The 12th Planet: I (don’t) want to believe

17 May

I realize that I read more science fiction and fantasy than is probably healthy for an individual, but even so, I think I have yet a modicum of intelligence and reason left in my head–which is why I gaped in shock and horror to find a copy of Zecharia Sitchin’s The 12th Planet in the back seat of my father’s car when we went to breakfast this morning.

For those of you who don’t know, The 12th Planet (1977) is the first installation of Sitchin’s “Earth Chronicles,” a seven-part series in which he attempts to prove that we are not alone in the universe:

Basically, all those Old Testament stories people have passed off as myths are really, literally true.  Fear our celestial overlords!  The Nefilim built the pyramids, and they can tear them down too.  (Note that Sitchin has collected indisputable proof.)

Oy vey.

The book has received some attention recently, probably because the final volume of the Earth Chronicles, The End of Days, was released just a few years ago–and what better to do in our last year of existence (or last week, if you expect to be taken up in the Rapture this Saturday) than read the “nonfiction” ravings of a crackpot writer?

I’m sorry, that’s unfair.  Zecharia Sitchin is a reasearcher, of sorts.  He is proficient in multiple ancient languages, Sumerian cuneiform purportedly among them.  He claims that his assertions in The 12th Planet are based on textual analysis of the original texts–the Hebrew OT, the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, those mysterious cuneiform tablets, etc., et al.  Of course, the more *respectable* scientists and academics reject Sitchin’s hypotheses as the work of faulty interpretation of ancient texts and flawed astronomical information.  Personally, I think he simply suffers from an overactive X-Files Mentality.  In other words, he wants to believe.

I don’t.

That back cover blurb alone should be enough to make a reader with the barest amount of sense laugh out loud.  Until she realizes that the book is being sold as nonfiction, and that there are those (including the author) who believe every word.  Then the reading experience just gets sad–and more than a little creepy.

There are a number of problems with The 12th Planet:

1. Not only does Sitchin employ (more than) questionable methodology in fashioning his claims, believing those claims requires us the readers to shunt aside all sorts of scientific explanations of phenomena for which there is actual evidence.  Oh, like human evolution.  Here’s an excerpt from the first chapter:

“The unanswered question is: Why–why did civilization come about at all?  For, as most scholars now admit in frustration, by all data Man should still be without civilization.  There is no obvious reason that we should be any more civilized than the primitive tribes of the Amazon jungles…

But, we are told, these tribesmen still live as if in the Stone Age because they have been isolated.  But isolated from what?  If they have been living on the same Earth as we, why have they not acquired the same knowledge of sciences and technologies on their own as we supposedly have?”

How about we read this instead, okay?

Astonishing!  I don’t think anyone has ever tried to answer that question before.  Except Jared Diamond.  Ever heard of Guns, Germs, and Steel?  Yeah, it’s that one that won the Pulitzer some years back.  Sorry, Zeke.

I won’t even get into that second part, in which Sitchin seems to imply that scientific knowledge is just chillin’ in the aether somewhere, waiting for some “primitive bushman” to pick it out of the air.  That’s for another paragraph.  What’s truly astonishing is where Sitchin goes from here.

One of the plethora of Discovery Channel conspiracy theory programs will attempt to raise questions about the origins of civilization–did space aliens give us knowledge and sink Atlantis in their rage, or something?  Sitchin says yes, the evolution of human civilization is actually extraterrestrial in origin.  And, he adds, modern man did not really evolve from the primordial ooze.  Male and female the aliens created them, because it would take too long to make apes talk.

That seems to me a total non sequitur, but it’s not like I can read cuneiform.  I bet those evolutionary biologists can’t either–so there!

2.  The second major problem I have with the whole “ancient astronauts” thing goes beyond Sitchin’s book.  My question is: Why is it so hard to believe that humans, with their own minds and their own contemporary technology, could have built the pyramids?  Because it’s always about the pyramids.  “They’re so geometrically perfect,” a Sitchinite might exclaim, “and how could they move those big rocks?”  There are a number of construction method hypotheses, all of them more plausible than the one that requires alien overlords cracking the whip.

Perhaps more disturbingly is the underlying racial prejudices inherent in this argument.  I had a professor of archaeology my freshman year who worked on ancient Mesoamerican cultures.  He seemed to have a bit of a chip on his shoulder when it came to the Mayans.  Why does everyone think the Mayans are so mysterious? he asked, multiple times during the semester.  He was a scientist, and had all sorts of perfectly reasonable (and more than that–empirical) explanations for the mysteries of the Maya.  And yet, the dilettantes of pseudoscience and pseudohistory seemed unable to resist groping for the mystical.

Because, of course, indigenous peoples of non-European origin must be primitive bushmen, right?

If it isn’t apparent by now that I’m intensely annoyed by The 12th Planet, let me be clear:

Zecharia Sitchin’s Earth Chronicles Series ranks among the very worst of pseudoscientific and pseudohistorical “nonfiction.”  It may be some people read books like his for entertainment, or because they have a case of the X-Files, but I for one think something like The 12th Planet cannot go without even this meager rebuttal.  Zecharia Sitchin’s books feed into the worst popular conceptions of ancient civilization, and commit an unforgivable crime: they rape history, underestimating and belittling the fully human people who lived before us.

That’s not okay.  And I sincerely hope my father was reading it as a joke.

10 Responses to “The 12th Planet: I (don’t) want to believe”

  1. Steve May 17, 2011 at 7:00 pm #

    Very good.

    There is no by-line or attribution that I can find anywhere on the page. Works should make the author clear.

    • Isabela Morales May 17, 2011 at 7:29 pm #

      But bylines are so mainstream.

      If you click on the About tab, you’ll find that everything written on the Scattering is by Isabela Morales. Also, see that smiling photograph on the right-hand column? That’s the gravatar of Isabela Morales. If you click on that, you’ll find the Twitter account and Facebook of Isabela Morales.

      Best,
      Isabela Morales

  2. Steve May 17, 2011 at 8:24 pm #

    So I see now. At first, it looked like the site was more than one person.

    • Isabela Morales May 17, 2011 at 9:14 pm #

      I… take that as a compliment?

  3. Frida Fantastic May 17, 2011 at 10:46 pm #

    I can’t believe that’s non-fiction. Pseudohistorians and pseudoscientists will always be among us, but 45th printing? Are you kidding me? Who reads this? Who -buys- this?

    Your point about how Mayans made me think about how non-European cultures are often treated as the mystical Other in speculative fiction. I’m sort of of two minds about it.

    I enjoy reading social science fiction and sensationalist pulp fiction. I like both Ursula K. Le Guin and Edgar Rice Burroughs, I just read them for different purposes. It depends on the tone of the work. If it’s the former, then exoticizing non-European cultures just means Author Did Not Do The Research. If it’s the latter, I expect the author to be genre-savvy and to play with the tropes.

    Unless authors are writing pulp, I think they should err on the side of caution, do their research, and make histories and settings as authentic as possible. It’s critical for authors to be conscious about appropriation of voice, even in SF/F. It’s just part of world-building. Readers come from all backgrounds and histories. It’s important to do research when required in order to avoid alienating or annoying readers, and to create richer SF/F work.

    (a blog post on appropriation of voice: http://www.hiromigoto.com/archives/588 )

    • Isabela Morales May 18, 2011 at 1:48 am #

      I agree with you– the problem is that a book like The 12th Planet is (by author intention) neither social sf nor pulp. Issues such as appropriation of voice and world-building are certainly the primary concerns of fiction writers. But when you (you being Zecharia Sitchin) publish a book that is supposed to be at least vaguely academic, your primary responsibility isn’t good storytelling; it’s sound scholarship.

      As much as I love science fiction, I love history more. So while I enjoy alternate histories, counterfactuals, parallel universes, as steampunk as much as the next, pseudohistory is a different story. Passing pulp like the Earth Chronicles off as an linguisto-archaeological study is a disservice to the public, for one. But it’s also an injustice to the “characters,” because in historical narratives, those characters actually lived. In a way, postulating something like alien intervention in the construction of civilization strips away their human agency.

      Maybe that’s pushing it a little, but I’m kind of a militant history student. I think I see a bottom 10 pseudohistories list sometime in the future…

  4. Frida Fantastic May 18, 2011 at 2:49 am #

    I agree with you 100%. The crap that Sitchin pulled is unacceptable. It’s misinformation and removes agency from an entire civilization. My comments about appropriation of voice and world-building is just an off-tangent comment about writers could avoid that mistake in the context of speculative fiction.

    I’m not even sure if I’d read the 12th Planet *as* pulp. I dunno, talking gorillas fighting Nazis with Tommy guns sounds better. The former is probably less insulting (and would make for better cover art).

    Heh. Would a list of the 10 worst pseudohistories technically be a “bottom” or a “top”? Or would a bottom 10 list of pseudohistories mean that they’re the least pseudo?

    • Isabela Morales May 18, 2011 at 12:04 pm #

      Good question… I imagine the Bottom 10 list would be the /most/ pseduo book, but I don’t think I could bear putting the word Top in the title.

  5. alex May 20, 2011 at 8:43 pm #

    what a load of rubbish, crap, whatever you want to call it. hallelujah!
    and don’t send me any silly little emails please!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Pulp Adventures in Unfortunate Implications! « Frida Fantastic - July 6, 2011

    [...] The Scattering – The 12th Planet: I (don’t) want to believe [...]

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