I recently got my hands on the complete 1974 Playboy interview with Erich von Däniken (vol. 21, no. 8). Over the next few weeks, I’ll be reviewing this key document in the history of the ancient astronaut theory. First up: a few thoughts on the introduction by the editor of Playboy and interviewer Timothy Ferris.
The introductory note discusses the life and times of Erich von Däniken, from his improbable popularity to his love for the “trappings of scholarship”—books and files and the appearance of scholarly effort—rather than the scholarship itself, from his frequent convictions for fraud and embezzlement (“a criminal psychopath,” in the words of the court-appointed psychiatrist) to his financial situation. The editor also notes that von Däniken’s theories are not original to him and that his books largely recapitulate earlier theories, often with mistakes.
I was surprised by how much society has changed since Chariots of the Gods was first popular in the United States. According to Playboy, in those years bookstores (remember those?) were shelving Chariots and its sequels “unceremoniously under Fantasy.” It’s hard to imagine a bookstore today that would take an editorial position on the truth value of a bestseller, much less defy the wishes of publishers and place a purported work of Truth anywhere other than alongside legitimate works of history. I can remember 15 years ago that a lot of ancient astronaut and alternative history texts were given their own “occult” or “New Age” category at Borders (remember them?), but more recently—and especially online—these books are simply classified in general nonfiction or, worse yet, with archaeology and ancient history as the equivalents of their mainstream competitors.
It was also interesting to read one reason that von Däniken kept churning out book after book of reheated drivel, repeating himself with ferocious velocity. The article informs us that the rights to the original Chariots were filtered through a “series of publishers in a system that works out like a writer’s nightmare.” Despite selling 25 million books by 1974, each publisher along the chain took 50% of the money coming through before passing the profits upward, leaving von Däniken with little actual money, payable only after a three year delay. He had to keep writing to spawn new bestsellers whose rights he held on more favorable terms.
In the next installment, we’ll look at one of the few definitive statements von Däniken ever made about the aliens (hint: the aliens are kinky!).
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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