Vice's "Motherboard" Explores Ancient Astronauts, Claims "2001" as Spiritual Ancestor of "Ancient Aliens"
Vice Media is partially owned by A+E Networks, the parent company of the History Channel, the network which broadcasts Ancient Aliens. A+E and Vice also are partners in Viceland, a cable channel featuring content produced by Vice, including a talk show in which substance abusing stoners comment on History’s Ancient Aliens. Vice is also the owner of Motherboard, which ran an interesting article attempting to give Ancient Aliens an artistic pedigree in the runup to its April 27 thirteenth season premiere. Writer Becky Ferreira, who specializes in reporting space news, ties Ancient Aliens to the fiftieth anniversary celebrations for 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Ferreira is sympathetic to the power of the ancient alien idea, insofar as it is a way to reimagine mythology in the language of science: “Whether you believe in gods or aliens or neither, the profound feelings that these Odyssean tales evoke seems to spring from a common human premonition that we are not alone in the universe, and that our destinies have been shaped by inscrutable supernatural forces.” On the other hand, the coincidence of a corporate cousin of Ancient Aliens producing a piece rhapsodizing about the show’s deep connections to the mythical, the divine, and monuments of cinema suggests something more than the work of inscrutable supernatural forces.
I can’t help but feel that my work has influenced this piece, either directly or indirectly. She discusses Garrett P. Serviss’s Edison’s Conquest of Mars, one of the first ancient astronaut novels, as well as H. P. Lovecraft’s Old Ones and Charles Fort’s rantings as precursors of the modern ancient astronaut theory. She then talks with Michael Benson, the author of the new book Space Odyssey, about the making of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. In their discussion, Benson raises a point I was not familiar with, namely the role that Carl Sagan played in introducing Arthur C. Clarke, the author of 2001, to the supposed evidence for prehistoric visitors from space.
Over email, Michael Benson told me that Clarke mentioned, in a 1963 letter to astronomer Carl Sagan, the “extraordinary cases” collected in Charles Fort’s “peculiar book” Lo! That book, published in 1931, is one of the earliest nonfiction works to riff about ancient astronauts.
Tassili n’Ajjer is located in the Sahara Desert and features shamanic cave paintings of humanoids whose round, featureless heads look like 1950s astronauts. Lo! was repeating ideas about ancient astronauts that Fort had proposed back in 1919’s Book of the Damned, but that is neither here nor there. Clarke had read Fort’s books as a kid. I haven’t been able to find any other reference to this letter, and I am curious as to what it actually says, since we have only Benson’s summary to go by.
I am not particularly surprised but definitely intrigued to learn that Clarke and Sagan were communicating about ancient astronauts with one another. But it seems odd that it occurred three years before Sagan published his revision of Intelligent Life in the Universe (1966), in which he wrote at length about suggestive evidence, such as the very late Babylonian story of Oannes, that he speculated at the time could point to ancient visitors from another world. Sagan became increasingly skeptical of the claim as he learned more about that evidence and what it really meant, but at this point in his life he was cautiously interested in the possibility of alien visitation. I do wonder if this letter was actually from 1966 or 1968, which would fit better into the timeline of 2001.
Clarke first met Stanley Kubrick in 1964, so the conversation with Sagan, if correctly dated to 1963, occurred before Clarke and Kubrick collaborated on 2001. The movie was based on Clarke’s 1948 short story “The Sentinel,” published in 1951, tells of the discovery of a shining pyramid on the Moon, an artifact left by aliens deep in the past. The shape of the stone recalls Lovecraft’s “Shining Trapezohedron,” which was an alien artifact, as well as Dr. Gurlt’s “alien” cube, a meteorite frequently speculated to be an “alien” communication device. More directly, it mirrors the monuments of Mars from Golden Age speculative fiction, to which Clarke added the Lovecraftian concept of interstellar communication.
Fortunately for all involved, Clarke, like Lovecraft before him, considered fringe ideas good for science fiction but was much less willing to accept them as fact. Benson notes that Clarke talked Kubrick out of a nascent belief in flying saucers, and wrote of descent into ufology as a “gruesome fate.”
I give Ferreira credit for speaking with critics of the ancient astronaut theory such as Jens Notroff and Kathryn Denning, who criticized the hypothesis as racist and spoke of its dangerous attitude toward indigenous peoples. But then Ferreira had to go and undercut it with a pointless sop to believers:
These are strong critiques, but to be fair to believers in ancient aliens, there are plenty of unresolved questions about ancient peoples and the material creations they left behind. Who knows? Maybe those symbols and myths are bonafide (sic) records of aliens showing up at Earth because humans were having such a pathetic go of it.
It sounds anodyne, but substitute in other racist theories and you can see the problem: “To be fair to believers in the idea that the modern races descend from Noah’s three technicolor sons, there are plenty of unresolved questions about racial differences. Who knows? Maybe Black people really are less intelligent because God cursed Ham.” Suggesting a semi-supernatural justification for a racist belief without evidence to demonstrate that it is true does not absolve one of racism simply by appeal to a higher power, alien, divine, or otherwise. To her credit, however, Ferreira doesn’t actually think there is real evidence for the ancient astronaut theory, and she understands correctly that it is a way to displace responsibility for human actions onto a transcendent power: “That alluring fantasy of dodging responsibility for our own development is at the heart of the ancient astronaut hypothesis.”
Ferreira sees the ancient astronaut hypothesis in Freudian terms, as a hedge against the fear of death. She believes that people of the 1960s couldn’t handle the fact that nuclear weapons made it thinkable that the West might go the way of Rome and the Maya, and that civilization might end. So they retreated into a world of myth and fantasy, sometimes as art—like 2001—and sometimes as a substitute religion—like the ancient astronaut theory:
There’s no question that ancient cultures told riveting tales of supernatural beings and alternate dimensions, and expressed themselves through a breathtaking range of creative works, from towering monuments to meticulously crafted fine art. That this material inheritance from our ancestors is often chalked up to extraterrestrial intervention demonstrates a reluctance to recognize the native genius of humanity—perhaps because that genius failed to save past cultures from suffering, death, and collapsed civilizations.
I think this is somewhat overstated, to be honest. This reasoning would equally apply to religion, and it would underlie claims that ancient ruins belonged to Atlanteans, Nephilim, and giants. It might explain a universal tendency, but it doesn’t explain the specifics of why our culture conceptualizes them as space aliens.
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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