Classic EssaysRevilo P. Oliver

Is There Intelligent Life on Earth? (part 8)

Jeremy Rifkin

by Revilo P. Oliver

Ain’t Science Wonderful?

UNFORTUNATELY, for our race (I am not interested in others) common sense is not enough. Despite, our race’s characteristic recognition of the supreme authority of ascertained facts, it has a psychic need to escape now and then from the trammels of reality into a world of the imagination, where we may find the beauty, the romance, and the perfection that the real world denies us. This world is so grievously defective by every aesthetic and moral standard to which we give instinctive allegiance! The “creation scientists” are routed by the need to postulate a Creator so incompetent or malicious that he made this sorry scheme of things entire. This terrible universe would be unbearable, could we not, now and then, remould it nearer to our heart’s desire. Rational men satisfy the soul’s need rationally, with debauches of poetry or fantastic fiction, from which they sober up before confronting reality again.

It may be that a recent change of fashion in fantastic fiction has had grave consequences. Until recently, men satisfied their craving for transmundane beauty and ideality with the lovely mythology of Greece and with selected and racially acceptable elements of Christianity (e.g., the Chansons de geste, Ariosto, and Tennyson in poetry, and in prose, innumerable tales of magic and theurgy). Now all of these beautiful or stirring excursions into fantasy are in themselves innocuous. No man expects to ride a hippogriff, meet a mermaid, or marry an Undine.

There are, of course, many forms of literature which merely gild some aspects of quotidian life, but it will suffice here to observe that the traditional form of fantasy is always religious and depends on belief (while one is reading) in the praeternatural and supernatural. In our literature, the religious assumptions underlying the narratives are usually of the type made familiar by Western Christianity, that is to say, the doctrines of early Christianity as modified to make them acceptable to our race. Recent writers of some excellence in this kind of writing avoid overt use of specifically Christian myths, but they retain the basic ideological structure, as may be seen, for example, from the short stories of H. P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, and Robert E. Howard, whose tales, about Conan and Atlantis now enjoy a great vogue and are instructive in this connection, for although their principal charm lies in the human heroism that our race instinctively admires, they do not dispense with the supernatural.

Consider, for example, the great masterpiece of J. R. R. Tolkien, whose trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, is certainly one of the most widely read works of contemporary literature, and forms part of a pentalogy, completed by the Silmarillion, that is really a grandiose religion, markedly superior to all religions now practiced, and could, if it survives the new Dark Ages that may be ahead of us, become the holy book of a new Faith, more humane than any of its predecessors in mankind’s yearning for superhuman masters. It is now, of course, only a majestic fantasy, recognized as imaginative literature, the fictitious history of a world created by Tolkien. Attentive readers will not have failed to notice that the underlying structure is familiar to us: in the beginning, there was a cosmic god, who is even called Ilúvater (cf. Alfađir!), and history is really begun by the revolt of one of his own creations, Melkor, later known as Morgoth, the counterpart of Lucifer. The underlying structure is obviously that common to a fairly large number of religions, including the various kinds of Christianity, which were viable cults until their priests killed off Satan and his spiritual legions.

The supernatural world, however imagined, oddly but inevitably has natural laws of its own. From the earliest tribes that can be called human to the present, the shamans always accumulate a body of lore about supernatural forces and the ways to placate or coerce them, and in literate societies, this becomes an enormous aggregation of theological erudition that can be managed only by a form of scholarship. If ‘science’ means, as it still does in French, any body of systematized knowledge, then theology, together with such subdivisions as soterology, angelology, demonology, and necromancy, are ‘sciences.’ And this supposition naturally underlies literary fantasies. One has to draw the right pentacle (misnamed, for it is usually the Jewish Solomon’s Seal, also called the Star of David) to summon spirits from the vasty deep, and one has to know the secret names and esoteric rites that will compel archangels or the princes of Hell to do one’s bidding. There is a magic power in words: if you incautiously read aloud the words written on some musty parchment you have chanced to find, they may be an arcane incantation, and anything may happen.20 There was a time when rational men could actually believe that the visible world was full of unseen spirits of good or evil, and by “poetic suspension of doubt” we can recapture their awe while we read fantasies that enable us to escape for an hour from the horrible reality in which we must live.

If we consider the broad spectrum of Mediaeval superstitions, we can (as men of the Middle Ages could not) see a clear dichotomy between theology and its theurgic subdivisions on the one hand and, on the other, alchemy, which was a spurious precursor of chemistry, and astrology, which, at that time, was not irrational and was even as valid a scientific hypothesis then as is today the commonly accepted “Big Bang” theory of tire origin of the universe.21

The great flaw of superstition was that it never worked when you wanted something beyond the power of sleight-of-hand artists to produce. No matter how earnestly you implored Jesus to keep the Vikings from your coasts (a furore Normanorum libera nos, Domine!), they kept right on coming, and theologians had to invent an explanation for Jesus’s sloth. No matter how carefully you constructed your pentacle and used the formulae of invocation when you, like Théophile and Faust, wanted to put your soul on the market, the demons spumed the bargain you offered them and never came to shop. But the gradually accumulating body of knowledge about the real world made possible actual achievements that began to rival some of the work that the imaginary spirits failed to perform. First made apparent by ingenious mechanical contrivances, the real power gradually detached itself from the suppositious ones.22 In the Eighteenth Century, the dichotomy between what was real and what was illusory became evident to all but the most ignorant men of our race.

This was certain to affect, sooner or later, the practice of literary fantasy. To simplify matters, we may credit the innovation to Mary Wollstonecraft (Godwin) Shelley. She imagined and vividly portrayed a Frankenstein who created a monster, not by some potent spell or theurgic miracle, but by a magic that was explained (vaguely) as scientific, based on the elaboration of known principles of physiology and relevant subjects by scientific research. Her explanation was crude, even for 1818, but at least the imaginary marvels that the progress of scientific knowledge might make possible some day replaced the imaginary marvels of religion, which, even if they had once taken place in some remote place and time, had become impossible in the modern world. There was a loss of some aesthetic and poetic power, but Frankenstein was more convincing than the famous work of her contemporary and friend, Matthew Gregory Lewis.23

The new type of fantasy was cultivated by a few writers thereafter, most of whom are now forgotten. Jules Verne wrote tales about marvels of engineering in a style that fascinates boys. No real talent appeared until H. G. Wells, who has to his credit many pseudo-scientific fantasies written with great verisimilitude, and a brilliant parable, The Island of Dr. Moreau. In the Edwardian period he had quite a few imitators,24 but the traditional type of fantasy continued to attract the most literarily accomplished writers. When the center of gravity shifted, it happened rather suddenly.

When I was a lad of twelve or so, I subscribed to a monthly periodical, the Electric Experimenter, of which the editor, a Hugo Gernsback, soon sought to increase circulation by cramming the pages with pictures and diagrams and changing the name to Science & Invention. Gernsback published in each issue of his magazine a short story of the pseudo-scientific type; I remember a reprinting of H. G. Wells’s The Star and one or two others, a few original tales worth reading (I remember some by a man named England), and a great deal of tedious trash25 — presumably Gernsback could buy nothing better. He announced, however, an intention to found a monthly magazine that would be entirely devoted to fiction of that type. I subscribed at once, and after six or eight months my money was returned with an explanation that Gernsback had found there was so little interest in such fiction that it would not be feasible to try to promote a magazine devoted to it.

Something happened suddenly. A few years later magazines and books of “science fiction” began to multiply as rapidly as niggers on “Welfare.” By the end of the 1920s, it was crowding the traditional type of fantasy out of the market. Some revolution in readers’ interests had taken place within a very few years. One can form conjectures about the cause, but I abstain from them here. Some talented professional writers turned to the new market, and there are pseudo-scientific fantasies that are worthy of comparison with the best of the traditional type. But the new fashion was cursed from its early vogue with a blight, the itch to make subversive propaganda. Tons of paper were dirtied with silly stories about “Inter-Galactic Federations,” the old “one world” writ large, socialistic propaganda of the kind with which H. G. Wells spoiled many of his stories, and monotonously refurbished episodes in which multigalactic “democracy” was rescued from wicked “Fascists.” Ray Bradbury and Robert A. Heinlein and a writer named Hamilton became sufficiently well established to sell some stories with reasonable political implications, but the mass of pot-boiling tripe published as “science fiction” is even worse than the mass of low-grade tales of the supernatural that were spewed out in the Nineteenth Century in cheap magazines and chapbooks (“penny dreadfuls”).26

Much of the boom in “science fiction” (I cannot bring myself to use that catachrestic term without quotation marks) was probably a belated effect of the exciting conjecture that was first fully exploited by H. G. Wells in The War of the Worlds (1898).27 Two eminent astronomers, Giovanni Schiaparelli (in 1877) and Percival Lowell (c. 1895), believed that the relatively straight lines visible on the surface of Mars through the best telescopes were in fact rectilinear; they must therefore be artificial, and were most readily explained as canals that distributed water from what seemed to be a polar ice cap. Since men were still incapable of engineering works of such magnitude, that indicated the existence of an “advanced civilization” on a relatively near planet which, like Venus, was apparently similar to the earth, so that it was a reasonable inference that there were three planets in the solar system, Venus, Earth, and Mars, that were capable of developing and supporting organic life and hence human life. It was easy to imagine that the superior minds in the “more advanced civilization” on one or both of our planetary neighbors had now reached the stage at which they could produce machines capable of traversing the comparatively short distances of interplanetary space (26,000,000 miles from Venus at an inferior conjunction, and 35,000,000 miles from Mars when it is in opposition near its perihelion). Alternatively, one could imagine an advance in terrestrial science that would permit a visit to one of our planetary neighbors.

I shall not try to guess how many ambitious authors cudgeled their brains to invent ships suited to interplanetary voyages and to adorn with new wonders the civilizations that flourished on Mars and Venus. Until recently there was nothing demonstrably impossible or even implausible in a supposition that the two planets were as infested with organic life as the earth and could have produced intelligent life superior to ours (which should not have been hard to do). Hence all the dreams and hopes of communicating with the inhabitants of other worlds, which have now become absurd, but which sentimentalists and purveyors of marvels to the proletariat are reluctant to abandon.28

After the Suicide of Europe in 1945, the dream of fraternization with Martians and Venusians became more poignant and inspired the great vogue of “flying saucers,” which were later called Unidentified Flying Objects with some loss of plausibility.29 There was an epidemic of reported sightings of such wonderful machines, many of them caused by glimpses of planets, bright stars, sounding balloons, the navigational lights of aircraft, or, just possibly, rare atmospheric phenomena not yet adequately explained,30 magnified by excited imaginations that had been stimulated by “science fiction.” And as soon as journalists, who are in the business of sensationalism, made the mystery fashionable, the excitement was augmented, as anyone could have predicted with absolute certainty, by persons whose overheated imaginations reached the fervor of autohypnosis and by the usual proliferation of liars, usually obscure individuals eager to attract attention. The Skeptical Inquirer reports that we now have approximately two hundred men and women who swear that they were kidnapped by marvellous beings from outer space and taken for jaunts on marvellous space-machines. An analysis of their reports of their experiences would doubtless permit identification of the “science fiction” on which each individual had nurtured his or her imagination, and a psychological investigation would yield highly important scientific data, showing the relative importance of hallucination and mendacity as causes of such claims.31

Now that we know that there are no Martians or Venusians and that there can be no visitors from other orbs, persons who cannot bear the terror of finding ourselves (for all practical purposes, at least) alone, utterly alone in the cosmos, find their escape-hatch already opened for them by the professional story-tellers. Of course, the desired visitors from “advanced civilizations” reach us by passing through a “time-warp” or dropping through the points at which three-dimensional space is bent back upon itself according to the seductive analogy of a two-dimensional world imagined by expounders of Relativity and popularized by E. A. Abbott’s Flatland. There are other wonders of the “hyperspace” invented by ingenious mathematicians, but if one is really desperate, one can at least hope for results from the research that is now actually being carried on at enormous expense by persons with scientific training who yearn to hear radio signals from distant stars or galaxies. After all, one can not only read “science fiction” until one’s eyes refuse to go on, but one can pep up a flagging imagination with such absurd cinemas as Star Wars, which Hollywood grinds out as readily as it manufactures “documentaries” to support the Jews’ great Holohoax.

There is a crucial difference between the traditional type of fantasy and the new model. Readers of poetry have always known what they were reading, and no one ever supposed that the events narrated by, e.g., Dante or Ariosto, had ever occurred or could occur. And when fantastic tales in prose became common, readers capable of discrimination (which, of course, is “un-American”) were never taken in. In the Eighteenth Century, no one who read, e.g., Defoe’s Gulliver’s Travels or Walpole’s Castle of Otranto believed in the possibility of Lilliputians or of gigantic apparitions in sable armor; and today, no reader of Tolkien’s masterpiece believes that elves, wizards, “seeing stones,” and the like ever existed or could exist. Readers of such fantasies know well that they are indulging a psychic need, as inherent in us as the need for sexual satisfaction, and that they are temporarily indulging in what Walpole described as the “wisdom of exchanging what is called the realities of life for dreams.” Readers of adroitly written “science fiction,” on the other hand, seem to believe that any marvel that can be described in pseudo-scientific terms is quite possible and will probably be realized in a few years — if not sooner. And I am constantly amazed when I discover that the favorite reading of many scientists today is “science fiction” and that they seem to be almost as strongly influenced by it as the uneducated. In further witness whereof, note the frequency with which uninhibited men of standing in their own field of science communicate to the press the wildest speculations.32

To a generation raised on a diet of “science fiction,” anything is possible, if it is called scientific. No one is impressed when an amateur bends spoons without appearing to touch them as a parlor trick, but call it “psychokinesis” and the suckers will get a faith induced by their yearning to believe in “scientific” wonders.33

There was recently published a best-selling gob of hokum entitled Algeny, by one Jeremy Rifkin, whose typewriter had hysterics over the very moderate success of laboratory experiments in recombining nucleotides in strands of deoxyribonucleic acid to reproduce some cellular organisms, and foresaw the imminent ‘cloning’ of human beings, manufactured with the uniformity and rapidity of castings turned out by a high-speed stamping machine. Such encroachment on the perquisites of a god (presumably the Yahweh with whom Rifkin may have an hereditary relationship) excited apocalyptic horrors in readers (including some men of standing in a science) who apprehended either divine tantrums, such as are described in the Bible, or the social peril of a society that could dispense with misfits and degenerates. Actually, of course, the ‘cloning’ of human beings is about as likely as the coming of visitors who have dropped in through a hole in time or space. The New Scientist (16 June 1983) had an editorial explanation of the credulity that is so profitable to Rifkin and his publishers: “The public that eats up Algeny has been raised on science fiction.” True, but the editors could have said more than that. I remember having seen, some years ago, two wonder-stories in which human beings were ‘cloned’ and manufactured on a production line by the ingenious members of an “advanced civilization” that blooms somewhere far out in outer space, but, unfortunately, I did not think it worthwhile to make a note of the authorship and publication of such dizzy fantasies.34But I’ll bet that Rifkin read those tales or imitations of them.

* * *

Source: Liberty Bell publications; transcribed by Racial Idealism

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