Erich von Däniken

Swiss writer Erich von Däniken (b. 1935) popularized the notion of paleocontact—prehistoric alien visits to Earth—in the late 1960s and early '70s. In popular "nonfiction" books such as Chariots of the Gods? (1968) and Gods from Outer Space (1970), von Däniken propagated an idea that has proved irresistible to later science fiction writers and directors: kind extraterrestrial guides visited Earth in ancient times and helped establish human civilizations. Inexplicable artifacts such as Stonehenge and the famed Easter Island statues are said to prove his thesis. Mistaken understanding of the aliens' true nature—they were gods or angels—provided the basis of many religious ideas. Von Däniken was instantly controversial, and his evidence was repeatedly questioned by experts. But judging by the number of times his basic themes have been rehashed, including in the most recent installment of Indiana Jones, his ideas have a mythic appeal beyond their merits.

Olaf Stapledon

Olaf Stapledon (1886-1950), a philosopher by training, wrote science fiction in the 1930s and 1940s that some consider the most masterful ever penned. In Star Maker (1937), this Englishman placed humanity on a cosmic evolutionary journey that ends in near divinity. In Last and First Men (1930), he portrayed the possibility of genetic engineering. Odd John (1935) told the story of a post-human vanguard of highly evolved, inordinately intelligent children. Stapledon believed we needed a new mythology for the dawning technological age. At times, he even cast himself as a mystic with an urgent spiritual message. His influence on science fiction writers such as Sir Arthur C. Clarke, as well as scientists such ...

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