I’m going to take a break from the search for giants in America to discuss an interesting fact Michael Shermer brought up in his recent Scientific American column (reprinted in Salon) on Ancient Aliens and how ancient astronaut speculators and creationists share a similar desire to find a “god of the gaps” to explain away all uncertainties. I’m sure you’ll remember my frequent discussions of the same theme in my reviews of the show. Shermer mentions a shocking fact also reported in last year’s Pseudoscience Wars by Michael Grodin: The last-published edition of Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods, published by Berkeley Books in 1999, contains a surprising disclaimer. The publisher claims the whole book is fiction!
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Surely this is as bizarre an admission as one can imagine. Shermer calls this “telling,” and in 2007 Christopher I. Lehrich reported the same in The Occult Mind: Magic in Theory and Practice, expressing shock that the book would “assert” that the Pyramids and Easter Island were “fictional.” In Pseudoscience Wars Grodin went even further, and further from the truth (just as he did with fake claims about Einstein):
On the copyright page of on Däniken’s huge international best-seller, Chariots of the Gods?: Unsolved Mysteries of the Past—published in German in 1968 and soon translated into multiple languages, von Däniken stated: “This is a work of fiction.” One simply cannot imagine Velikovsky reissuing Worlds in Collision with such a disclaimer…
Very little in that sentence is true. The “work of fiction” disclaimer appears first—and only—in the 1999 Berkeley edition, the first published after Erich von Däniken regained control over his copyright to the book thirty years after signing it over to his original German publisher. Earlier editions of the book, including the 1970s-era copy I have, do not have any such disclaimer. Given that the 1999 edition is also simply a reprint of the 1969 English translation of Michael Heron, which has been in print since Putnam put out its first edition in 1970, following the Souvenir Press edition of 1969, Erich von Däniken is consequently absolved from responsibility for the addition of the wording to his book. Indeed, Grodin should well know that authors do not typically write their own copyright pages.
Indeed, this is confirmed by a glance at other Berkeley editions of von Däniken, such as 1996’s Eyes of the Sphinx, which similarly lacks any disclaimer about its fictional status, despite containing proportionally more made up and copied material than Chariots. I do note, however, that it is the standard “work of fiction” disclaimer used by the Penguin Group, the parent of Berkeley.
So this leaves two possibilities that I can see. The first is that Berkeley was aware of some problem with Chariots that could warrant a lawsuit without the disclaimer; however, asserting that the individuals so libeled are “used fictitiously” does not exempt an author from a libel charge, nor can one reasonably assert that a living person cited by name and occupation in a professional capacity is a fictitious character.
Therefore, the more probable explanation is the more prosaic one: The editors threw the book together quickly, dumped dates into a copyright page template, and by mistake used the “fiction” template rather than the “nonfiction” template. I think this is fairly well confirmed by the near-identical copyright page of Penguin’s Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, also from 1999, which is laid out in the exact same way, with the elements all in the same order, beginning wit the disclaimer at top, followed by the book title, copyright and printing history, and cataloging data. A review of other Penguin releases from the 1990s, including those of Berkeley Books, shows that they were working from a standard template for fiction, as well as a slightly different template for nonfiction. In the case of Chariots, someone pasted in the wrong template.
Given the way publishing works, and since Chariots was a reprint from an edition that had already been copyedited and proofread thirty years earlier, chances are that the mistake went through because no one read the finished book. They were simply assembling from pre-existing parts.
So, rather than being a “telling” admission of guilt, it is instead an appropriately sloppy monument to the slapdash assembly of Chariots, an unintentional but fitting coda to Erich von Däniken’s own methodology of copying undigested and misunderstood lumps of ideas from others and passing them off as something new.
I'm an author and editor who has published on a range of topics, including archaeology, science, and horror fiction. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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