In this ongoing series, we ask SF/F authors to describe a specialty in their lives that has nothing (or very little) to do with writing. Join us as we discover what draws authors to their various hobbies, how they fit into their daily lives, and how and they inform the author’s literary identity!
I have always loved the idea that the world is greater and more mysterious than we will ever understand; that there are strange things moving in the far corners of the world and in our own backyard. That what we call our reality, our history, is just a story among many others. It could be because I was reared on fairy tales, mythology, and stories of weird beings in the Swedish countryside. No matter the reason, there it is.
There was a special moment when I walked over from the library’s children’s section into the adult section. There, I found a shelf that was different from the others: Disputed Phenomena, or as it would be classified in the modern Dewey system, 130-135. I devoured all the books on that shelf and was left hungry for more. I went on to empty the same section in the central city library, and then went for the esoteric shelves in used bookshops. I collected books on paranormal phenomena, mysterious places and cryptozoology. I loved two things in particular: humanoid beings that aren’t really human, and lost civilizations. That’s when I stumbled over Zecharia Sitchin’s The 12th Planet.
Sitchin argues that the sudden rise of human civilization was triggered by alien visitors from a “twelfth planet” that passes through our solar system every 3,600 years. He claims that evidence can be found in old Sumerian myth, which was then passed on to later civilizations. He isn’t alone with his theory. You might be familiar with books like Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods or Gerhard Steinhauser’s Jesus Christ: Heir to the Astronauts. Or, for that matter, the History Channel’s Ancient Aliens series. The message is the same: aliens have visited Earth numerous times in the past, and stories of those visits live on in myth and art.
The idea of ancient aliens hit all my sweet spots. There really were gods. And even better, the gods were aliens. What’s not to like? And let’s face it. When you look at depictions of gods in ancient art, they look human … but not quite. Aren’t the proportions off? Doesn’t that headgear look suspiciously like a helmet? Isn’t that gadget eerily reminiscent of a jetpack? Is that man actually seated in a cockpit? What’s with those weirdly elongated skulls?
In myth all over the world, the gods came down from the sky to teach humans about agriculture, about technology, about architecture. There are a lot of stories of flying chariots and strange aerial ships: vimanas, shem, chariots of fire. There are even tales of the gods engaged in something like nuclear warfare. In the Bible, you can read about the nuclear destruction of Sodom and Gomorra; the Mahabharata speaks of “incandescent columns of smoke and flame, as bright as ten thousand suns”. Even the Norse myths tell of the world ending in something like a nuclear winter. Surely, all these images and stories point to one single thing: the memory of alien visitors with a technology far superior to our own.
The idea of gods and strange creatures walking among us fed directly into my writing when I started out. On a backup drive somewhere are lamassu come to life; Nefilim swooping down from the sky to wreak havoc on humanity; the remains of ancient civilizations with strange and wonderful technology.
The ancient alien theory doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, of course, and as I got older I also realized that the premise is inherently problematic. The civilizations claimed to have had contact with aliens in ancient times are mostly non-western, many of them located in places that once colonized by the West. There is an underlying assumption that these ancient civilizations were savages who couldn’t do math on their own. Someone had to come and teach them. Realizing that one of my favorite theories was built on a racist and colonialist foundation was less than fun, but it’s part of growing up.
Still, all experiences leave traces. Everything I see, hear and read lands on the great compost heap of creativity. The elements mix, ferment, mutate. What finally lands on the paper is, you could say, the juice that seeps out from the bottom of that heap. I don’t actually write about ancient aliens. What all those books about paranormal phenomena and ancient aliens have left me with is the sensation that the world is stranger than we know. I write about things that are almost-human, and encountering intelligent life with minds and agendas we can’t understand, and sometimes that intangible sense of old age that you sometimes encounter in certain places: the remains of older worlds. My story “Listen” deals with beings that claim to be human but who communicate in a way that humans have enormous trouble understanding. “Starfish” describes mysterious concrete roads built on the bottom of the ocean. In my novel Amatka, there are remains of an older civilization; it’s not the main theme, just present at the edges of the story.
Adulthood and research have stripped me of the idea that humans weren’t capable of great feats on their own, and I have accepted that sometimes a vimana is just a vimana. But I still like the idea that older civilizations knew things that we have forgotten, although that knowledge wasn’t passed on to them by aliens. And even though alien beings may not have uplifted humanity, perhaps something walked the earth in ancient days, something that wasn’t quite human. Mythology is flush with those not-human beings. John Keel, author of The Mothman Prophecies, theorized that those beings that modern humans interpret as aliens or cryptids are in fact native to this planet. I like that idea too.
The idea of a richer reality is part of what made me a writer. I don’t really believe that the truth is out there. But I’ll always be in love with the thought.
Top image: cover art from The 12th Planet (Harper, 2007)
Karin Tidbeck is originally from Stockholm, Sweden. She lives and works in Malmö as a freelance writer, translator, and creative-writing teacher, and writes fiction in Swedish and English. She debuted in 2010 with the Swedish short story collection Vem är Arvid Pekon? Her English debut, the 2012 collection Jagannath, was awarded the Crawford Award 2013 and short-listed for the World Fantasy Award. Her novel Amatka is now available from Vintage.