Monday, November 30, 2015

Review: The Cult of Alien Gods

I recently finished The Cult of Alien Gods: H. P. Lovecraft and Extraterrestrial Pop Culture, by Jason Colavito, which I highly recommend.

There's a couple of things going on here. First, Colavito makes a - fairly convincing - argument that modern ancient astronaut theories derive originally from the work of H. P. Lovecraft, via the proto-New Age book Morning of the Magicians. Second, he traces the development of ancient astronautics to the present day, though, since the book was published in 2005, he stops before Ancient Aliens. Third, he uses this to make a broader argument about the decadence of Western culture, and a turning-away from science and rationalism. 

To take these points in order: while Colavito's arguments are not quite conclusive, he demonstrates that the authors of Morning of the Magicians were definitely familiar with Lovecraft's work, and makes a reasonable argument for the descent of the rest of ancient astronautics from there. If there's a flaw with this argument, it's that the rest of the ancient astronauticists only know the theory via Morning - or, more commonly, via the work of van Daniken, who drew on Morning, placing them one step further from the original source. This raises the question of how much this matters: yes, there's a lineage from Stitchin and Hancock to Lovecraft, but so what? There's no evidence of any direct inspiration there, so I'm not sure how much that tells us. 

However, despite the title, Lovecraft is only a small part of the book, which is primarily concerned with tracing the history of ancient astronautics, a task it succeeds admirably at. This is the meat of the book, and it's a tasty meal indeed. Colavito takes us from Morning to von Daniken to the Sirius mystery, Sitchin, Hancock, and then ultimately to UFO cults like Heaven's Gate and the Raelians. This is an admirable piece of scholarship, one I am sure I will consult in future.

 However, while I'm sympathetic to his attempt to tie this into a broader argument about cultural decadence, I don't think he really succeeds. In particular, I don't think he really shows that there's a qualitative or quantitative difference between modern pseudoscience beliefs and the pseudoscientific beliefs of earlier periods. Does ancient astronautics today have any more influence then the Theosophicals and spiritualists of the 19th century, or the folk superstitions of the 18th? This is a small part of the book, but an important one, and I don't think this point is really addressed. 

All in all, I highly recommend this book. 4/5 stars.

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