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Charles Fort and Astounding Science Fiction

Charles Fort (1874 - 1932) was the first systematic collector of anomalous data -- things that today would be categorized as ESP, UFOs, the paranormal or even (after Fort himself) Fortean phenomena. Fort referred to such anomalies as "damned data" -- facts rejected by mainstream scientists because they don't fit their theories. Fort wrote The Book of the Damned in 1919, followed by New Lands (1923), Lo! (1931) and Wild Talents (1932).


Interior art from Astounding Stories,
August 1934, reproduced in 100 Years of Science Fiction Illustration by Anthony Frewin (Bloomsbury Books, 1974).

Three years after its book publication, Lo! was serialized in Astounding magazine in eight parts between April and November 1934 (this was under John W Campbell's predecessor as editor, F Orlin Tremaine). This was a major event -- the first time a significant work of non-fiction had appeared in a science fiction magazine. Of course, "science fact" articles were to become a standard feature of Campbell's Astounding in the 1940s and 50s (and in Analog to this day), but at the time it was an extraordinary departure. Arthur C Clarke devoted a whole chapter of his book Astounding Days to Lo! and Charles Fort's appearance in Astounding:

No choice could have been more appropriate for a science fiction magazine, and Fort's writing was to have an immense influence on the field.... His wry sense of humor and refusal to take himself as seriously as did his followers excused many of his faults. I found his eccentric -- even explosive -- style stimulating and indeed mind-expanding.

From Astounding Days by Arthur C Clarke (Gollancz 1989).

There are at least three reasons why Fort appealed so much to readers and writers of science fiction. First, there is the basic subject matter: mysterious occurrences, people with strange powers, visitors from other worlds. Then there is his attitude to mainstream scientists, who are seen as a mix of bungling incompetents and sinister conspiracists. Finally, and most famously, there is his assertion "I think we're property", which has formed the basis of countless science fiction speculations from as far back as Edmond Hamilton's "The Space Visitors" (Air Wonder Stories, March 1930) and "The Earth Owners" (Weird Tales, August 1931).

The review by John W. Campbell of The Books of Charles Fort in the August 1941 Astounding Science Fiction most heartly recommends it as a source book for plots. This advice was not only followed by his authors but in some cases was urged upon them by Campbell. At first the adaptations were subtle and of the same high order of originality as "The Space Visitors" and "The Earth Owners". A prime example was "The Children's Hour" by C.L. Moore writing under the pen name of Lawrence O'Donnell (Astounding, March 1944)... However, the trend was to take a different turn as evidenced in Robert A. Heinlein's "Waldo" (Astounding, August 1942), where a rocket drive is repaired and operates by witchcraft!

From "Lo! The Poor Forteans" by Sam Moskowitz (Amazing Stories, June 1965).

A small selection of Fortean-themed stories from Astounding appears on the Quotations page, including Heinlein's "Goldfish Bowl", Asimov's "Belief" and H Beam Piper's first Paratime story, "Police Operation". This last story, from the July 1948 issue of Astounding, begins with a quotation from Charles Fort's Lo! :

... there may be something in the nature of an occult police force, which operates to divert human suspicions, and to supply explanations that are good enough for whatever, somewhat in the nature of minds, human beings have -- or that, if there be occult mischief makers and occult ravagers, they may be of a world also of other beings that are acting to check them, and to explain them, not benevolently, but to divert suspicion from themselves, because they, too, may be exploiting life upon this earth, but in ways more subtle, and in orderly, or organized, fashion.

The essence of the Fortean approach is to present the data -- the anomalies, the possibilities -- without any further processing, analysis or value judgments. This infuriated many of Fort's critics, including John W Campbell himself. Campbell felt particularly strongly about this because, unlike Fort's traditional opponents, he believed fervently that Fort was onto the Truth. In Campbell's eyes, Fort shot himself in the foot by presenting his data in an obscure, undigested, belligerent form that no scientist was ever going to take seriously. He made this point in a letter to Eric Frank Russell dated October 1, 1952:

Fort refused to take the trouble to translate his observations into coherent language -- language of science. He made the mistake. If you have something to say, it's up to you to say it right.... It counts when you can reach an understanding that is valid, and communicate that understanding to others. Fort couldn't. He did it wrong. He angered the best thinkers, the clearest, straightest-thinking minds who could have helped most. His writings appealed largely to muzzy-minded people who went in for fortune-telling, crystal-ball readings, and the like; they were the bulk of his audience.... His data was valid. It contained important understandings, and important clues. In that, he was right. But why didn't he do some of the hard work of integrating it and finding the pattern, instead of frothing about how everyone else wouldn't do that work?

From The John W Campbell Letters, volume 1 (AC Projects Inc, 1985).

Besides being one of the best science fiction writers of the 1940s and 50s, Eric Frank Russell (1905 - 78) was an enthusiastic follower of Charles Fort and served as British representative of the Fortean Society. Russell's archetypally Fortean story "Sinister Barrier", published in Astounding's sister magazine Unknown in March 1939, is discussed on another page of this site. In the author's note at the beginning of the story, Russell acknowledged his debt to Charles Fort:

EFR words

Of the four names that Russell listed alongside Fort, the one best remembered today is H P Lovecraft (1890 - 1937). Although generally thought of as a horror writer, Lovecraft's later stories dealt with the mysteries of space and time in a way that could equally well be categorized as science fiction. Indeed, two of his best stories were published in Astounding under Tremaine's editorship: "At the Mountains of Madness" (Feb - April 1936) and "The Shadow out of Time" (June 1936). Lovecraft's genius lay in his ability to present the most outlandish concepts in a way that was compellingly believable -- something he achieved in part by peppering his stories with references to scholarly writings either real or (as in the case of the infamous Necronomicon) invented by Lovecraft himself. It is not too surprising, therefore, to find Charles Fort turning up in one of Lovecraft's stories:

Two or three fanatical extremists went so far as to hint at possible meanings in the ancient Indian tales which gave the hidden beings a non-terrestrial origin; citing the extravagant books of Charles Fort with their claims that voyagers from other worlds and outer space have often visited the earth.

H P Lovecraft: "The Whisperer in Darkness" (Weird Tales, August 1931).

Of H P Lovecraft's immediate disciples, perhaps the best-known and most prolific was August Derleth, who produced numerous Lovecraftian pastiches as well as turning an unpublished vignette of Lovecraft's into a full-length novel called The Lurker at the Threshold. Derleth was a competent if uninspired writer, whose greatest skill lay in his ability to mimic the style and mood of fiction he admired (as well as his Lovecraftian oeuvre, he produced numerous stories featuring a "Sherlock Holmes" style detective called Solar Pons... who we will encounter further down this page). Given his fondness for imitation, it's no surprise to find references to Charles Fort cropping up in Derleth's HPL pastiches:

... a very large, though usually suppressed, body of occurrences antipodally contradictory to the total scientific knowledge of mankind, which occur daily in all parts of the world, some of which have been collected and chronicled in two remarkable books by a comparative unknown named Charles FortóThe Book of the Damned and New Lands ...

H P Lovecraft and August Derleth: The Lurker at the Threshold (Arkham House 1945).

The fictions of H P Lovecraft had, it seemed to me, the same relation to truth as the facts, so inexplicable to science, reported by Charles Fort.

August Derleth: "The Seal of R'lyeh" (The Mask of Cthulhu, Arkham House 1958).

Although Astounding is generally considered the most important science fiction magazine of the 1940s, there was a short period during 1946 and 47 when its position was challenged by an older and more down-market rival called Amazing Stories. The reason for the heightened interest in Amazing was the Shaver Mystery. Essentially the Shaver Mystery was a collaboration between the editor Ray Palmer (1910 - 77), a writer and visionary named Richard Shaver (1907 - 75) and a few other authors. It consisted of dozens of loosely related stories set in the past, present or future, all based on the idea of a technologically advanced but morally decadent race living in huge caverns beneath the surface of the Earth. While most of the stories were offered as fiction, their underlying basis -- the cavern world -- was presented by Shaver and Palmer as a factual truth. The Shaver Mystery proved to be enormously popular, and might well have taken root as the enduring myth of modern times if it had not been overshadowed by the flying saucer craze that emerged at the same time.

Both Palmer and Shaver saw clear parallels between their ideas and those of Charles Fort, as Palmer makes clear in the following quote:

Palmer words

This is taken from Palmer's editorial in the June 1947 issue of Amazing Stories (June 1947 -- the month before the Roswell crash!).

The books of Charles Fort are referred to by Shaver in numerous footnotes, for example the following from "The Return of Sathanas", which was co-written with Bob McKenna and first published in the November 1946 issue of Amazing (reprinted in Lost Continents and the Hollow Earth, Adventures Unlimited Press, 1999):

The authors are convinced that there have been many writers in the past and the present who either knew or suspected the existence of the caverns beneath the surface of the Earth, or that there was a power or a force or a race that was influencing the human race, usually for evil. The numerous legends of evil spirits, and good ones, too, tales of strange happenings, and strange disappearances. Charles Fort was one of those who came closest to guessing, or knowing the mysteries contained in the artificial cave world beneath this Earth's surface. He thought that we were 'fished for', or that the possibility existed that we were fished for.... Before the reader dismisses the question with "ridiculous!" let him read any of the daily papers of the past few years, or the books of Charles Fort for literally thousands of unexplained 'disappearances'.

Since the 1940s, Charles Fort has continued to pop up in fictional works from time to time, as shown by the examples that follow:

The time-dreams of Dunne, the extra-sensory perception of Rhine, the sea serpents of Gould, all these held his interests far more than any research conducted by the Institute. He was inevitably a member of the Fortean Society of America, and had his own file of unbelievable incidents eventually to be published as a supplement to the works of Charles Fort.

Anthony Boucher: Rocket to the Morgue (Phantom Mystery 1942).

He came back with a heavy book and handed it to me. I looked at the title: The Books of Charles Fort. "What's this?" I asked him. "Isn't Fort the screwball that tells all about the rains of frogs and that sort of crap?"
"That's hardly a proper description of Charles Fort," he said stiffly... "Fort has gathered material for decades in an attempt to show that modern science is too smug, too hypocritical – and too ignorant. He made a hobby, a lifetime work, of gathering evidence of phenomena that modern science has as yet been unable to explain."

Mack Reynolds: The Case of the Little Green Men (Phoenix Press 1951).

"But what did he write about?" I asked.
"Damn near everything. He believed that science, orthodox science, especially astronomy and meteorology, was screwy, that it had gone off the beam somewhere and led us astray. He gathered facts -- mostly in the form of news clippings from everywhere -- of things that didn't fit in with the current opinions of the scientists and are therefore ignored or explained away. Rains of frogs, rains of fishes, mysterious appearances and disappearances, werewolves, spaceships, sea serpents, earthquakes and meteors... Take something that happened comparatively recently -- this flying disk business. That would have been meat and drink for Charles Fort."

Fredric Brown: Compliments of a Fiend (Dutton 1950).

Nor Limestone Islands    
We haven't the exact citation of this. It's from Charles Fort or from one of his imitators. It's of a scientist who refused to believe that several pieces of limestone had fallen from the sky, even though two farmers had seen them fall. They could not have fallen from the sky, the scientist said, because there is no limestone in the sky.

R A Lafferty: "Nor Limestone Islands" (Universe 1, Ace Books 1971).


Interior art from Universe 1 illustrating R A Lafferty's Fortean story "Nor Limestone Islands"

... I suddenly had a definite suspicion that Karel had gone insane. In my youth, I had read the books of Charles Fort, with their suggestions of giants, fairies and floating continents. But Fort's extraordinary farragos of sense and nonsense have an air of humorous exaggeration. Karel Weissman's ideas sounded as mad as Fort's, but they were obviously advanced in all seriousness.

Colin Wilson: The Mind Parasites (Panther Books 1969).

Yet Fort himself assuredly made exciting reading, as Danny found out directly afterward at the public library. He could see why writers loved the man. He wrote in a continuous and highly poetic display of verbal fireworks, superbly controlled, intricately balanced, witty and evocative at once... But his explanations for the things he had observed, collected at second hand, or simply collated were deliberately outrageous. Every now and then Danny found in one or another of Fort's four books a glimmering trail toward somethimg useful -- and every time Fort took the developing insight and stood it on its head.

James Blish: Jack of Eagles (Faber 1973).

...a favourite gambit of investigators, like Charles Fort, of curious, unexplained facts: that of strange, motiveless disappearances... as vanishings into 'holes in space' or into other dimensions, or some such phenomenal 'openings' in time and space.

August Derleth: "The Adventure of the Missing Tenants" (Chronicles of Solar Pons, Robson Books 1975).

"...Orthodox science ignores these events, of course. They don't fit into the scheme anywhere, so they can't have happened. Except that they did."
"That's just, what's his name... Charles Fort?" Suzie emptied her glass and sat playing with it.
"All that Charles Fort did to earn your scorn, my dear, was simply collect reports from perfectly respectable sources -- annual registers, weather reviews, meteorological reports. He never invented a damn thing."

Ian Watson: Miracle Visitors (Gollancz 1978).

Calder borrowed Petraís copy of Lo! that afternoon. She was right: Fort was an extraordinary thinker. He looked fearlessly at occurrences that no-one could explain. Even better, he looked everywhere for patterns. Calder understood the manís fascination with connecting things that didnít seem related, and he admired the way Fort challenged the experts.

Blue Balliett: Chasing Vermeer (Scholastic Press 2004).

"But it could be true," she went on.
"I suppose it could, like some of the propositions Charles Fort put forward that couldn't be disproved."
"Ah, there was a man!" said La Noire. "There was a man who knew how to doubt, and what to doubt."
Stearman nodded. "A few more like him and people in general would stop taking rubbish at more than its face value!"
"Fort was a rebel; like all rebels he was impetuous and he probably went too far in a number of directions, but basically, what he said and did was good -- which takes us back to what we were saying earlier -- Truth cannot hurt the truth."

Lionel Fanthorpe (writing as Bron Fane): UFO 517 (Badger Books SF-115, 1965).

She had seen photographs of Fort. He was a big bear-like man, rather shy, and boasting of a brown, walrus mustache. His eyes peered out at the world from behind thick glasses. Those who knew him said his apartment was filled with shoe boxes crammed with notes and clippings.... His fourth book was called "Lo!" The title was suggested by his old friend Tiffany Thayer, because, he said, astronomers are for ever calculating and pointing to the sky where they figure a new star should be, and then saying "Lo", and there is nothing whatever to be seen where they point...

Lionel Fanthorpe (writing as John E Muller): The X-Machine (Badger Books SF-74, 1963).

The X-Machine

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