Pseudoscience and Science Fiction. By Andrew May. Springer, New York, 2017. ISBN 978-3-319-42604-4. 181 pp. Softcover, $19.99.
Although I don’t know of any specific data on the point, I suspect that there is some overlap between the science fiction fan community and the skeptical movement, at least to the extent that science fiction readers and fans are more likely to be skeptics. This being the case, Andrew May’s Pseudoscience and Science Fiction will find a welcoming audience among skeptics as well as science fiction readers. I found it a pleasure to read. It is informative, entertaining, and lots of fun.
May is obviously very conversant with the history of science fiction. Seven of the eight chapters focus on a specific class of pseudoscientific beliefs and trace how it is represented in science fiction and, in some cases, how science fiction stories may have modified or given rise to the belief in the first place. The discussion is not limited to printed science fiction. Themes from such famous TV programs as the X-Files and Doctor Who are also included. The book is beautifully illustrated with full color photographs of early science fiction magazine covers.
One name runs through all the chapters—Charles Fort, the original popularizer of weird occurrences. The first chapter is devoted to “Fort and the Forteans” as a “continuing source of inspiration” (16) for science fiction writers from the early days of the pulp magazines to the present time. This chapter also notes that it was the early science fiction/fantasy pulp magazine Unknown, edited by John W. Campbell, that pioneered the blend of fact and fiction that sustains much of the programming on the History and Syfy Channels to this day.
Campbell published Eric Frank Russell’s novel Sinister Barrier in the March 1939 issue. The story centers around a race of aliens, the electromagnetic Vitons, that control humans and feast on human misery. What was unique about the presentation of the story was that author Russell and editor Campbell tried to make the story sound like it was reporting a real discovery that had to be disguised as fiction: “Russell makes the straight-faced claim that his story is essentially true, but that he had been forced to present it in the guise of fiction to avoid the risk of ‘removal’ by the Vitons” (13). Further cementing the importance of Fortean thinking in science fiction, the story contains many Fort-like reports of odd events.
The second chapter covers “Anomalous Phenomena” and includes a good discussion of whether something is “science, pseudoscience, or science fiction?” (21). This chapter covers the well-known claims for the Philadelphia Experiment, the Tunguska event, and the Bermuda Triangle. Regarding the Triangle, May notes that several of the “outlandish theories” and events in Charles Berlitz’s 1974 book have turned up in science fiction, most famously in the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind. But even before The Bermuda Triangle Mystery was published in 1972, Doctor Who dealt with disappearances of ships in the Atlantic that turned out to be caused by a race of ocean dwelling reptiles, evoking shades of H. P. Lovecraft!
Personally, the third chapter, “High-Tech Paranoia,” was the most interesting since I learned the most from it. I had heard of the “Shaver Mystery” a bit, but this chapter filled out the story for me. The so-called mystery formed from a story titled “I Remember Lemuria” written by Richard S. Shaver and published in the June 1947 issue of Amazing Stories, edited by Raymond A. Palmer. May summarizes the story nicely; it “told of an ancient race of degenerate humans living in underground caves, and controlling world affairs through disruptive rays and other advanced technology” (41), sort of H. G. Wells’s Morlocks with superior gadgets. Editor Palmer, like Campbell before him, hyped the story by claiming that it was actually true. Palmer realized, in May’s words, “that the idea that fiction could be interwoven with (alleged) fact offered a virtually untouched goldmine. Within a few years he was doing the same sort of thing, on an industrial scale . . .” (41).
May traces the idea of some secret alien race controlling earthly affairs through science fiction and conspiracy theories, ending with David Icke’s belief that the British Royal Family, along with many other powerful world leaders, is actually a group of shape-shifting lizards. He misses, however, my personal favorite instantiation of the evil subterranean beings theme. How could he fail to mention that wonderful 1984 film C.H.U.D.: Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dweller?
Following the history of the Shaver mystery, the chapter discusses the paranoia of science fiction author Philip K. Dick. In the early 1970s, Dick tried to persuade the F.B.I. that he was privy to a secret Nazi plot to . . . do something bad, as Nazis are wont to do. Dick believed that the F.B.I. and/or the C.I.A. was listening to his phone calls. It is likely not a coincidence that in 1962 he had published one of his most famous novels, The Man in the High Castle, which is now a popular television series produced by Amazon.
The next four chapters (“Flying Saucers,” “Mind Power,” “Space Drives and Anti-Gravity,” and “Technology of the Ancients”) cover perhaps more familiar science fiction and pseudoscience themes. All contain interesting insights into the relationships between these concepts and how they are treated in science fiction. The UFO chapter discusses “cultural tracking”—which refers to the fact that “one of the distinctive features of UFO reports is the way that, despite their supposedly other-worldly origin, they seem to mirror the earthbound culture of the time and place at which they occur” (70). So, quoting from Spencer’s UFO Encyclopedia (London: Headline, 1991, p. 86), he notes that before modern liquid crystal type screens became common in the 1990s, the builders of interstellar space ships, according to witnesses, used the same type of crude rotating number counters that I remember from my dad’s 1949 Ford when I was a boy.
The final chapter is on conspiracy theories and the usual suspects are covered. One theory I was not too familiar with is that of predictive programming. This is the idea that the government, or some super world government, is using media such as movies, television, novels, and the like to get the public accustomed to what is coming. Thus, UFO stories about aliens visiting Earth are there to make the general population more accepting of the idea of alien contact—contact that has already happened and about which the government is well aware. The ultimate (so far!) example of this is the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind, about which director Steven Spielberg apparently said, “If you believe, it’s science fact; if you don’t, it’s science fiction” (175).
Throughout the book May makes the important point that a desire to believe in the concepts in science fiction or a pseudoscientific belief system are strong and can be highly misleading. For example, he notes that “Any community that bases its philosophy on the mantra ‘I want to believe’ is going to be relatively easy to dupe” (69). Since May is a British writer, many of his references, of which there are many, are to British science fiction and skeptical publications. I frequently found myself checking to see whether my university library had these—and when they did not, recommending their acquisition.
Any skeptical science fiction fan will greatly enjoy this book and come away after reading it a more informed skeptic and more informed about science fiction and its history.