Saturday, May 05, 2007

BOOK: L. Sprague de Camp, "The Ragged Edge of Science" (cont.)

L. Sprague de Camp: The Ragged Edge of Science. Philadelphia, PA: Owlswick Press, 1980. 0913896063. x + 244 pp.

[Continued from Part 1.]


The third part of the book is largely about pseudoscience.

There's a review of Immanuel Velikovsky's notorious 1950 book, Worlds in Collision (pp. 179–83). In bold defiance of not only physics but common sense as well, Velikovsky claimed that various highly dramatic things took place in the Solar system as little as a few millennia ago, with planets moving wildly hither and thither, sometimes colliding, etc., and that this explains the widespread legends about catastrophes (e.g. floods) that we can encounter in almost all parts of the world.

There's a chapter about various pseudoscientific claims involving a supposed fourth dimension, which usually ends up having something to do with time travel (pp. 184–194).

There's a very interesting chapter about the languages of the future (pp. 195–216). This subject often occurs in science fiction, where a story may take place in the future and the author might wish to exhibit a few examples of his characters' speech; or he may even have a character from the present time travel into the future, which leads to the question of how this character will be able to communicate with the inhabitants of the future. Anyway, this chapter is a very nice introduction to the basic mechanisms of language change. It ends up with some educated guesses on what sort of languages and communication problems a science-fiction hero may encounter if he travels into the relatively nearby future, e.g. only a few centuries; but if he goes thousands of years into the future, anything we know of the languages of the present time will be more or less of no use to him.

“Some tribes make them [i.e. their languages] change even faster by deliberately altering the names for things. Kamehameha the Great of Hawaii went too far in 1800 when he celebrated the birth of a son by commanding new words for ‘man,’ ‘woman,’ and ‘dog.’ This law led to a revolt in which the son was slain.” (Pp. 210–1.)

“In 1928, the Turkish dictator Kemal Atatürk decreed that Turkish should be spelt with a modified Latin alphabet instead of the Arabic. He gave the Turks only eight months for the change, which drove most publishers bankrupt. The literacy of Turkey, never high, was thus reduced at one stroke to zero.” (P. 212. But he goes on to say that later things improved, and that the Latin alphabet is better suited to the Turkish language than the Arabic is.)

There's an interesting biography of Ignatius Donnelly (pp. 217–227). Nowadays he is chiefly remembered for his 1882 book, Atlantis: the Antediluvian World, which is pretty much the foundation of all the Atlantis-related pseudoscience from the late 19th century onwards. He also wrote a 1000-page tome claiming that Shakespeare's works were really written by Francis Bacon (The Great Cryptogram, 1888).

I learnt several new things from this chapter, e.g. that he also wrote some very successful science fiction: “Under the name of ‘Edmund Boisgilbert, M.D.’ he wrote a prophetic novel, Caesar's Column: A Story of the Twentieth Century (1890), which sold a million copies. This is probably more sales than those of all the cloth-bound science fiction novels published in the last decade put together. The story is laid in mid-twentieth century;” p. 224.

He also became a notable figure in the Populist Party. “Donnelly's science-fiction novels are shot through with Populist principles, the prohibition of monopolies, the graduated income tax, and a morbid fear of those bogey-men of agrarianism and of Henry Ford, the international bankers.” (Pp. 225–6.) “Of the Populist ideals he fought for, the income tax and anti-trust legislation, at first denounced as communistic, are now accepted facts. Ironically, Donnelly is remembered far more for his pseudo-scientific enthusiasms than for some of his later realized progressive political proposals.” (P. 226.)

“Despite his virtues, [. . .] [h]is ‘discoveries’ have withered away to mere intellectual fossils, amusing but impotent. He wrote on water, because, for all his intelligence, erudition, and goodwill, he lacked the power of self-criticism. Let him who would profit from others' follies ponder the tale of Ignatius Donnelly, pseudomath.” (Pp. 226–7.)

There's an interesting chapter about the efforts to ban the teaching of evolution theory in U.S. schools (pp. 228–239). He discusses the well-known Scopes ‘monkey trial’ in 1925; but, to my surprise, the last court battles of this sort took place as late as the late 1960s (the Epperson case in 1968, when the U.S. Supreme Court finally declared that laws prohibiting the teaching of evolution were unconstitutional).

The 1925 Tennessee law that was the basis for the Scopes trial was enacted in unusual circumstances: “Many non-Fundamentalists voted for it to carry Fundamentalist votes [. . .] expecting the Senate to kill the bill. Pursuing the same logic, the Senate passed the bill, expecting the Governor to veto it. At first dismayed, Governor Peay, under pressure from his fellow Baptists, signed it on March 21, 1925 [. . .] asserting: ‘Nobody believes that it is going to be an active statute.’ He could hardly have been more wrong.” (P. 233.)

In the years following the trial, “the Fundamentalist movement began to flag. Of the monkey bills presented to twelve state legislatures during this time [i.e. in 1927], only Mississippi's passed. Delaware's monkey bill of 1927 was referred to the Committee of Fish, Game, and Oysters, where it died a quiet death.” (Pp. 236–7.)

Finally there's a brief review of von Däniken's Chariots of the Gods? (pp. 240–2). The review is somewhat savage in tone — not that I think that von Däniken deserves to be taken seriously in any way, but I still can't help wondering if de Camp's sarcastic and mocking tone couldn't have been just as well dispensed with.

Incidentally, this is also the only chapter in which he uses the silly notation for centuries, with “+XIX” to mean the nineteenth century AD, and so on. In Citadels of Mystery he used it throughout the book.


I mentioned in my post about Citadels of Mystery that de Camp seems to have held somewhat conservative opinions on some questions, which occasionally show in his writing; there weren't as many examples of this here in The Ragged Edge of Science, but nevertheless here's one from p. 91: “Hordes of people want knowledge without study, health without self-discipline, wealth without work, safety without precautions, and, in general, happiness without earning it.” Yuck. Nothing could be more odious to me than the ridiculous notion that health, wealth, happiness, and other such things should be earned, rather than being the natural and obvious right of everyone, regardless of what he or she did or hasn't done.

Incidentally, De Camp seems to have been pretty good at cannibalizing his material and republishing it several times in different arrangements. In my post about Citadels of Mystery, I already mentioned some similarities between that book and his Lost Continents. Several further examples can be given now, of overlap between those two books and The Ragged Edge of Science. This overlap occurs especially in the first part of REoS, which is about ancient civilizations; which is not surprising as this book partly also draws on the same magazine articles as Citadels of Mystery. Sometimes whole passages of text are nearly identical (but never quite — de Camp seems to have been an inveterate tinkerer with his own text, endlessly touching up and rearranging things, modifying a word here, a sentence there, though I can't say that his changes seem to make any obvious kind of difference one way or the other), and some of the illustrations are the same as well.

Compare for example: count Waldeck, REoS pp. 16–17, CoM pp. 183–16; on the difficulty of reconstructing history from myths and fiction, REoS p. 23, CoM p. 17; how U.S. history might be remembered in myths if the modern civilization collapsed, REoS p. 46, LC p. 159, and a very similar passage appears in REoS pp. 71–2 and CoM p. 159; Madame Blavatsky, REoS p. 130, LC p. 54, CoM p. 228 (but with slight variations each time: in LC she's a “fat middle-aged Russian woman”; in CoM she's a “fat, middle-aged Russian adventuress”; iand in REoS, best of all, she's a “fat Russian hoyden”).

The Troy chapter in REoS is a shorter version of the one in CoM; the same is true of the King Arthur chapter; the early part of the “Faery Lands Forlorn” chapter in REoS (pp. 31–33) is a longer version of the early part of ch. 10 of LC (pp. 233–41).

There's even cannibalization within REoS itself, e.g. being followed by a little green man that disappears whenever you turn to look at him (as a metaphor for an incredible and unverifiable claim which we are therefore allowed to ignore) is used on p. 183 and also on p. 241; and the observation that most people never invented anything or had an original idea is used both on p. 12 (to explain the appeal of diffusionism) and on p. 242 (to explain the appeal of paleo-alien contact a la von Däniken).


This is a very pleasant and readable collection of essays, an excellent and classical example of skeptical writing and debunkery of various kinds of pseudoscientific and paranormal nonsense. De Camp writes in an accessible, down-to-earth style, is often humorous, and in addition to all that a fine teller of tales.

In case someone is addicted to political correctness, he or she may wince at one or two passages, but this is hardly surprising given that much of this material was written in the 50s and 60s. Overall I highly recommend this book, and I'm looking forward to reading more of de Camp's popular-science writing.


  • Edward Foord: The Last Age of Roman Britain (1925). Mentioned on p. 68 as containing “a detailed chronicle of the fall of [Roman] Britain, covering the years of 343 to 582”. But, of course, it would probably be better to read some more recent book on this subject.

  • A. E. Waite: Devil-Worship in France (1896). Cited on p. 163, mentioning the hilarious abominations supposedly practiced by the Freemasons in India. The first edition seems very expensive, but several modern reprints are available (e.g. Red Wheel / Weiser, 2003; Fredonia Books, 2003). The text is also freely available on the web site.

  • J. Jastrow: Wish and Wisdom (NY, 1935). Cited on p. 167 in relation with the Taxil hoax.

  • De Camp's other books, such as Spirits, Stars, and Spells (written together with his wife, Catherine C. de Camp), and Ancient Engineers.

Labels: , , ,


Anonymous Gilbert said...

I found some great fiction book reviews. You can also see those reviews in Non fiction book

Tuesday, May 08, 2007 8:56:00 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home