Science Fiction's Gifts to Paganism

Readers of both this website and our Fortean anthology series Darklore will be familiar with Cat Vincent's brilliant writings about the real-world influence of fictional characters. Cat was recently invited to give a talk at the wonderful Treadwells bookshop in London, in which he expounded upon the synergistic relationship between paganism and science fiction.

Luckily for those of us who aren't near London, Cat's talk was filmed and uploaded to YouTube by Treadwells - I've embedded it above. He begins in the early 19th century with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and moves forward through the decades from there. Here's just a sample:

By the 1930s, science fiction had acquired many avid fans - some of whom started to organise meetings. Britain’s first science fiction convention took place in Leeds in 1938, and included such luminaries of future British SF as Arthur C. Clarke.

Another enthusiastic British fan was Olaf Stapledon who wrote a series of highly influential works in the 1930s which had more than their share of the mystical - his books, such as Last And First Men and Starmaker influenced many of his contemporaries - including CS Lewis, who was inspired to explore the combination of SF tropes and his own Christian apologia in Out Of The Silent Planet and its sequels.

The crossover between an interest in fantastic fiction and the weird and spiritual has dovetailed for a long time. Many attendees of that first convention were also connected to Fortean groups - even HG Wells had read Charles Fort, though he hated his work. The rise in interest in spirituality after the Great War had also influenced the fans - as did the arrival in that same year of 1938 of a new phenomenon: the superhero comic book.

For those interested in exploring this fascinating topic further, Cat has also helpfully collated footnotes to the information presented in his talk and posted them on his blog. Wonderful stuff.


The Wold Newton Meteorite: from Outer Space into Fiction

Wold Newton Monument

In a field in England, in the East Riding of Yorkshire to be more precise, amid the grass and nettles there stands a lone curious 24 foot (7.3 metre) red brick obelisk. Constructed more than 200 years ago, the column has, appropriately enough, something of a cartoon space-rocket about it. A plaque set into one face reads

Here On this Spot, Decr. 13th, 1795 Fell from the Atmoſphere AN EXTRAORDINARY STONE In Breadth 28 inches In Length 36 inches and Whoſe Weight was 56 pounds.

The "EXTRAORDINARY STONE" arrived during a thunderstorm and landed two fields from Wold Cottage, which was at the time home to a magistrate named Major Edward Topham. It was Major Topham who would go on to have the obelisk constructed in 1799. The stone created a hole 3.2 feet (1 metre) in diameter, embedding itself firmly into a layer of chalk bedrock beneath the soil. Topham's shepherd was within 450 feet (137 metres) of the point of impact. Nearer still was labourer John Shipley, who signed a deposition published alongside a reprinted letter by Major Topham in the Gentleman's Magazine for July 1797 stating that

He was within eight or nine yards of the stone when it fell, saw it distinct seven or eight yards from the ground, and then strike into the earth, which flew up all about him, and which alarmed him very much.

The Wold Newton Meteorite was the largest ever observed to fall in Britain, and is the second largest recorded in Europe (the largest being the Ensisheim meteorite which in 1492 landed in a wheat field in what was then Alsace). The great scientist and occultist Sir Issac Newton - not yet seventy years in his grave when the stone landed in Yorkshire -had famously stated that

To make way for the regular and lasting motions of the planets and comets, it is necessary to empty the heavens of all matter.

In other words, that there was no room in his model of space for free floating objects such as meteorites. Having formulated the Law of Universal Gravitation, Newton's ideas were generally taken pretty seriously. Consequently when the Wold Newton Meteorite was put on display in London in 1797 many took pleasure in deriding it as a fake, or at best a piece of debris thrown into the air by a volcanic eruption (which was, needless to say, unlikely in Yorkshire). The then president of the Royal Society of London, Sir Joseph Banks, was interested, however. Working with the chemist Edward Howard, Banks ... Read More »

Wanderers: A Vision of Humanity's Expansion into the Solar System

Wanderers is a vision of humanity's expansion into the Solar System, based on scientific ideas and concepts of what our future in space might look like, if it ever happens. The locations depicted in the film are digital recreations of actual places in the Solar System, built from real photos and map data where available.

If you liked Interstellar at all then you will love this - it's a short film to make a space geek cry. A stunning look at the new life that could await us in the off-world colonies - on the moons, the asteroids and space stations - beautifully rendered. Wing suits in space. Walking on alien moons. Hell. Yes.

Review: The Peripheral by William Gibson

There's a moment midway through The Peripheral where Flynne Fisher, the book's young female near future protagonist, returns from visiting the far future and has to remind herself that she's physically in the present, not situated in the past. Which accurately describes the sensation the reader has of putting the book down at that point too. William Gibson has crafted a step ladder to look over the horizon of present, past an economic and social collapse to glimpse what lies beyond a technological singularity. The science-fictional world we inhabit today quickly becomes mundane, and artful writer that he is, you find yourself not just accidentally thinking of today as the past, but thinking of the now in terms of the language of two separate fictional futures.

In The Peripheral we have Gibson first conjuring the USA in the endgame of the economic collapse to come, according to many a futurist; pitched as kind of a Justified of the Future. The big-box franchises of WalMart and its like, mixed with a society seemingly only kept afloat by the narcoeconomy to one side and the security state from the other. Everybody is hustling, which is how Flynne finds herself subbing for her brother who's himself moonlighting for some corporation, remote-operating as security for... exactly what they're not quite sure, but they presume to be a new game engine.

She witnesses what appears to be an overly graphically rendered death, and events are set in motion. It turns out that Flynne was acting as security for something occurring in a different realm. And by witnessing the event her, her family, friends, town, country and the entire planet's fate are successively entangled with those of its almost god-like residents, and forever changed as a result. Giving the plot an aspect of “as above, so below.”

The novel's plot is simply a matter of having Flynne identify someone from the crime scene. But manoeuvring her into a position to do so takes her and her friends on a compelling and transformational journey.

This is on one level a straight murder mystery. A basic whodunnit. A witness to be protected from unknown, powerful forces. A crime to be solved, wrongs to be righted, notions of order maintained and two different worlds elaborated in the process of the telling. It's the mechanics of this - the how and the why and the frankly amazing setting - that make this a mind-blowing read.

All the signature elements of a Gibson story are here – the attention to detail about fashion that exists on a natural continuum from haute couture to milspec, the Russian gangsters, the tight knit group of former military operators, the spy with spooky powers and deep state access, and the wealthy patron exploiting novelty to find the next angle and increase their capital.

The setting of the crime and home of The Peripheral's second, alternate protagonist, Wilf Netherton, is another Gibson favourite, London. A place that is very much the City, but in a world unrecognisable in many aspects of its every day life – both to us and Flynne. All pretence of a separation between capitalism, democracy and multinational crime has been abandoned and a posthuman kleptocracy is the dominant order. The NeoReactionary Future many of us fear has to come pass.

The circle of wealth and privilege Wilf exists in adds to the contrast of Flynne's everyday struggle just to keep her mother in life-giving medication. As their paths converge their different backgrounds and attitudes are emphasised with Netherton's casual declaration that “it's only money”.

This London is in the far future Vernor Vinge warned us about in his classic “The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era”. Their powers are immense – nanotechnological assemblers make them near omnipotent - but the world has been vastly depopulated in the transition. They have seemingly everything, but are also not without their own problems. As fellow cyberpunk writer Bruce Sterling has described this likely scenario:

“The posthuman condition is banal. It is crypto — theological, and astounding, and apocalyptic, and eschatological, and ontological, but only by human standards. Oh sure, we become as gods (or something does), but the thrill fades fast, because that thrill is merely human and parochial. By the new, post Singularity standards, posthumans are just as bored and frustrated as humans ever were. They are not magic, they are still quotidian entities in a gritty, rules — based physical universe. They will find themselves swiftly and bruisingly brought up against the limits of their own conditions, whatever those limits and conditions may be.”

The bridge between these two worlds is a piece of magical technology of unknown workings and providence. Exactly the kind of thing to occupy the attention of a posthuman kleptocrat who has seemingly everything we could ever imagine.

Treating the past like a toy pocket dimension. One that is accessed via something like a game server, its residents treated like game pieces and then used as a board to compete against others as if it was all just a Real-Time Strategy.

The act of reaching back changes the present, for reasons also not understood, while the future goes on. This is a comfortable scenario to those familiar with the Many World's theory. A different timeline, or continuum, branches off but the connection between the two is magically maintained by whatever it is that initiated it in the first place.

The human citizens of Flynne's present, and the neoprimitives of the post-Singular world – populations that have survived the singularity with their baseline humanity intact – these are both valuable sources of novelty to the posthuman klepts, something that with all their power (and possibly a consequence of it), they seem unable to generate themselves, but are desperate for, if only to relieve their boredom.

To those conversant with early cyberpunk fiction, the mining of the past to enrich the future is a familiar scenario, as explored in the Mozart in Mirrorshades short-story, from the Mirrorshades anthology. To others, the short-lived tv series Terra Nova may serve as a reference point.

Flynne is transported into this future world by the same game server device connection. Just as Neo breaks out of and then jacks back into The Matrix across realities, and Jake Sully pilots his Avatar across space, Flynne, and the others who come to join her, operate remote bodies; varying from bioengineering humanoid drones, to exoskeletons, to almost indescribable physical objects.

To say any more now would really ruin the enjoyment of reading such a masterful tale. The vocabulary of these futures is slowly built up such that by the end of the story you're reading a sentence with a completely different meaning ascribed to it than before you'd started this book.

Speculative fiction serves to pose not just well constructed thought experiments of what might become, but to also cast a new light on the present in doing so. Just as the klepts come to use their far future knowledge to grind the lives of Flynne & co. like it was just another MMO, so we can inform our own actions today by reading this tale about two tomorrows.

Most notable to me, apart from the foreground of economical collapse and subsequent radical transformation, is the thread of extinction woven into the world view. One of the characters is in permanent mourning for the species being killed by the ecological collapse under way right now. Another keeps simulacra of animals long vanished from our world as household pets, resurrected to act as perhaps no more than a status object. As Gibson is wont to do, this is an emergent part of the zeitgeist that is being tapped into. The question it leaves me with most of all is, as consciousness of this is raised, what is to be done?

All of which makes The Peripheral more than just a tightly constructed, fascinating piece of story-telling. It makes it an important element in a cultural conversation that desperately needs to be more visibly taking place.


Our Enduring Fascination with Portals to Another World or Dimension


Today sees the release of Lev Grossman's The Magician's Land (Amazon US/Amazon UK), the concluding chapter of his excellent Magicians series. Over at the A.V. Club, Grossman discusses 5 favorite magic portals in fantasy fiction, with some interesting insights into our fascination with doorways to other magical places or dimensions:

There’s an appeal to those portals, and it’s always been extremely primal to me. Even when I was 8 and read The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe for the first time, it hit me like a truck. Of course this can’t possibly be all there is. There has to be some alternative to this world that’s all around me. If I could just look in the right direction, I could see it. There’s something so seductive about that idea, and I knew I had to write about it at some point. I remember reading [the first book in] A Song Of Ice And Fire in the ’90s and thinking, Martin has remade epic fantasy completely. He’s taken the Tolkien tradition and transformed it. Nobody had done that for the C.S. Lewis tradition, which has always had more of an air of middle-grade fiction about it. Could you take that idea of the portal fantasy and drag it into adulthood? What would it look like? That’s where The Magicians came from, trying to reengineer that subgenre for adults.

Grossman mentions just a few of the famous magical portals from history, but when I began to think about it, the idea of magical portals is amazingly prevalent, from fantasy right through to science fiction (hence the Stargate image at the top of this post).

It's a genre that has always appealed to me, so if you've got some favourite 'portal fiction' to share, please do so in the comments!

Link: Lev Grossman lists his 5 favorite magic portals in fantasy fiction

The 100 Best Science Fiction Movies

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Are you a connoisseur of science fiction films? Check out Time Out's list of the "100 Best Sci-Fi Movies" and see how many you've fed to your eyeballs. Let me know in the comments how many you can tick off, and any notable absences or problems with the order that you can see.

Apart from catering to some of the 'blockbuster' movies that are more sci-fi in setting than theme, I think it's a great list...the fact that I thought The Matrix should be a bit higher, but couldn't figure out which movie to tip out to make way for it, suggests that they've done an excellent job. No doubt helped by the fact that the list was voted on by "leading sci-fi experts, filmmakers, science fiction writers, film critics and scientists", such as Guillermo del Toro and George R.R. Martin.

Crowdfunding the Cosmic Trigger

Cosmic Trigger: The Play

The world needs more Robert Anton Wilson. At a time when so many people take themselves and their views far too seriously, RAW's "agnostic mysticism" provides a different way forward, one in which we all understand the 'reality tunnels' we live within - and as a consequence, help us to take everything *we* say with a grain of salt.

So I was excited to see the newly-created crowd-funding drive to support a stage play (and accompanying festival) based around RAW's Cosmic Trigger, which will be directed by Daisy Campbell (daughter of British theatre maven Ken Campbell, who in 1976 staged a now-legendary play based on another RAW classic, Illuminatus!):

[I]t’s time to tackle another one of Wilson’s works: Cosmic Trigger, the philosophical tract which has influenced figures as diverse as X-Files creator Chris Carter, SF author and futurist David Brin, film-makers and South Park Creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker, and author Tom Robbins. Philip K Dick said Wilson had “reversed every mental polarity in me, as if I had been pulled through infinity”. Jesse Walker called Wilson “the elephant in our cultural living room”.

Daisy’s adaptation recounts the period of Bob’s life around the inspiration for, writing of and theatrical culmination of Illuminatus!, a period where he also met iconic countercultural figures like Timothy Leary, Alan Watts and William Burroughs, all of whom feature in the play. The narrative slips in and out of Illuminatus! itself and the production employs song, music, projections and stagecraft to evoke the real-life hallucinogenic trip through conspiracy, paranoia and enlightenment that transformed Bob from a simple Playboy editor into the influential countercultural figure he is today.

Robert Anton Wilson sought to induce in his readers agnosticism; not just about God, but about everything; and all his work blurs the lines between truth and fiction. This will be reflected in a staging style that often breaks down theatrical conventions, with actors amidst the audience, tiny stage-sets that can pop up anywhere and cutting-edge projection trickery, allowing the very walls of the theatre to drop away at one climatic moment. Alan Moore (Watchmen, V For Vendetta) will voice The World's Most Intelligent Computer, and Jamie Reid (Sex Pistols album artist) will lend his occult artworks to the production.

The three hour play will be the centerpiece to a three day festival of Bob, celebrating the author, his work, his influence and his legacy. A range of influential contemporary speakers will attend and give addresses, people like Robin Ince, John Higgs and members of the Maybe Logic Academy. This will be a forum to listen to contemporary countercultural figures, network with like-minded individuals and pick up rare books and goods in the marketplace. So you’re not just funding a play, you’re funding a circus that we want to bring to your town.

Bob’s ideas are profound, optimistic and funny. His legacy will one day be remembered alongside such literary philosophers as Aldous Huxley and James Joyce – if those of us whose lives he’s enriched pull together now and make this event a reality.

Here's Daisy Campbell talking about the project:

To get a feel for the fun and madness that is sure to accompany a production of RAW's work - not least via a woman whose middle name is Eris! - have a read of Cat Vincent's Daily Grail review of the Pulling the Cosmic Trigger event held earlier this year in Liverpool, and also check out the story I wrote last year documenting some of the insane synchronicities and links that emerged out of Ken Campbell's 1976 production of Illuminatus!.

And if in any doubt about the importance of Robert Anton Wilson's work, listen to Alan Moore, who definitely knows the score when it comes to RAW (note that one of the pledge rewards for the crowd-funding drive is a DVD of the complete interview with Alan which the excerpt below is taken from):

Come on Grailers, let's get behind a worthy cause - head on over to IndieGoGo and drop some coins in the can (mmm, gotta get me one of those awesome t-shirts!), and help pull the Cosmic Trigger!

Link: Cosmic Trigger Play on IndieGoGo

Link: Official website of the Cosmic Trigger play

David Lynch's Star Wars Sequel

Why did I not branch off into this multiverse?

In 1981 George Lucas approached David Lynch to direct the final installment of the STAR WARS trilogy. For years fans of Lynch and Lucas have wondered what that surreal vision would look like. Now we finally know.... in David Lynch's RETURN OF THE JEDI.

Meanwhile, there's a fun discussion of possible movie titles for a David Lynch Star Wars movie over at the Boing Boing BBS: "Mulholland Hyperdrive", "Tatooine Peaks", "Pod-racer-head" and "Wild AT-AT Heart". Any more folks?

Michael Prescott's Paranormal Thriller, 'Chasing Omega'

Book Cover of Chasing Omega

Many readers will know Michael Prescott as a blogger who posts intelligent analyses of various paranormal-themed topics, from historical cases through to cutting edge parapsychological theories (we occasionally link to Michael's blog in our news briefs, and have featured some of his essays in our Fortean anthology series Darklore). But Michael's writing talents aren't confined to non-fiction - he's also a very successful novelist who has released a number of novels, the most recent of which is Chasing Omega, a story about "a psychic medium on the run from a secret conspiracy that may hold the key to the truth about life, death...and what comes after".

After twenty years in traditional publishing, novelist Michael Prescott found himself out of work in 2007, his career apparently over. On a whim, he began releasing his older titles and some new novels in ebook form. Much to his amazement, sales took off, and by 2011 he was one of the bestselling ebook writers in the United States, profiled in USA Today and sought after for interviews. To date he has sold nearly 1.5 million ebooks.

His latest ebook releases are three backlist titles, COMES THE DARK, SHUDDER, and SHATTER, the crime thriller COLD AROUND THE HEART, the anthology STEEL TRAP AND OTHER STORIES, and the paranormal novella CHASING OMEGA

Funnily enough, given his knowledge in paranormal topics, Chasing Omega is the first of Michael's novels to really delve into this area - it's only $2.99 on Kindle, so grab a copy if you're on the lookout for something to read! (You can also view Michael's other books on his Amazon author page)

Link: Michael Prescott's Blog

Buy: Chasing Omega

Free eBook: The First Church on the Moon (Limited Time, Get in!)

The First Church on the Moon

Our good friend John Higgs, who has written articles for two Grail-related publications (Sub Rosa and Darklore), has just released his latest novel The First Church on the Moon (as J.M.R. Higgs) - and for the next day or so, you can grab it as a Kindle eBook ABSOLUTELY FREE from Amazon US or Amazon UK! It's a wonderful humorous exploration of everything from religion to free will and why you really shouldn't drink alcohol on the Moon, very much in the style of Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett. It won't be free for much longer, so get in!

If you need real paper in order to read, there are also paper versions available - though you'll have to pay real paper money in return for one of those: grab a paperback from Amazon US or Amazon UK.

And if you haven't already read John's first novel, The Brandy of the Damned, then I highly recommend you grab a copy - it blew me away, and is one of the best books I've read in a long, long while.