“Isn’t it possible that things which ought not to exist do in fact exist?”
–Erich von Daniken, Chariots of the Gods?
In 2021, the US Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a dry, short, preliminary report—11 pages, including two appendices—that delivered startling if vague news. Heavy on acronyms and light on detail, it confirmed the existence of what it called unidentified aerial phenomena, or UAP. It based its conclusions on accounts received from “military aviators” and picked up by “systems we considered to be reliable.” In other words, if you, a member of the public, have seen strange lights while taking a rural stroll on a clear night after polishing off a bottle of bourbon, your intel is not “reliable.”
The doggedly bureaucratic term UAP—not a UFO in sight, certainly not a flying saucer—is accurate, presumably, because the phenomena in question might not be “flying.” It might be doing something else entirely, perhaps something that does not yet have a name. But while UAP might be beyond our comprehension, they are not apparitions: “Most of the UAP reported probably do represent physical objects given that a majority of UAP were registered across multiple sensors.”
The report concluded that one UAP under review was a deflating balloon—so, unidentified no longer—but that the rest were “unexplained.” But unexplained doesn’t mean unexplainable; unidentified doesn’t mean unidentifiable. The main thrust of the report (speaking of deflating balloons) was not that super-intelligent giant bugs with antennas and wielding earth-destroying weapons are waiting in their great big ships on the far side of Mars to invade us. The main thrust was that “the government should give us more money and resources so we can data science the mystery out of these unidentified thingos, some of which may be owned and operated by foreign adversaries gathering intelligence on us with whizz-bang new technology.”
There are, the report says, five possible explanations for what UAP might turn out to be: “airborne clutter, natural atmospheric phenomena, USG or US industry developmental programs, foreign adversary systems, and a catchall ‘other’ bin.” For those of us who are not members of US intelligence agencies, the romance lies in that “catchall ‘other’ bin.” We can and should speculate widely and wildly about what the report doesn’t say. We can and should read liberally between its lines. I might, for example, choose to see the report as a coded message that ex-President Trump is an alien, that Trump Tower is the mother ship (a UAP hiding in plain sight), that Trump’s thousands of alien babies are maturing, mutating, running for office all over the US and all over the world. After all, stranger things have turned out to be true, including the fact that Donald Trump became president.
Compare the tone of caution of Preliminary Assessment: Unidentified Aerial Phenomena with the abandon of Swiss writer Erich von Daniken’s millions-selling book, Chariots of the Gods?. First published in English in 1969, Chariots of the Gods? proposes that aliens visited early humans, giving them advanced technology and sending us on our earth-conquering ways. They may have given us more than their technology: “Does not this seriously pose the question whether the human race is not an act of deliberate ‘breeding’ by unknown beings from outer space? Otherwise what can be the sense of the constantly recurring fertilization of human beings by giants and sons of heaven, with the consequent extermination of unsuccessful specimen.” In theory, the UAP report is good news for the Von Danikens of the world. But in practice, it is irrelevant: who needs the approval of officialdom when you can harness the power of speculation?
Chariots of the Gods? might be farcical but it’s not fiction.
Von Daniken’s inventiveness begins with an ingenious use of the question mark in the book’s title: it’s not Chariots of the Gods but Chariots of the Gods? That the book holds together, in defiance of all logic, is because of the number of questions Von Daniken stitches together—individually weak, collectively strong. Occasionally, he claims a fact as a fact: “Undoubtably the Ark was electrically charged.” But mostly he deploys leading phrases to persuade the reader without the inconvenience of having to claim the impossible as true: “If we accept this daring assumption”; “If we further assume”; “Let us further suppose.” His technique would be sneaky if it wasn’t so brazen, so shameless, so relentless: “Let us postulate”; “Without overstretching my imagination”; “I get the impression that”; “One would readily believe”; “I should like to be generous and I am willing to postulate that”; “without overstraining the imagination.”
In making his unlikely claims, Von Daniken condemns scholars, especially archaeologists, for their narrow, orthodox ways: “The word ‘impossible’ should have become literally impossible for the modern scientist. Anyone who does not accept this today, will be crushed by the reality tomorrow.” In response, over the decades, experts have debunked the pseudo-science of Chariots of the Gods? Quite right too. But for readers inclined to accept Von Daniken’s vision of the past, such criticism just reveals that scholars “are too ready and willing to forget that what is reality today may have been the Utopian dream of a visionary yesterday.” It’s a neat rebuttal that never ages.
I have never believed Chariots of the Gods?—it takes faith, so what I mean is that I’ve never believed in it—but it has still held my affection for decades. Part of that is nostalgia: I first knew the dustjacketed hardback when I was a 1970s child working my way, mostly uncomprehendingly, through my parents’ bookshelves. But I have also appreciated Chariots of the Gods? for its entertainment value—it’s a belly laugh per paragraph—and, especially, because I believe in the power of speculation mixed with skepticism as an antidote to orthodox thinking and power. I dislike canons and conventional wisdom, or so I like to tell myself. I am wary of any belief system, including my own, that avoids interrogating its own biases and assumptions. To sustain my all-talk-little-action earnestness, I rely on the ballast of writers like Von Daniken, who puts it like this on my behalf: “The time has come for us to admit our insignificance by making discoveries in the infinite unexplored cosmos.” Von Daniken sacrifices his credibility so that I might indulge my flights of fancy. I’ll be praying to him next.
So, in my world in my head, speculation plus skepticism equals a higher form of truth, founded on uncertainty. Great. All power to me. Except that speculation plus skepticism also props up agendas in anti-science, anti-reason, anti-intellectualism. Name any dodgy, malicious, money-guzzling power-protecting conspiracy doing the rounds—let’s go with disbelief in the science and severity of global warming—and you can find a sentiment in Chariots of the Gods? to back you up. Von Daniken might be a peddler of inexplicable theories about ancient times, he might be a fighter against certain orthodoxies, but his understanding of progress is predictable in its deference to power, its western-centricity, and its gushing appreciation of the spirit and action of those who conquer people and places.
In the opening sentence of the introduction to Chariots of the Gods?, Von Daniken says “It took courage to write this book, and it will take courage to read it.” When he praises readers, when he turns them into true believers and joins them to his hip, he is not so much encouraging them to embrace new ideas but preparing them for the ridicule that will come their way if they too preach the word of aliens on earth. When he writes about “us” and “we”—as in “When the same tablet tells us that a door spoke like a living person, we unhesitatingly identify this strange phenomenon as a loudspeaker”—he encourages readers to believe we are that all in it together, believing the same things (although he does not offer to share his royalties with us). And if the rational world laughs at him and us, that is proof that he and we are right: “Without being unbelieving, we can no longer afford to be credulous.”
I am attracted to the idea that the books of gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson are best thought of as works of fiction. For me, it’s not that, say, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail “reads like a novel,” a phrase widely used even though nonfiction writers have never needed fiction writers breathing over their shoulder to tell a story. It’s not because of the writing techniques Thompson may or may not have used or because he was maybe, maybe not, loose with the truth or that he was maybe, maybe not, a frustrated novelist all along. It’s purely about the relationship between me and the book—the book as a living thing, not Thompson as the person who wrote that living thing.
“It took courage to write this book, and it will take courage to read it.”
Yes, authors of nonfiction create and craft narratorial versions of themselves. They strike a pose. When I think of Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail as fiction, the narrator becomes a wholly made-up person, a participant in a satirical world full of other made-up people: fictional Richard Nixons, fictional candidates and hangers-on and reporters, fictional random people trying to change a tire. To think of Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail as fiction allows the story to flow wherever it wants to go and allows the unreliable and sometimes reprehensible narrator full rein, without the reader needing to give any thought to what is true, what is embellished and what is fantastic in comparison to the “real world.” It’s a much better book of fiction than nonfiction. But I am trying to prove a point. I am not preaching that everyone must read Thompson the way I read him. I am not preaching that anyone should, by now, be bothered to read him at all.
Chariots of the Gods? might be farcical but it’s not fiction. I cannot read it the way I read Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail. The narrator, a nonfiction version of the author Erich von Daniken, does not place himself at the center of the story. He is not a scene-maker or scene-stealer, except in the way he presents his ideas and crafts his sentences. He more resembles an op-ed writer who has forgotten his word limit, forging onwards.
Although I cannot fictionalize the narrator, I do find myself imaging the life and times, the tastes, the inner world of Von Daniken himself. I see a tall man with plasticized skin, dressed in a camel-colored safari suit, wandering the world and traveling through time as if it is an extension of his patio. He blinks incessantly to clear his blurred vision but there’s nothing wrong with eyes: the world itself is out of focus.
The Von Daniken of my imagination reads the Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s report on unidentified aerial phenomena while eating a dozen fine Tasmanian oysters, flown straight from the sea to his desk, and washed down with The Yaamazaki Bordeaux Wine Cask Single Malt Whisky. He sees through the flimsiness of the report: why bother to proclaim the existence of UAP if you’re going to leave out all the juicy details, if you are going to hide behind evidence yet to be found or—the worst sin of all—that you pretend has not been found. The report is yet more hiding behind narrow definitions of proof and truth. But despite his frustrations, he approves of these people. They hold the power to do deals with billionaires to conquer space, public money and private money ecstatically entwined as one.
To imagine Von Daniken is to guess at his writerly motives. I am tempted to treat Chariots of the Gods? as a professional wrestling bout: pure theater and real blood. I am tempted to conclude that he did not believe a word of what he wrote, that he laughed all the way to the bank, that he’s still laughing. But in the end, I prefer to imagine that he genuinely had faith in what he wrote: it is possible that aliens lived amongst early humans, guided them, bred with them, whispered sweet nothings in their ears about machine learning. “Let us make up an example,” Von Daniken writes. That’s what he did best in Chariots of the Gods?: he made up examples. He believed in making them up and then, once he’d made them up, he chose to believe that they might be true. Isn’t that wonderful? And funny? And dangerous?