Monday, February 14, 2011

Pulp Fantasy Library: Chariots of the Gods?

Initially, I felt a little sheepish at writing a post about this book as part of my Pulp Fantasy Library series, but I quickly decided that, if Erich von Däniken's 1968 book can't be considered a classic of pulp fantasy, very few things could be. Chariots of the Gods? purports to be a work of scholarly research into the involvement of extraterrestrial beings in human history. According to Von Däniken, these aliens -- dubbed "ancient astronauts," in the parlance of the day -- were viewed as gods by the humans they assisted and their handiwork can be seen all across the world, such as:
  • The Pyramids of Egypt
  • The Nazca Lines in Peru
  • Stonehenge
  • The Moai of Easter Island
Von Däniken's "evidence" for his hypothesis is, of course, exceptionally weak, based, so far as I can tell on two premises. First, that because certain ancient structures and artifacts look like modern or futuristic things, they must be modern futuristic things. Second, and perhaps most important of all, ancient humans were stupid and inept and, therefore, utterly incapable of having produced wonders like the Pyramids or the Nazca Lines without the aid of ultra-powerful aliens.

Chariots of the Gods? seems patently absurd nowadays and, yet, back in the late 60s and early 70s, the book became an international bestseller, being translated into 32 languages and selling tens of millions of copies. It also inspired a "documentary" film in 1970 and countless imitators. Von Däniken's central premise was widely adopted by science fiction writers. who continue to use it or variations on it down to the present day. And it's not hard to see why they do. The notion that aliens intervened in Earth's past to produce the world we have today may be pseudoscience, but it's very compelling pseudoscience with a long pedigree, with authors like H.P. Lovecraft employing it to create some of their most memorable stories.

In reflecting on Chariots of the Gods?, I was struck by how weird the popular culture of the early to mid-1970s was. Growing up, this kind of stuff was just "in the air" and I ate it up, even though I was then, as I am now, very skeptical of it. I read lots of books on this topic and saw innumerable TV shows and movies that made use of it. It's even a theme that comes up in roleplaying games, with settings as venerable as Blackmoor and the Wilderlands of High Fantasy including alien visitors as important parts of their background. That probably goes some way toward explaining the appearance of similar ideas in my Dwimmermount campaign, with the extraterrestrial Eld, space-traveling Iron God, and dimension-hopping scientists from Earth. It's the stuff of good fantasy in my opinion, so pick up a copy of Chariots of the Gods? in a used bookstore -- they're bound to have a copy -- and enjoy it for what it is rather than what it purports to be. You might be surprised how many good ideas it sparks in your imagination.

48 comments:

  1. Carlos Castaneda's work, if you aren't aware of it (though if you know Von Daniken you probably know Castaneda), kind of fits into the same genre of patently absurd rubbish from that particular time period that's good for inspiring games. (Actually, Castaneda's own life story is good to slip into a Call of Cthulhu or Unknown Armies game... especially considering the creepy rumours of members of his harem committing suicide after his death.)

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  2. We're the same age and (while it may only be a function of it being the time of my childhood) the 70s stand out in my mind as a time of singular weirdness. I, however, ate it up. To this day, I still remember my wonder at things like the TV show In Search Of, my mother's Ouija board, and a friend's book (for children) that was all about auras, ESP, aliens, etc. And, yeah, Chariots of the Gods and it's subject matter seemed like it was all over the place.

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  3. I'd say there was a certain amount of this "strangeness" going on in the '90s as well, but my sample size isn't the largest.

    I absolutely loathe this book ever since a student asked me about it and an accompanying "History" channel documentary.

    Still, I think you're correct about it's usefulness for gaming purposes. I find the idea to be rather Lovecraftian not just because of the ancient aliens. It would definitely say something about the nature of humankind if we didn't build the Pyramids.

    I've often wanted to run a CoC scenario about archaeologists in Mesopotamia discovering a Ziggurat with alien artifacts that reveal the origin of man. I may still one day.

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  4. Thanks for the reminiscences, James; I totally remember that TV special/documentary on "Chariots of the Gods" and how it conflated aztec carvings with ancient astronauts. I definitely soaked it all in.

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  5. There was a cartoon/comic version of these books that was usually stocked in the same section as Asterix and Tintin in the early 80's kid's section of bookshops, I seem to recall!

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  6. My dad had a heap of books on this stuff when I was a kid. I guess he still has them.

    Space aliens interfering with ancient man was all over the place in the good old days. It was in comics over and over again.

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  7. Not to miss out on the Six Million Dollar Man's Bionic Alien Bigfoot, the von Daniken-meets-Old Testament mythology of the 70's Battlestar Galactica, the Face on Mars wearing what seemed to be Egyptian headgear (nicely timed with the mania surrounding the King Tut exhibit in 1977), and that darn Noah's Ark movie my mother took me to once.

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  8. Heres the documentary I was talking about:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ancient_aliens

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  9. I grew up with this kind of stuff all around, as my mother is a bit... odd, so they formed an important part of my literary upbringing.

    Jack Kirby was also interested in such ideas, with his Eternals at Marvel a prominent example, and the writer Nigel Kneale explored similar concepts in Quatermass and the Pit, which in turn went on to influence Stephen King, John Carpenter and a number of Doctor Who stories. All of the aforementioned did a much better job than Von Däniken did, probably because they weren't attempting to play it all off as real, although I always got the impression Kirby sort of believed it.

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  10. I should mention that the Nigel Kneale bit of the family tree predates von Däniken, but they're still playing with the same sort of ideas.

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  11. Back when I was in high school in the 70s, I swallowed von Daniken's nonsense hook, line and sinker. Years later, while I can laugh at my teenaged gullibility, I still enjoy them as source material for RPG ideas. Not just Ken Hite-style "secret history" campaigns, but for almost any genre . Heck, the early background of my favorite FRPG, WFRP, so liberally borrowed from the "ancient astronauts" genre that the writers jokingly referred to it as "Chariots of the Frogs." (In fact, I believe I slipped a brief homage to von Daniken into Marienburg.) One of these days, I want to run another WFRP campaign that makes more direct use of that.

    Modern pop culture has been affected by it, too. I'm sure reading "Chariots..." and books like it was an inspiration behind Stargate series.

    Hmmm... I still have many books on this and related topics (Atlantis, &c.) on my shelves at home. Maybe it's time for an inspirational re-reading.

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  12. If we're going to bring up Castaneda and von Däniken then I got to recommend the works of Immanuel Velikovksy. I think his stuff reads drier than the other two (though I haven't read either of the former in a long time) but they don't lack in material you can swipe. Dude is willing to rewrite the laws of physics to better fit his radically unorthodox theory of history. I appreciate the sheer lunatic audacity of that.

    Ignatius Donnely's Atlantis book is also pretty keen.

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  13. My wife loves the "Ancient Aliens" TV series, which is related to these books. She thinks it is pulpy great fiction, and that all of the "researchers" on that series need to be hired by Ubisoft as writers for the next Assassin's Creed.

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  14. von Daniken wrote a sequel to this book entitled "God Drives a Flying Saucer" that is equally fun and compelling as fodder for science fiction and fantasy ideas.

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  15. Jason, I think I remember that one from my mother's lunatic library. As I recall the cover had a flying saucer shooting out of a crucifx-shaped hole in space. Brilliant.

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  16. Yes! I ran into this book in the early '80s and had a great time with it: dragons are really robots, a flight on a commercial airliner as seen from the point of view of a Neolithic prince, the Vedas as manuals on combat between flying saucers. I'd love to pick this up again and flip through it.

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  17. Another great book for RPG ideas is Richard E. Mooney's Colony: Earth, published in 1974. You can buy it on amazon for a penny. Instead of postulating ancient astronauts, he claims that extraterrestrials crash-landed on Earth tens of thousands of years ago--and we are their descendants. (Which reminds me: Make sure to read Gerald Kersh's short story, "Men without Bones".)

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  18. This isn't pulp fantasy. If this is included as pulp fantasy then every book in the New Age or Metaphysical section at Border's book store is pulp fiction. A dreadful misrepresentation, James.

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  19. If this is included as pulp fantasy then every book in the New Age or Metaphysical section at Border's book store is pulp fiction.

    Your point being?

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  20. I remember this book (and its ilk) fondly, along with the "Ripley's Believe it or Not" books, Leonard Nimoy's "In Search Of" show and other similar stuff from my youth in the 70s. Von Danniken seems to have borrowed liberally from the 'Shaver Mystery' and the UFO/flying saucer stories from the 40s, 50s and 60s, so the point that this kind of 'speculative work' or 'pop science' and pulp/science fiction/fantasy were all cut from the same cloth is well taken.
    I also remember Kirby's 'The Eternals' fondly, especially Kirby's take on the south American pyramids and Von Danniken's pictures of Columbian sculpture that he identified as portraying 'men in space suits' was always fun and served as great candy for the mind... I don't know whether to be amused or saddened when I hear how mad these inventions of the popular press makes some people. It was a part of the 70s.

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  21. You can add W. Raymond Drake's "Gods or Spacemen" from 1964 which treads similar ground to von Daniken albeit with a whole load of 1960s cod-Eastern mysticism thrown in for good measure.

    Have to admit to being an addict of reading any of this sort of crap.

    For the surprising reach of the ideas behind this sort of nonsense, well would you believe the ancient astronaut concept even turns up in a 1968 Tintin book?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flight_714

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  22. I too very much remember that time (the early 70s) as being uniquely strange. While theres still tons of goof-ball quackery around, there just seemed to be less of an "agenda" associated with it then, and the public was less self-consciously cynical too. I loved all the Chariots of The Gods/Noah's Ark stuff even though I never took it seriously. It always felt to me like nothing more than a great story to me...

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  23. Ah good memories. James P. Hogan's absolutely brilliant 1977 classic takes some of these ideas, and spins them into an amazing and very rational SF tale. I won't give any spoilers but here's a blurb:

    The man on the moon was dead. They called him Charlie. He had big eyes, abundant body hair and fairly long nostrils. His skeletal body was found clad in a bright red spacesuit, hidden in a rocky grave. They didn't know who he was, how he got there, or what had killed him. All they knew was that his corpse was 50,000 years old -- and that meant that this man had somehow lived long before he ever could have existed!

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  24. @James:

    My point is obvious. "Chariots of the Gods" is not pulp fantasy. Your inclusion of it as pulp fantasy is an error.

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  25. So, radnoff, are von Däniken's ideas insufficiently fantastic or is the paper they are printed on too high quality?

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  26. There are errors, and then there is humor.

    Re: Doctor Who, the famous 3rd Doctor Ezekiel quoting scene. (Sadly, not the part commanding the use of wargaming with miniatures as a prophetic technique in ancient Jerusalem.)

    Re: Ignatius Donnelly, the patient folks at Librivox have made his Atlantis book into a free audiobook. Looking at the chapter listing, I saw his theory was more inclusive than I thought it was; it encompassed Peru. It probably is good to have his book done, though, since it was influential on a lot of fields in its own totally crazy way. It's a sort of American mythology, really.

    Re: love of the bizarre and hidden, I think that it's a stage most kids go through at some point, just like most kids go through a stage where they read a lot of folklore, sports books, or animal books; or really get into some kind of music.

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  27. The weirdness is still with us. Just look at all the weird subject shows on cable tv (everything from Nostradamus to alien stuff), or in whackadoodle movies like 2012 (itself based on yet more weirdness without any basis even in the mythology from which it is derived).

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  28. Oh, and as for this stuff being pulp fantasy, I actually disagree with James. I think pulp fiction is intended to be fiction. This other stuff is being passed off as "fact," whether out of ignorance, greed, or a honestly warped world view. The purpose serves to distinguish them, I think, though I agree 100% that you can read this schlock as pulp fiction and get the same effect as the real deal. I really like some of the Theosophist writers like Talbot Mundy who toed the line between these two worlds...

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  29. @ Jeff Rients

    Both

    This book is more appropriate under the New Age/Metaphysics classifications.

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  30. I am a bookseller and I would file it under "utter tosh" but that's not to deny its potential for creative inspiration. Certainly Däniken's pseudohistorical notions, despite - or more likely because of - their outrageousness, became part of the zeitgeist in the 1970s and inspired a whole slew of fun stuff in that decade, much of which has been mentioned above (although I must just add the song "Inca Roads", arguably Frank Zappa's finest creation).

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  31. Sheesh, lighten up radnoff. I don't think James is suggesting Chariots of the Gods be re-classified in public librarys. He's simply saying that if you choose to read it as such, the book makes for a ripping good pulp fiction yarn...

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  32. I've felt the same way about Margaret Murray's The God of the Witches. As history, archaeology, anthropology or Egyptology it's pure BS, but as a source for campaign material it's awesome!

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  33. Jason Colavito, in The cult of alien gods: H.P. Lovecraft and extraterrestrial pop culture, rather convincingly argues that von Daniken and company drew on Lovecraft for their basic ideas - not necessarily directly, but certainly through Lovecraft's influence on their sources.

    (I just posted something similar in the Kirby thread above, before noticing this one, where it fits better.)

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  34. Why are people complaining about Chariots of the Gods? inclusion but not the inclusion of the Shaver Mystery? Shaver was (apparently) convinced that what he was writing about was real, and his publisher presented it as such.

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  35. Just as Daniken drew upon sources like the Shaver Mystery and HPL, both were influenced in some way by Theosophy, one of the true fountainheads of modern fantasy, especially the American variety.

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  36. Finding a copy of Chariots itself might be hard, actually. I haven't seen many out there. There's a lot of copies of Gods of Outer Space floating around, though. Might've had a larger print run.

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  37. Also, Fortean Times has a daily 'weird news' roundup, if anyone wants to stay on top of developments in High Weirdness.

    Captcha: 'fo rill,' haha.

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  38. Chariot of the Gods is available in paperback from Amazon:

    http://www.amazon.com/Chariots-Gods-Erich-von-Daniken/dp/0425166805/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1297747978&sr=8-1

    http://www.amazon.ca/Chariots-Gods-Daniken-Von/dp/0425166805/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1297748019&sr=8-1

    Looking for this took me to some really strange areas of the interweb:

    http://www.legendarytimes.com/index.php

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  39. Believe it or not, we watched the "In Search of..." version of this in my junior high school science classes.... more than once.

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  40. FYI: There's book out called "The Cult of Alien Gods: H.P. Lovecraft and Extraterrestrial Pop Culture" that tries to establish a direct line line of influences from Lovecraft's fiction to Von Daniken and some other, more recent folks. I read it a few years ago and don't think that it made the case for direct intellectual influence that it was trying to argue, but it may be an interesting read noetheless:

    http://www.amazon.com/Cult-Alien-Gods-Lovecraft-Extraterrestial/dp/1591023521

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  41. As much as I loved this stuff as a kid in the '70s, it does kinda piss me off now. It completely discounts the ingenuity of humans. I also find humor in the current television show when they take a piece of archaeological evidence and state that it is "obviously" the work of ancient aliens. For example, the Egyptian representations of lotus flowers that are obviously light bulbs. They have an amazing ability to interpret anything as evidence of alien intervention.

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  42. I have to say, I get extremely irritated with the "History Channel" putting this kind of crap in heavy rotation. I can see the young and/or gullable being easily confused by a supposed history channel having shows like this on continually. Just what our already academically struggling kids need!

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  43. "As much as I loved this stuff as a kid in the '70s, it does kinda piss me off now. It completely discounts the ingenuity of humans."

    More specifically, it discounts the ingenuity of non-white humans. Von Daniken never says aliens built Stonehenge, the Parthenon, or Notre Dame - all impressive monuments reared by Europeans like himself. But he seems so honestly baffled by the idea that "brown" people could carve and stack rocks that his preferred explanation is UFO's.

    I hate to be PC and start imputing racism to authors without direct evidence, but I'm pretty sure it exists here. And unlike with Lovecraft, there's no redeeming artistic or entertainment value to dilute the bad taste. I find von Daniken's entire body of work nauseating and insulting on every level.

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  44. Shadow knows said; "I find von Daniken's entire body of work nauseating and insulting on every level."
    I suspect that if von Daniken is guilty of 'racism,' it is of a more subconscious type that, say, Lovecraft's feelings on the subject. I don't think it's a stretch to say that Lovecraft felt that some types of humans (white Anglo-Saxons) were clearly morally and mentally superior to other types (Africans, mixed race people, etc.). Given the times he lived in, his views were not unusual. I view von Daniken as more of an opportunist. The implication in his theories that the Pre-Columbians couldn't have built things like the Nazca lines probably is racist at it's core, but is a less conscious form than Lovecraft's in my opinion. One of the problems of being a white European writing books that claim that Notre Dame or The Colliseum were built (or inspired by) aliens is that much of your White western audience is going to have some experience of these monuments and cultures and will not accept your claims. In the 60s and 70s there was only a fraction of the pre-Columbian scholarship there is today and most American people without a deep knowledge of South America or Pre-Columbian culture didn't know about things like the Nazca lines, so von Daniken could say whatever he wanted about them. For the average American in the 1970s, those who hadn't visited Paris had at least seen pictures, so while Paris or Notre Dame might be considered a romantic or attractive place, it wasn't a mysterious or unknown place. And while the Pyramids were common knowledge to anyone who had any exposure to National Geographic or similar sources, the pyramids were still a subject that most of us didn't know about; I remember being a kid in school and having my teacher tell me that archaeologists couldn't agree on HOW the pyramids were built... which almost sounds like a backhanded embrace of von Daniken's tales.

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  45. @TheShadowKnows:

    You know, for some reason I have never made that connection. However, now that you point it out it seems ridiculously obvious!

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  46. von Däniken stole the idea from Lovecraft - the whole Great Old Ones creating mankind from primordial ooze and then uplifting ever so gradually to sentience till he rebelled and the great war in heaven ensured...so you get the back story for Traveller in there too.

    von Däniken was a runaway success in the 1970s but his ideas are old as Milton. Merely, substituting aliens for Angels and Demons taking away the morality play and later on adding on salacious, scandalous sex - so that it can become a new witch craze.

    As you said, it is pure pulp and should be relegated as such...the problem is that von Däniken wrote so obtusely and was tied into that whole Fortean revival of the 1970s - his legacy and followers are likely to be with us for some time.

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  47. People are looking too hard to find racism in the book; there is none. It takes it from a purely technical point of view; did the ancients have the tools to build the monuments, were they technically capable? He says no, therefore, a different technically advanced culture did it; more advanced than the whites (for those who see racism where there is none, how do you square that).. his explanation is a species from another planet is involved.

    I suspect he doesn't talk about Stone Henge and so on because the they are not such great technical achievements, nor are there intriguing details about them that match star constellations, or weird pictures in them that seem out or place, or whatever.

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