Reading Room Review: Chariots of the Gods? by Erich Von Daniken

In all the controversy surrounding The Da Vinci Code, it was never entirely clear whether Dan Brown was presenting the theories contained within the book as fact or fiction. The same cannot be said of Erich Von Daniken who, in his 1968 work Chariots of the Gods?, claimed that the ancient civilizations of the world had been visited by alien astronauts who had shaped their culture and myths. As proof of this, he offered numerous examples of  relics of those earlier civilizations which supposedly resemble the technology of space travel and nuclear warfare.

The idea of aliens influencing human development wasn’t new, even then. Nigel Kneale had offered a similar notion in his 1958 television serial Quatermass and the Pit . However that was intended as a bleak metaphor for man’s worst excesses. Von Daniken outlined a more positive concept of benign aliens helping a fledgling species to reach a utopian ideal. As such, it tapped into the optimistic Sixties  zeitgeist in the same way that Star Trek did. In subsequent years, the book has been thoroughly debunked by scientists. Accusations of plagiarism were made and, interestingly, it also transpired that it was heavily re-written  by a screenwriter.

You don’t need to be  a scientist to see that the book is hokum. Von Daniken’s view of older civilizations is patronising and parochial. He assumes that the only explanation for their skills must be contact with a race like 20th century Western man. He proposes that they would have worshiped the aliens as gods and made them the basis of their religions. Yet the only real example of an indigenous people mistaking newcomers for gods is the Aztecs and Cortez . However this was because his arrival coincided with their existing legends. Von Daniken doesn’t consider that territorial people might have reacted more aggressively. He also assumes that races capable of traversing the cosmos would do so using the same means that got man to the moon. He has some fine words to say about the limiting effects of blind faith and yet his writing style is frequently overzealous, preaching his beliefs as the new way in which history must be understood. He condemns opposition as innately stupid.

For all its flaws though, the book was a huge success. It influenced  Science Fiction in the Seventies and its presence can still be felt in recent films like Prometheus. I think the reason for this lays in its basic optimism. Von Daniken offers a world view in which cultural development is always forward moving and progressive. It represents, perhaps, the last gasp of Modernism before the considerably  more ambivalent understanding of progress offered by Post Modernism. By the far best chapter is on the importance of space travel. Von Daniken’s predictions proved wildly inaccurate but he makes a good case for its importance to our future. And while his version of anthropology is flawed to say the least, he does pique the curiosity about those lost civilizations.

Rubbish but it makes for a good film.

Damian

My next book: The Schrodinger’s Cat Trilogy by Robert Anton Wilson

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