Watson book I read in 2004 was God’s World (1979). I have to be honest and say I don’t have a clear recollection of this one. The back cover blurb sounds promising enough: “Earth has been alerted by messengers of God and summoned to the planet of angels, 82 Eridani. Powered by a mysterious space drive found in the Gobi desert, a crusading space ship is launched through High Space to explore this heavenly world.” Beyond that, all I can remember is a bunch of rather dull people on a spaceship talking to each other. As with Alien Embassy, I suspect that if the reader took the blurb and wrote their own novel around it, they’d have a lot more fun.

Much the same is true of the novel I’ve just read – The Martian Inca (1977). I bought this one several years ago, but it kept slipping down the pile before I got round to reading it. As with all Watson’s novels, the basic premise is fascinating. An unmanned sample-return mission is sent to Mars, and on its return it crash-lands in a remote part of Bolivia. The soil sample contains a psychoactive substance which causes one of the villagers to have a revelatory vision (or a pseudo-revelatory one – it isn’t clear which), after which he claims to be a reincarnated Inca with special powers (again, it’s ambiguous as to whether these powers are real or self-delusion) – and promptly sets off to lead a populist revolution. At the same time, a crewed mission lands on Mars and is exposed to the same substance, with equally strange results. I imagine that’s pretty much how Watson pitched the novel to his publishers, in which case it’s not surprising that they jumped at it. Unfortunately, however, the end-product doesn’t live up to the pitch. In particular, the details of the flight to Mars and the Bolivian revolution are too sketchy for the reader to engage with, or believe in, to any great extent.

I don’t want to end on a negative note, though. There is so much trite, unchallenging, formulaic science fiction around that novels like these are a much-needed antidote to all that.

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