K-Raelians plus The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World by Thomas M. Disch, and The Men Who Stare At Goats by Jon Ronson

This entry is part 4 of 72 in the series SF in South Korea

As part of my continuing adventures in figuring out what I want to say in my paper on SF cinema in Korea, this post discusses Raelianism in Korea whilst working through a review of two books on SF and their effects on the world.

I’ve just finished reading Jon Ronson’s The Men Who Stare At Goats, kindly recommended to me by my friend and recent WOTF prizewinner, the lovely and talented Ian McHugh.

David’s picture of Ian

It goes so well with The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World by Thomas M. Disch — which I finished reading a few weeks ago — that I figured I’d preemptively review both together.

(Come to think of it, I think that the Disch was also recommended to me by a friend made at Clarion West, the lovely and talented Ben Burgis.)

Ben Burgis, photo by ellen datlow

The thing that both of these books have in common is how they look at the effects of SF or SFnal ideas on the “real world.” Now, one should use that term, “real world,” with some caution, since after all, even if some of the things in SF have not manifested in our world, the ideas are still floating around. I actually taught a lesson about this, pointing out that even if we have no flying cars, the concept has been floating around a great deal, has influenced the way cars have been designed, has become enough of a trope in the genre that we have to suspect the idea means something to us.

(Hell, an example that was quite pertinent to Korea, in fact, comes straight from Star Trek, as made abundantly clear in this consumer review comparing cell phones to Star Trek’s original series communicators. Actually, the “inventor” of the modern mobile phone actually credits Star Trek with the inspiration to make wireless telephony a reality. That and more is detailed in this article. Students, who’d just watched most of the episode, “The Gamesters of Triskelion,” nodded in bemused recognition when I pointed this out to them, amused that a technology they use everyday could have come from out of that strangeness.)

But it’s no surprise that both Disch and Ronson spend a lot of time on the impossibilities that exist within SF’s library of tropes, and their, ahem, real-world applications.

Disch - The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of coverThe Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of is more focused on SF itself, but is more than just a fascinating history of SF from the inside; it’s also an intelligent investigation of the effect of SF on culture, politics, academia, and more. Disagree with whatever you like — Disch has strong opinions and he doesn’t hold back on his criticism of movements or individuals — but its hard to dispute that the overall picture he paints is a compelling one, in which SF partakes of and embodies important — even crucial — psychological tendencies, particularly in its American form. He discusses such things as right-wing SF, the influence of feminism on SF and vice-versa, the role SF sometimes plays as the object of anall-out religious veneration — for futurians and posthumanists who mostly emerged since the book was published, SF is much of their holy scripture.

Particularly surprising — in part because I disagree and they discomfit me, and in part they’re ideas I’ve read from other older members of the SF community, Greg Bear included (but especially see the original, 1983-ish version of that article, here) — are his ideas about what SF is today, and what SF will become in the future. It’s somewhat saddening that his predictions about how media-SF will overtake the written stuff seem, at least to me, also somewhat believable. Some of the biggest names in SF — including many of the erstwhile cyberpunk greats — have been taking street addresses outside of our odd little ghetto, with Bruce Sterling and William Gibson setting recent novels in what is, for all intents and purposes, the present, and Neal Stephenson setting his massive recent work in the historical fiction ‘hood. The fact that Cory Doctorow and Charlie Stross think the market for print books will remain healthy for a good while yet doesn’t comfort me much at all.

I’m one to bitch and moan about how media SF is so much less interesting than the written stuff, but I have to admit, re-watching a couple of Star Trek episodes (from the original series, no less, the stuff that ended off my Saturday mornings as a boy) that media SF has indeed come a long way. Even the best media SF is still nowhere near as sophisticated as the best of written SF in terms of how good stories and ideas challenge a reader, but we’ve come a long way since “The Gamesters of Triskelion,” as fun as it was.

Gamesters of Triskelion screencap

Or so I’d like to think. Yet in some ways, when you look at the genre as a whole, one cannot help but wonder how much one ought to believe John Barnes’ notion that SF is an undead genre, like classical music: still moving around, still sucking blood on occasion or shocking you, but not really alive, not really still growing, and so on. Me, I’d like to say, Meh! But you know, this is my impression of orchestral music, and most classical music fans I know would vehemently disagree with me. (Of course, I only know a few of them.)

Anyway, Disch’s book is a wonderful exploration of all kinds of things that may or may not have come to your attention, and an inspiration to me, at least, to widen my reading within SF. Read some Heinlein, some more Le Guin, give Delany another try, dig out all those novels on my shelf that have been languishing.

Ronson - The Men Who Stare At Goats coverJon Ronson, on the other hand, doesn’t quite connect the dots for you the way Disch does. He stops at the story of the First Earth Battallion, a mad concoction of a military bloke by the name of Jim Channon who, essentially, attempted to inject SFnal New Age religion into the American military during the long, hard period of shameful defeatedness and morale-deprived confusion that followed the Vietnam War. Ronson accentuates a very strange counterpoint to all of this, which is how these SFnal ideas influenced the military.

Of course, what he doesn’t tell you is how they have trickled down from pulp magazines and SF novels, to films, to TV SF and New Age religion and conspiracy theories, and then finally down into the cesspool where all foolishness gathers: the minds of the credulous. He doesn’t get into the role of John W. Campbell and his lingering interest in “psi” and ESP and the like influenced not only the whole genre of SF, but also the general culture of whackaloons not only in America but the SF-reading world. All of that background is absent, but the pleasure is heightened for a reader who knows it. Still, its fun for someone who doesn’t; it’s sort of like a cross between an Adam Curtis documentary and the Weekly World News, both in the written form and the documentary that Ronson made with the same material.

(And it really is mostly the same material. So little is in the book that isn’t in the film that if you’ve seen it, you probably don’t need to read the book. That said, I enjoyed reading it even after seeing the documentary online.)

It struck me, for example, when reading Ronson’s discussion of the events at Waco, Texas — and the role psi-ops played there — that for all its social problems, Korea has relatively little problem with psychotic cults springing up out of the ground.

(Note: By psychotic, I mean violent, millenarian in the sense of wanting to stockpile weapons, informed by end-of-the-world scenarios, and so on. SF-cults. The Moonies are weird, and most Moonies live in Korea and the religion began here, but it seems to me more like Mormonism — a retooling of older religious traditions, and not so much an SF-informed cult. The only exception I know of in terms of the Moonies is their leader’s desire to found a single worldwide government. We could say that’s SFnal, but it’s also been the air of every major empire in the past — to rule all the [significant] lands in the known world.)

Whilst Japan had Aum Shinrikyo (well-discussed in this book by Haruki Murakami Haruki ), and America has had any number of loony SF-influenced cults (Heaven’s Gate being perhaps the most famous and reviled until recently, but a lot of wacko cults have exhibited an SFnal influence). Whereas there is a lot of religious wackaloonery in Korea, it’s mostly a traditional kind of nuttery, the Raelians’ rather amusing inroads here and dramatic government raids aside. (The pages on Raelism at Wikipedia are full of pictures from Korea both odd and amusing, like the one below.)

Raelians in Pasties in Seoul

Heh, some are almost the kind of picture that would drive up readership here, if I were interested in winning more prurient readers. Almost the kind of picture that would do that.

Raelian lady

But hey, with Dr. Hwang on their side, imagine what the Raelians could achieve. Like, Clones. Of the above-pictured ladies. To seduce non-Raelians. Or something.

What’s scary, however, is that some of the minds into which this claptrap trickled and dribbled and dripped at the apparently credulous minds responsible for running the planet. To return to Jon Ronson and his book, he starts with a major general by the name of Stubblebine who, because of his poor understanding of how the physical universe works — atoms are mostly just empty space, right? we can just merge the spaces, right? — figures he ought to be able to walk through walls, like the famous cat in the title of that Heinlein novel.

And it just goes downhill from there, as far as the credibility of people running the New World Order. At least, that’s the picture that Ronson paints in his book (and the companion documentary aired in Britain a while back, Crazy Rulers of the World, which was available on Google Videos until recently: I was lucky enough to see it, but now it’s gone! Here’s a clip. There’s more available on Youtube and Google video if you’re inclined to see more.)

I have to say, the book is less off-putting than the documentary, mostly just because of the breathy, wonder-filled, hard-to-read voice that Ronson uses in narrating his story. One wonders how seriously he takes his own claims when voicing them as he does, though perhaps this is a little unfair. But in the book, there’s none of that: his discussion is quite straightforward, if seemingly a bit credulous at moments. When he interviews people who are obviously nuts, and claim to have a role in the US military, or Homeland Security — yes, teaching people at the DHS how to stare at animals and kill them, or use psychic powers to predict terrorist attacks and perform recon on special missions, that is the claim in Ronson’s book — or the white house itself, one wonders whether he should be putting much stock at all into those claims. (Then again, the Reagans’ dependence on a “psychic” is well-known and well-documented.) But he himself acknowledges just how nuts so many of the people he’s talking to are. Maybe it’s a discipline thing: he’s a good filmmaker, maybe less of a good writer. But that doesn’t detract much from the content of the book, which is the whole point here.

And the point is, someone blathering about Jedi powers and “the ability to massage and cleanse the colon” was taken seriously within the US military, and his ideas actually entered the folklore of the US Army. To some degree. Brrr. Wartriors who would, as Wikipedia report, “Members would practise meditation, use yogic cat stretches and primal screams to attain battle-readiness, and use shiatsu as battlefield first aid.” Well, on second thought, the first generation stuff isn’t really so bad. It’s a bit soft-headed, and the First Earth Battallion handbook — online here! — is, well, just a catalogue of silly New Age ideas combined with what is a well-meaning… a hopelessly well-meaning attitude.

It’s amusing reading, but at strange moments it becomes a little alarming, and when you hold it up beside the ongoing move within portions of the military to turn the US Armed Forces into a faith-based initiative, it’s quite possibly a bit of an alarm call. The distance between soldiers training to be “Jedis” (yes, the word was used within some circles in the military, yes, really) who can kill goats by just staring at them, and soldiers training to be holy warriors who can judge the evil and good in a person at a glance, or who are directed by their god to invade here or depose there, is not so great as some would hope. Not so great at all.

Which is a little bit of a downer, so I’ll leave you with a few more K-Raelian shots to brighten your day. Some might be deemed a little more NSFW than the above, so they’re in the extended post.

Rael Cult Women


Korean Raelians in Blackface

Realians at Cannes

Plenty more oddball pics here, in what appears to be a Raelian’s photo-diary. (I have to wonder what the Raelians were doing meeting in Medeillín, Colombia, and how this guy got there without being able to spell it right. Hmm. Where there’s money, there’s cults. Where there’s drugs, there’s money. Hey! Link?) And why not enjoy this irreverent writeup on the Raelians?

And why (oh why? oh why oh why?) are there more active websites in the Korean Internet dedicated to Raelism than to SF literature? No, I do not count the former as a subclass of the latter.

Series Navigation<< Why SF Has Failed to Put Down Roots in Korea, Part I: To Start With, Questions…To All SF Geeks in Korea With [Patient or Interested] Korean Other Halves >>

6 thoughts on “K-Raelians plus The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World by Thomas M. Disch, and The Men Who Stare At Goats by Jon Ronson

  1. I don’t know if it was covered in the Ronson book, but funding into “paranormal” research goes back at least as far as WW II. When General Pershing was putting an insurrection down on the Moro Islands in the Phillipines, he instructed his soldiers to dip their bullets into bacon fat. I’m not defending any of these practices, but it isn’t entirely without precendent.

  2. Is that a case of Pershing believing that bacon fat would actually have supernatural powers, though, or is it just early psy-ops designed for a Muslim enemy?

    If it’s the latter, well, he perhaps was thinking of a much older precedent?

    That was what came to mind first for me, though in that case, the rumors seem to have been spread by Muslims and Hindus in order to motivate the masses for a rebellion.

    I bet when Pershing studied history, the dietary taboo bit was actually emphasized as the main cause of the uprising. (It still was when my father studied it in the late early-to-mid-1950s, I think: I seem to remember him telling me so, though my father was in a school in what still was, or very recently had been, depending on what year he studied it, a protectorate of the British Empire. I imagine the British textbooks were different that the American ones, but I’d be curious to see how differently Americans studied British colonial history, given the mess of different sympathies in play: did they sympathize more with the rebellious (but nonwhite) colonials, or the damned British (who are more like us than the Indians)?)

    Ah, thus is the stuff of PhD theses in, er, educational history or literature or something. But I just wanna see someone else’s 5-page article on the subject, I don’t want to research it myself. Well, maybe if I had time enough and money to burn.

    PS: By the way, Ronson doesn’t mention Pershing or many other precedents for this nuttiness. He seems to want to imply it all starts with The First Earth Battalion, which is unfortunate since the history of nutball ideas and militaries is probably long and very deep. (Hell, I even remember thumbing through some paperback about psychic research behind the Iron Curtain as a kid, when I was still in my Whitley Strieber/Jane Roberts-as-Seth/Erich von Däniken phase…)

  3. heck, one could argue that credulous crowned (and elected) heads and military hoobajoo goes as far back as the middle ages. I mean, its fairly easy to draw a line from peddlers of unicorn horn and fragments of the true cross to high-tech arms manufacturers and pharmeceutical vendors with exaggerated claims. Or, in an easier leap, between Rasputin and psychics advising Reagan on his past lives. Its not just sf; its magical thinking and constructed reality. Because once people invent myths of their unsinkableness and power, of the “American dream” or divine right kingship or anything like that, they’re already flirting with fictionalizing real life. If somebody were really going to analyze this, they have to go back to the roots in human psychology, or examples from the middle ages.

    Alternatively, they could just go back to Rasputin. And the sort of weird research the Nazis did that inspired Indiana Jones movies.

    Where do you draw the line between what are often deemed high-art concepts which influenced political movements, like the concept of the Ubermensch, and their low-art (or art for the masses, since ultimately the distinction is about class) equivalents which did similar things and got their virii into more heads…(I’m resisting uncharitable comparisons…because a lot of sf writers liked that Ubermensch idea).

    Ok, I wandered a bit. But do you see my point?

  4. Sure I see it! Definitely… though to some degree I sometimes wonder how credulous the monarchs of the Middle Ages really were. I once had a Medieval Lit professor who said his suspicion was that Chaucer “probably didn’t believe in God, but definitely feared Hell.” Though it’s one man’s opinion, it sound about right to me, and perhaps because of that and the way monarchs and the Church interacted at certain points, I’ve long wondered just how religious Europe’s leaders truly were. (For example, how much they actually believed this “Divine Right of Kings” business, given all the infighting and so on.

    Still, we can draw a direct line between Chinese medicine (another form of loony magic, at least in almost every form I’ve encountered living here in Korea, where it’s still very big business) and modern arms: sulfur and saltpeter were ingredients in longevity potion research, except their other properties were discovered by accident (ie. big fires) and finally, eventually, put to other uses. So yeah, the roots of this stuff go waaaaay back. Hell, our oldest stories often have coded justifications of rule by the powerful and so on.

    I think, on reflection, that what interests me here is the particular flows of influence between imaginative literatures and wider social nuttiness on our social fringes (and seemingly in the halls of power). Also, the degree to which our dominant imaginary genre links to all that. But of course, to do this justice, we should also look back at the stew of where our SFnal ideas come from. The Singularity is often just The Millennium repackaged. (It can be more than that, but it often isn’t.)

    This also leads me to the question whether SFnal tropes just adapt worse to non-Western societies than fantasy ones not just because most cultures have a “heroic-adventure” tradition of stories, or because SFnal tropes are so particularly a combination of specific Judeo-Christian, imaginative sensibilities about the world, the future, and so on. Maybe those cultural variables equally affect the adoption rate of SF as an imaginative genre and the rate of development of newer native (or adoption of newer foreign) cults.

    Mind, there are exceptions: several cults or new religions have cropped up in Korea, but they usually are syncretic — fusing, say, Christian and Buddhist ideas, or Christian and Korean-Confucian ideas. The Moonies are only the most famous example, but like lots of other “weird” religions in Korea — and unlike Raelism — they’re very clearly offshoots of already-popular religions.

    Then again, Christianity here is also very popular and would have been to many Koreans a mere hundred years ago, a new and foreign cult. But then, I’m blabbered about the Confucianization of Korean Christianity elsewhere. (In a post that seems to have gotten lost somewhere along the way.)

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