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Wednesday 13 December 2023

The Fortean Influence on Science Fiction - book review

Pictured on the left above is my copy of the first issue of Unknown magazine, featuring Sinister Barrier by Eric Frank Russell - which I referred to as the first Fortean novel in a post on this blog back in 2011 (see also Pulp Forteana from 2014 for more on Russell). The book on the right, with the same picture on the cover, is a copy of Tanner F. Boyle's The Fortean Influence on Science Fiction, which Fortean Times sent me for review when it came out in 2021. My 5-star review duly appeared in FT 405, but having recently revived this blog it seems an obvious choice to reprint here. So without further ado, here it is:

With so much subject matter in common, from extraterrestrials and time travellers to ESP and alternate realities, it’s no surprise that the histories of forteana and SF are intertwined. Fortean Times, for example, might not exist if founding editor Bob Rickard hadn’t picked up the collected works of Charles Fort at an SF convention in the 1960s. The influence goes in the opposite direction too, from forteana to SF – and as the title indicates, that’s Tanner Boyle’s main focus in this book (though there’s a secondary theme too, which I’ll come to later).

It’s remarkable, given the high profile that SF enjoys today – and Fort’s relative obscurity – how much the genre owes to him. As Boyle says, “without Fort, SF’s development would have been radically different”. A similar sentiment was voiced by one of the giants of SF, Arthur C. Clarke, who spoke of the “tremendous impact” Fort’s writing had on the field. A classic biography of Fort, Prophet of the Unexplained, was written by SF author Damon Knight, who agreed that “Fort’s influence on other writers is incalculable”.

One reason for this influence is easy to trace. Early pulp magazine editors enthusiastically pushed Fort’s ideas at their readers and writers. Astounding Stories, for example, serialized the entirety of Fort’s third book, Lo!, in 1934. This was how many people, Clarke included, first encountered Fort. A subsequent editor of Astounding, John W. Campbell, described Fort’s writings as a “magnificent source-book and challenge to readers and writers of SF”, which “probably averages one SF or fantasy plot idea to the page”.

Interestingly, Fort himself started out as a fiction writer. Boyle describes one of his stories, “A Radical Corpuscle”, dating from 1906 – “involving a group of cells who become aware that they are living within another organism, a larger, cosmic body”. This seems to prefigure Fort’s suggestion that humanity is just a tiny part of a bigger picture, achieving its most striking form in his notion that “we are property”.

That quotation has inspired no end of SF stories. Among the first was Eric Frank Russell’s Sinister Barrier, whose appearance in Astounding’s sister magazine Unknown is illustrated on Boyle’s cover. As Bob Rickard has recounted (FT312:48-51), Russell was a key figure in the development of both forteana and SF, albeit one who is largely forgotten today. That’s hardly true of Russell’s younger protégé, Arthur C. Clarke, whose masterpiece 2001 a Space Odyssey is a more famous take on the “we are property” trope. For that matter, many of us first learned of fortean phenomena through Clarke’s Mysterious World TV shows in the 1980s.

Clarke is one of several authors that Boyle devotes a whole chapter to. Another is Philip K. Dick, much of whose work seems to come straight from a passage in Fort’s Book of the Damned: “Ours is a pseudo-existence, and all appearances in it partake of its essential fictitiousness.” Yet apart from a brief reference in an early story, “The Indefatigable Frog”, it’s not clear from Dick’s writing that he had any interest in Fort’s work per se. Fortunately, Boyle is able to set the record straight here. He quotes an email from Dick’s widow, Tessa, confirming that he “read and admired Fort’s work” and avidly consumed biographical material on Fort. Dick also corresponded with fortean author Brad Steiger in the wake of the “mystical experience” that led to his semi-autobiographical novel VALIS – which, as Boyle says, “does at many points read like a technologically updated rendition of Fort’s theories”.

A secondary theme running through the book concerns what Boyle dubs “maybe-fiction”, referring to imaginative speculations on SF-like subjects which are presented as the truth. An intriguing characteristic of maybe-fiction is the way different authors develop and build on each other’s ideas, creating what Boyle calls “a vast web of intertextuality”. The result, as well as being impressive enough to persuade believers, provides a handily exploitable framework for SF authors. A good example is the way alternative historical narratives created by writers like Erich von Daniken and Zecharia Sitchin – which Boyle describes as a “wellspring of creativity” – can inspire anything from Ridley Scott’s Prometheus to at least one Scooby-Doo plotline.

The boundary between fiction and maybe-fiction is a blurred one. When Charles Fort embarked on The Book of the Damned, he wrote that “I’ve given up fiction ... or in a way I haven’t. I’m convinced that everything is fiction, so here I am in the same old line”. By coincidence or otherwise, several of the most successful purveyors of maybe-fiction, from Donald Keyhoe and John Keel to Whitley Strieber and Jacques Vallée, also produced works of “real” SF.

All in all Boyle has produced an engrossing and eye-opening book, which is well-researched and painstakingly referenced, and written in much the same style as a Fortean Times article. Unfortunately it’s been packaged as an academic work, with a price tag to match (though the ebook is more affordable). But if your budget can handle it, and you’re interested in the parallel histories of forteana and SF, it’s definitely worth checking out.


Colin Jones said...

I regard forteana and sci-fi as the same thing - in fact the word "forteana" is a fantastic word which, as far as I'm concerned, covers everything from sci-fi to horror to fantasy to haunted houses to Conan the Barbarian to HP Lovecraft and everything in between. BBC iplayer is currently showing such films as King Kong, Horror Express, The Wicker Man and The Thing From Another World which are all fortean films in my opinion. Unfortunately most people aren't aware of this useful word "fortean" so it's met with a blank expression if you use it!

Andrew May said...

Thanks Colin - I couldn't agree more. I tend to use the word Fortean to refer to anything lying outside accepted "normality", which (as well as the things you mention) includes cryptozoology, UFOs, conspiracy theories, myths, legends & folklore, New Age beliefs, "alternative" theories of ancient civilizations, lost continents etc, psychic powers, timeslips, mind control, antigravity and other weird science concepts, etc etc. But that's probably obvious already from the range of topics I cover on this blog. And I agree the word "Fortean" ought to be more widely known - if so, the blog might get more visitors than it does!