Search SFE    Search EoF

  Omit cross-reference entries  

Scientific Hoax

Entry updated 21 March 2024. Tagged: Theme.

A few early sf stories were tall tales or hoaxes told with clear or likely intent to deceive: examples include chronic hoaxer Edgar Allan Poe's Balloon adventure "Hans Phaall – A Tale" (June 1835 The Southern Literary Messenger), the "Great Moon Hoax" concocted by Richard Adams Locke (whom see), and J L Riddell's Orrin Lindsay's Plan of Aerial Navigation, with a Narrative of his Explorations in the Higher Regions of the Atmosphere, and his Wonderful Voyage Round the Moon! (1847 chap). Richard S Shaver's Shaver Mystery sequence beginning with "I Remember Lemuria" (March 1945 Amazing) has generally been viewed in this light.

More interestingly, many works of sf turn on the invention – often by well-meaning Scientists – of an imaginary threat to the world that is usually intended to distract humanity from internal conflicts and/or bring about global unity via this crude stroke of Cultural Engineering. An early example is André Maurois's Le Chapitre Suivant (1927 chap; trans as The Next Chapter: The War Against the Moon 1928 chap): here press barons invent a menace from the Moon, which is thought to be uninhabited and thus safe to attack; this belief is unfortunately incorrect and retaliation follows. Le Chapitre Suivant was a direct inspiration for Bernard Newman's Technothriller The Flying Saucer (1948), whose titular UFO represents a fake threat from Mars. From the same year, Theodore Sturgeon's "Unite and Conquer" (October 1948 Astounding) features a seeming Invasion by Alien "Outsiders" conjured up by Imaginary-Science devices, all the doing of a single maverick scientist who hopes to unite the conflicted Earth. In Max Ehrlich's The Big Eye (1949), the unifying menace is a genuine approaching planet which, however, will not in fact collide with Earth as mendaciously announced by a would-be benign conspiracy of astronomers: Kingsley Amis in New Maps of Hell: A Survey of Science Fiction (1960) found this disturbing on the ground that "Science fiction is, if you like, a hilariously unreliable prediction of science, but is apt to be much nearer the mark about scientists."

A hoax Invasion with spectacular sky-battles is staged by real Aliens to help cure humanity of childish thinking in When They Come from Space (January-February 1962 Amazing as "Pawn of the Black Fleet"; 1962) by Mark Clifton. Further examples of hoaxes using various forms of fake aliens include The Stars Are too High (1959) by Agnew H Bahnson Jr (whom see); the Outer Limits episode "The Architects of Fear" (30 September 1963), with a volunteer surgically transformed into an intimidating faux-alien "Thetan"; Poul Anderson's "The Moonrakers" (January 1966 If), where Earth's diplomatic and piracy problems with a colonized Solar System are solved or at least postponed by inventing a threat from aliens with superior (faked) Technology; Theodore Sturgeon's "Occam's Scalpel" (August 1971 If), whose hoax implies that the growing Pollution of Earth's atmosphere is in fact Xenoforming for the convenience of alien infiltrators and must be resisted on that account; and the Graphic Novel Watchmen (1986-1987 Watchmen; graph 1987) scripted by Alan Moore, where in the tale's Alternate History timeline a nuclear World War Three is at least temporarily averted by an engineered Disaster in New York, involving Teleportation and a synthetic Monster, with great loss of life and sanity. Watchmen includes an overt acknowledgment of "The Architects of Fear" and a probable nod to Sturgeon with the phrase "Alien Bee", the author's original title (as revealed by him in a 1979 introduction) for his story published as "The Dark Room" (July-August 1953 Fantastic).

In a slight variation on the theme, Pauline Ashwell's Lizzie Lee story "The Lost Kafoozalum" (October 1960 Analog) omits the supposed aliens and hoaxes warring factions of a rediscovered human colony (see Colonization of Other Worlds) to unite them against the supposed threat from yet other colonists. Different motives for hoaxing have also been proposed. The innumerable bogus Machines and processes used to make gold, diamonds etc by con-men in crime fiction are not sf – except when the twist is that one actually works, as in some exploits of Leslie Charteris's The Saint: the eponym of "The Newdick Helicopter" (15 October 1933 Empire News as "The Inventions of Oscar Newdick"), believed fraudulent by its self-hoaxing inventor, actually is an innovative form of Transportation. "Noise Level" (December 1952 Astounding) by Raymond F Jones uses hoax footage of a working Antigravity device to convince a team of Scientists that the thing is possible; whereupon, rejecting the foolish inhibitions imposed by understanding of general Relativity, they need only a few bull sessions to crack the problem. The lunar "Ruins" in Sundog (1965) by Brian Ball, a vast and incomprehensible Labyrinth of wrecked Technology, prove to have been deliberately created as a distracting puzzle for scientific minds that might otherwise find time to question Earth's Dystopian regime. In Ray Bradbury's "The Toynbee Convector" (January 1984 Playboy), faked film and other records of a future Utopia 100 years hence, supposedly acquired via Time Travel, somewhat implausibly inspire humanity to create just that future.

Two noted media broadcasts which if viewed as hoaxes were to at least some extent successful are Orson Welles's Radio version of War of the Worlds (1938) and the April-Fool mockumentary Alternative 3 (1977). Further productions featuring large-scale scientific deceptions include Object Z (1965), whose incoming "meteor" threat is reminiscent of the above-cited The Big Eye; Chosen Survivors (1974), whose storyline begins with a pretended nuclear World War Three; and Capricorn One (1977), with its faked NASA Mars mission.

Real-world scientific hoaxes such as the famous paleoanthropological forgery of Piltdown Man – first announced in 1912, conclusively debunked in 1953 – are outside the scope of this entry, as are the claims of hoaxing and "fake news" whenever a scientific report (typically on Climate Change) seems to threaten the profits of megacorporations. [DRL]

see also: Alternative 3; .

previous versions of this entry

This website uses cookies.  More information here. Accept Cookies