A bibliophile's worst nightmare: being stuck on a plane with a terrible book. A book mistaken for a work of serious history.
In 1968 a Swiss hotel employee who was serving a prison sentence for embezzlement published a book that changed my perception of the universe. I remember this with embarrassment, not because the author was a convict—such logic would rule out reading Dostoevsky or Jean Genet—but because of the book’s claims. Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods? asserted that many ruins of the world’s ancient civilizations were relics left behind by extraterrestrials. In an era when the news was dominated by the Apollo space program and everybody watched Star Trek, the idea that lines in the Peruvian desert were an ancient airport, or that likenesses of helmeted individuals in Egyptian or Mexican pyramids were portraits of astronauts from Alpha Centauri, struck the European and North American public as far more plausible than the possibility that “Third World” peoples could have built cities, or developed sophisticated responses to astronomical phenomena, on their own.
During his imprisonment, von Däniken completed a second volume of speculations, Gods from Outer Space. By the time he left jail the next year he was a wealthy man; his books have now sold a reported sixty million copies. Sloppily written, illustrated with photographs that are sometimes cropped in ways that give deceptive impressions, stuffed with assertions that he later had to modify or retract after they were proved wrong, von Däniken’s books should not have persuaded anyone. “I know of no recent books so riddled with logical and factual errors as the works of von Däniken,” the astrophysicist Carl Sagan wrote. It didn’t matter: the public loved the idea that we were not alone. Like many adolescents of my generation, I encountered von Däniken’s speculations in the 1973 television special “In Search of Ancient Astronauts,” which was based on his first two books. The show caused excitement among my schoolmates: we all had seen it and we all believed it. As the history of civilizations other than those of Western Europe and North America was little taught in Canadian schools at the time, we had no information about ancient Latin America or the Middle East to counter von Däniken’s caricatures.
Back then few people, if any, pointed out that von Däniken found evidence of extraterrestrial visitation mainly in countries whose ancestral inhabitants were not of pale complexion. While Europeans had built their own ruins, with the exception of mysterious Stonehenge, people elsewhere in the world, according to von Däniken, had not been up to this task. To youngsters such as me and my classmates, von Däniken’s concentration on civilizations with which we were unfamiliar contributed to the frisson that made his fantasies enticing; the ethnocentric assumptions remained veiled. Yet in other parts of the world, as I would learn, it was precisely this ethnocentrism that fuelled the ecstatic response to von Däniken’s work. In my early twenties, when I arrived in Peru as a backpacker besotted with the Incas and eager to read every book I could find about their civilization, I was startled to discover that the Inca sections of Peruvian bookstores were dominated by Spanish translations of the works of von Däniken. To certain coastal Peruvians, who considered themselves superior to the indigenous people of the mountains, yet felt upstaged by foreigners’ admiration of the Inca archeological heritage, von Däniken had become a folk hero. “You should read von Däniken,” they would tell me, when I said I was going to Machu Picchu. “He proves that Indians never could have built those cities!”
My memories of the von Däniken phenomenon were stirred last summer, when I got stuck on a long plane trip with a terrible book. For fifteen hours, from Hong Kong to Toronto, I had nothing to read but Gavin Menzies’s 1421: The Year China Discovered the World, which, having mistaken it for a work of serious history, I had grabbed from a paperback rack on my way to the departure gate. Menzies’s proposals are as outlandish as those of von Däniken, but in fascinating ways, they are tailored to meet the anxieties of the twenty-first century. His ideas are not credible, but their popularity—1421 was a New York Times bestseller—is revealing.
A retired British submarine commander, Menzies charts the journey of the Chinese admiral Zheng He, who, most historians agree, sailed through Southeast Asia to East Africa. Menzies, however, asserts that Zheng went farther, visiting North and South America, and that one of his associates established Chinese colonies in Australia in the fifteenth century. In a neat updating of von Däniken, Menzies finds ancient buildings or artifacts everywhere from Peru to rural New England that he claims are of Chinese construction; in a later book (which I have not read) he contends that the European Renaissance came about as the result of a visit made to Italy by a Chinese fleet.
Historians point out in vain that there is no evidence for these claims: Menzies’s books keep selling. Where the pessimism of the 1970s found hope in the prospect of being saved by aliens, today’s mass readership awaits the arrival of the Chinese—who, we are told, will control the twenty-first century. Anxiety over the declining influence of the North Atlantic world is assuaged by the assertion that it was the Chinese who started us on the road to modernity. Menzies appeals to fears of Chinese superiority at the same time that he offers a hope of connection across cultural barriers. People read his work, I suspect, as a way of simultaneously titillating and coming to terms with their own anxieties about China’s rise. Menzies plays upon Caucasian racial unease and panders to Chinese triumphalism; he perpetuates von Däniken’s popular denigration of indigenous American civilizations by erasing their cultural achievements. But Menzies’s bizarre speculations are at least confined to planet Earth. As a successor to von Däniken in the what-if genre, Menzies epitomizes a generalized shift in mentality, an understanding that there will be no salvation from Alpha Centauri and that we must either face and solve our problems here on Earth, by working together, or fail as a species.