Saturday, April 25, 2015

Easter Island as Martian Outpost

Four decades before Erich Von Däniken published his pseudoscientific Chariots of the Gods (1968), Edmond Hamilton wrote a science fiction story involving prehistoric colonization of Earth by extraterrestrials.  Von Däniken’s premise was that long ago, people of color required the assistance of “ancient astronauts” to build spectacular monuments and to develop religious texts that were a response to the awesome alien technologies.  Caucasians apparently did not need as much guidance in these areas. 

In Hamilton’s Across Space (1926), the early arrival of the extraterrestrials—in this case Martians—is not helpful architecturally or in any other way.  The survival of their subterranean colony over eons may eventually doom all of humanity.   

Both authors were impressed with the strange megaliths on Easter Island, enormous stone heads built by ancient Polynesians perhaps as early as 400 C.E.  Each are about 13 feet tall on average and weigh as much as 90 tons.   Called “moai” by the inhabitants of the island, the elongated facial features on hundreds of these statues follow a standardized pattern, possibly modelled on some powerful individual from the distant past.  Interestingly, the heads are positioned with their back to the ocean, facing inland, and nearly encircle the island like a fence.  Not much is known about their purpose, who made them, or how they were moved across the island.  Thus they must have been created by aliens from outer space.

Von Däniken, who never set foot on Easter Island, hypothesized that technologically advanced beings were once stranded there, and taught the locals how to build monoliths resembling robots.  Given the remoteness of the island, this implied that the “ancient astronauts” flew there in some sort of air craft.  Hamilton imagines that the heads are all that can be seen of much larger statues, almost completely buried by time, and originally positioned to commemorate ancient Martian kings. (Strictly speaking, the statues are busts, not just heads, with shoulders and arms visible.)  In Hamilton’s story, the Martians are physically capable of flight, having large bat-like wings.

Across Space was originally published as a three part novella in the September, October and November issues of Weird Tales in 1926.  Other stories that appeared in those issues included H.P. Lovecraft’s interesting He, Henry S. Whitehead’s racially charged Jumbee, and Frank Belknap Long’s The Dog-Eared God.  His first serial story, Across Space followed Hamilton’s first Weird Tales entry, The Monster-God of Mamurth, (see also A “World-Wrecker’s” First Publication).

Across Space begins as an end-of-the-world story.  Unlike the later space opera stories for which he is best known, Hamilton places Across Space in a contemporary, early twentieth century setting.  Here is his description of an idyllic, pre-apocalyptic day in the life of the narrator, a university student named Allan:

All through the land that sunny morning, in New York and Louisiana and Idaho, boys and girls were laughing and shouting, men in offices and factories were talking of automobiles and radio and golf, dogs were barking and children running to school, women sweeping porches in neat suburbs were chatting across their front yards of fashions and recipes and bridge.

Astronomers discover that the planet Mars has unaccountably left its orbit and is now on a collision course with Earth.  The specter of imminent annihilation causes panic around the world.  Every night the crimson orb of Mars, now a δυσ ἀστήρ, a dys aster, a bad star, looms ever larger in the evening sky, bathing the world in an ominous reddish light, terrifying humanity.  The news brings pandemonium:

…we received appalling reports of rioting and disorder…Murder was rampant and the dwellers of the underworld came out to rob and burn and kill...Chicago was a mass of flames…in Washington, a wild mob besieged the government offices…As hope waned, millions turned toward the promises and comfort held out by religion…Wildest of all was New York City…going to its death in a blaze of light and splendor…

Here Hamilton sets down the basic imagery expected in many subsequent stories and films about the end of the world, especially those of the 1950s and 1960s.  Not until much later in that century and in the beginning of our own do we see the end of our world as potentially an inescapable, but quiet event—“not with a bang but a whimper”, as T.S. Eliot wrote.

The planet’s relentless approach seems to have some connection with mysterious emanations from a volcano on Easter Island.  Naturally, only the narrator and two other scientists on earth are aware of this.  Allan and his doomed mentor, Professor Jerome Whitley, fly to the remote island to investigate.  It is common in the pulp fiction of the time that earth shattering problems require only a few characters to devise a solution in time to save the entire human race.

Not only do the scientists discover a preposterous Martian plot to conquer the earth, they uncover evidence of early Martian settlement, a remnant of which now survives in a vast subterranean city beneath one of the island’s extinct volcanos.  Eager to increase their ranks and revivify their dying civilization, the aliens contrive to bring their home planet closer to earth in order to expedite illegal immigration as well as attack.  The author’s interesting depiction of the troubled history of Mars and its interaction with Earth provides familiar source material for similar interplanetary sagas.

What little science is present in Across Space involves an elementary understanding of magnetism as applied to the north and south poles of the planet Mars:  the Martians have built a device in the crater of the volcano to focus and aim the magnetic field of earth at their home planet, a kind of tractor beam.  However, as the red planet approaches, the science in the story departs, to be replaced by pure fantasy:  when the atmospheres of the two planets are close enough to touch and intermingle, the bat-winged Martians will be able to fly across from their home planet to join their brethren on Easter Island.

The influence of A. Merritt’s The People of the Pit (1918) can be seen in the depiction of an underground city, the Martian’s reliance on telepathy to control their slaves, and the notion of an ancient and malevolent survival of nonhuman civilization in remote parts of the globe.
(See also Death by a Thousand Figures of Speech.)  Hamilton was reportedly an enthusiastic fan of Merritt’s earlier work.

Across Space also shares some interesting similarities to The Mound, the creepy and ambitious collaboration between H.P. Lovecraft and Zealia Bishop which was published in 1940 but written a decade before.  (See also 1.H.P. Lovecraft, Ethnographer of Doom and 2.But Zamacona Does the Heavy Lifting ). Both stories involve subterranean civilizations, grotesque fleshy robots commanded via telepathy, and decadent or declining alien societies.  However, it seems unlikely that Hamilton’s story directly influenced Lovecraft’s.  It may be that both drew on a common matrix of speculative ideas for inspiration.

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