The Fortean Influence on Science Fiction

You won’t be surprised I first heard about this book from a review in Fortean Times.

Review: The Fortean Influence on Science Fiction: Charles Fort and the Evolution of the Genre, Tanner F. Boyle, 2020.

The price for the Kindle edition — $27.99 – was ridiculous. (Evidently, McFarland and other academic publishers think there are no non-academics who want to read their books.)

I’ve known about Charles Fort and his relationship to science fiction for 40 years since encountering Brian Ash’s The Visual Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Robert Holdstock’s Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. I’ve read Charles Forts four famous books. I’ve read Damon Knight’s and Jim Steinmeyer’s biographies of Charles Fort. I sought out the blatantly Fortean science fiction novels: Eric Frank Russell’s Sinister Barrier and Dreadful Sanctuary and James Blish’s Jack of Eagles. I’ve long known about the Fortean influence on Arthur C. Clarke explicit Fortean influence. I’ve subscribed to Fortean Times for decades.

Was Boyle going to tell me anything I didn’t know?

Yes.

Charles Fort was the father of what Boyle calls “maybe fiction” – all those “occult” and paranormal studies and personal accounts, all the hidden (and usually ancient) histories, and UFO abduction stories we’ve heard of, authors like Graham Hancock, Richard Shaver, and Whitley Streiber whose accounts we either believe, judge as innocent mistakes, or regard as works of insanity. These are tales we are asked to believe whether couched as academic works or autobiography.

Fort, with his massive collections of “damned data” and whimsical theories, covered nearly every paranormal topic as well as developing the idea that “we are property” and that our understanding of the world is sadly incomplete and mistaken.

Starting with Fort’s Book of the Damned in 1919, science fiction writers starting to use Fort’s ideas – either as mere fictional conceits or as “possibly credible evidence” that human potential was not as limited as thought, that reality was not as it appeared. 1919 was also the year the first magazine devoted to science fiction appeared.

Fort himself had published, in 1906, a piece of science fiction, “A Radical Corpuscle”, in which a group of cells learn they are part of a much “larger, cosmic body”. Religious scholar Jeffrey A. Kripal, whose ideas Boyle draws on, notes that Fort was a rebel against two intellectual currents in the early 20th century: the rationalism and pessimism exemplified by H. G. Wells and the religious backlash against it.

Wells certainly had no time for Fort. When mutual friend Theodore Dreiser gave Wells a copy of Fort’s Lo!, Wells responded “God dissolve (and forgive) your Fortean Society.” (I believe the character Harold Rigamey in Wells’ 1937 novel Star-Begotten is a version of Fort.)

But a new generation of science fiction writers were intrigued by Fortean ideas. Besides Eric Frank Russell, there was Edmond Hamilton who corresponded with Fort. I’d also forgotten – if I ever knew – Fort’s work was serialized in Astounding Stories. More obscure writers – Rupert T. Gould,  R. Dewitt Miller and others – used Fortean ideas in their fiction and wound up eventually writing “maybe fiction” of their own. 

At this point in his book, Boyle engages in a too long discussion of the appeal of “maybe fiction” and belabors the obvious point that one need not believe such a work to enjoy reading it or find it fascinating from a psychological or sociological perspective. His taxonomy of “maybe fiction” post-Fort is useful to a reader with little knowledge of the field. He also notes that two of the more famous “Fortean journalists”, John Keel and Jacques Vallee, had a long-time interest in science fiction.

A discussion of science fiction writers that were early adopters of Fortean ideas include H. P. Lovecraft who mentions Fort in a story fragment, “A Descendant”, and (oddly unmentioned by Boyle) “The Whisperer in Darkness”. Of course, Eric Frank Russell’s work is covered. Edmond Hamilton’s Fortean work includes The Space Visitors and The Earth-Owners. Another writer personally acquainted with Fort was Miriam Allen deFord. Interestingly, Fort mentions her in two of his books, and she mentions him in her “Slips Take Over”. 

A writer whose Fortean connections surprised me was Fritz Leiber, and I think Boyle convincingly shows that Leiber’s You’re All Alone bears the influence of Fort. Less surprising, because I’m largely ignorant of his work, is Frank Herbert. His “Rat Race” mentions Fort and uses Fort’s philosophy. I was totally unaware of Harold Sherman’s The Green Man (1946) and The Green Man’s Return (1947). They not only mention Fort, but carried, in their omnibus edition, the blurb “an amazing UFO pre-vision of the coming of the space people”. Perhaps Sherman’s work transmuted into the UFO cults of the 1950s and beyond.

Besides writers, there were editors and fans fascinated by Fort. The infamous Raymond Palmer of Shaver Mystery fame was one, of course. After Palmer left Amazing Stories, his successors, Howard Browne and Paul W. Fairman published “maybe fiction” that, though not by Fort, bore his influence.

Whether John W. Campbell’s interest in Fort was as inspiration (“not less than one good science fiction plot per page”) or indicative of his future involvement in things like Dianetics and the Dean Drive is not clear.

Critics and authors Sam Moskowitz and Damon Knight were interested in Fort and were members of the International Fortean Organization (INFO).

Boyle then devotes four chapters to looking at specific authors in depth. Little of the material on Arthur C. Clarke was a surprise to me, bu,t if this book is your first introduction to Fort and his ideas, it’s quite useful.

Boyle does answer a question I’ve wondered about: how interested in Fortean subjects were Philip K. Dick and Robert A. Heinlein?

Tessa Dick says her ex-husband had “read and admired Fort. Dick’s early story “The Indefatigable Frog” mentions Dick by name (which I completely missed). But it is Dick’s great theme of “what is reality” and, to a lesser extent, the notion “we are property” that make his work Fortean. His VALIS can be considered a hybrid of straight fiction and “maybe fiction”.

Certainly Heinlein’s “Goldfish Bowl” is Fortean, but Boyle also cites Heinlein’s “They” with its depiction  of “some grand manipulator that created the universe”, “The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoeg” with its Earth as alien art project”, “The Year of the Jackpot” with a protagonist who collects information reminiscent of Fort’s approach, and “Project Nightmare” (featuring one of Fort’s “wild talents” though I’ll note psionics was a general 1950s science fiction theme). His discussion of Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters, speculates that its initial choice of setting owes something to an incident Fort mentioned. In addition to these fictional manifestations, there is evidence Heinlein was a member of INFO from 1965 until his death. Boyle speculates that the unlikely friendship between Heinlein and Dick may have been because of their Fortean interests.

If, like me, you think of Robert Anton Wilson as more his own genre rather than as a science fiction writer, you might be taken aback by Boyle’s claim that he’s the most Fortean science fiction writer ever not only in terms of theme but his agnostic epistemology. I agree. His work has long delighted Forteans, and he wrote for Fortean Times.

I’ve long known of William Gibson’s and his contemporary Jack Womack’s interest in Forteana, but Boyle examines the Fortean elements (in name check and theme) in Gibson’s “The Gernsback Continuum”.

But the inclusion of David Drake in Fortean writers surprised me. Or, more precisely, Drake’s longtime Fortean interests which he judges largely incompatible with the type of fiction he choses to write. It does show up a bit, evidently, in Hammer Slammers. Boyle doesn’t mention the obviously Fortean Ranks of Bronze which does, after all, feature abduction by aliens.

There is a brief look at Fort in Stephen King with his Firestarter, It, and The Tommyknockers. Unmentioned is The Dead Zone which, as I dimly recall, mentions Fort.

Boyle also looks at Forteana in comics, young adult novels, movies, and comics.

So, even if you are fairly well acquainted with Fort and his descendants and their influence on science fiction, you will still probably learn something in this book. Whether it’s worth the price of admission, I will leave up to you.

For those who have never heard the name Charles Fort or have only the vaguest idea of his work, this will definitely enlighten you.

Additional Thoughts

Boyle freely admits his list of Fort influence on science fiction is far from exhaustive and invites further titles for inclusion in some future database. So, if you’re reading Mr. Boyle, here’s a few of my own besides the ones I’ve already mentioned:

3 thoughts on “The Fortean Influence on Science Fiction

  1. jameswharris July 26, 2022 / 12:29 pm

    I bought this book a while back but I don’t think I paid $27.99. I’ve been fascinated by science fiction’s interest in Fort for a long time, and I got the book to look up something, but I didn’t read it. I need to. You certainly have gotten into the subject. I wish I had read everything you have.

    Years ago I had a BBS devoted to science fiction and unintentionally started a flame war over telepathy. It turns out many SF fans still believe in ESP.

    Has Telepathy Become an Extinct Idea in Science Fiction?

    I need to start keeping a list of all the SF I read that feel influenced by Charles Fort. I come across such stories all the time. But I think it’s mainly old SF stories. Are there new Fortean writers?

    Jim

    • marzaat July 26, 2022 / 6:18 pm

      If you accept Boyle’s arguments that things like “the world is an illusion” is a Fortean theme, I think there are probably a lot of current Forteaan writers. And the directly Fortean idea of “we are property” shows up a lot too.

      The list I appended at the end wasn’t even all the Fortean possibilities from my notes. I excluded some works that you could include on the above criteria.

      Yes, telepathy still gets used with new rationalizations as is common with sf motifs.

      I’m not surprised, sf fans often being suckers for the real possibility of many transcendent ideas, that several still believe in telepathy. The fondness for novelty so crucial to loving sf has its downsides in the actual world.

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