Friday, February 5, 2016

5 Strange Facts from Stranger Than We Can Imagine: An Alternative History of the 20th Century by John Higgs

To compose a history book about a period so filled with cultural, political, and scientific paradigm shifts as the 20th century would be a Herculean task for any writer. John Higgs, who previously wrote a highly praised book on The KLF and a wonderful biography of Timothy Leary, has tackled the tumultuous 20th Century in his newest book, Stranger Than We Can Imagine: An Alternative History of the 20th Century, and succeeded wildly.

Higgs writes with an enviable lucidity, encapsulating the key themes that shaped mankind in the 1900s through concise chapters composed of fascinating stories about significant topics of the century like Relativity, War, Science Fiction, Sex, Postmodernism, etc all weaved together neatly into a coherent argument. The prose is so clear and the stories so intriguing that this history book reads like an entertaining page-turner. I enjoyed it immensely and look forward to reading it again.

It seemed to sneak its way into every conversation I had around the time I was reading it. I learned so much from it. Befitting the title (a paraphrasing of geneticist J.B.S. Haldane's statement on the universe being "not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose") there is a wealth of strange facts littered throughout this book.

Here are 5 of the strangest facts I encountered in my reading of Stranger Than We Can Imagine.

1. "The road to hell is paved with good intentions"

The chapter on War mostly describes the context of World War I. I was shocked and amazed by the circumstances surrounding this conflict, the convoluted knot of events that sparked it all, and especially the blind fervor with which Great Britain (and other European nations) entered into the fray.

Higgs describes how Britain's official announcement of going to war with Germany in August of 1914 was met with cheering crowds and scores of men enlisting in historic numbers. As one British solider put it, "Everybody said, 'It'll be over by Christmas and you've got to get out soon, otherwise you won't see anything.'" How tragically short-sighted.

Most shocking to me is this fact shared by Higgs: "The tone of recruitment posters... seems horribly disconnected from the horrors that were to come, as does the practice by British women of handing white feathers to men not in uniform to mark them as cowards."

The War lasted 4 years, leading to more than 37 million casualties in what was perhaps the deadliest fight in human history at that point. The world was left in a state of shock at the unprecedented horror of it all, as Higgs writes:
Put simply, technology had made warfare psychologically too terrible for soldiers to bear. It took just a few short years for the jubilation of the recruiting stations to become a determination that global conflicts such as this could never be allowed to happen again. This point was hammered home by the name that the conflict soon became known by: The War to End All Wars. (pg. 67)
How unlikely it must have seemed then that a far more deadly clash lay on the horizon.

2. The craziest motherfucker of the 20th Century

Jack Parsons was an extremely fascinating character whose life could not have been contrived in even the most bizarre and twisted of movie scripts. He was perhaps the foremost pioneer in solid fuel rocketry, founding the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech in Pasadena during the 1930s and was responsible for many other advancements in the field of rocketry. There is a crater on the moon named after him.

He was also a devotee and close friend of Aleister Crowley and pursued occult magick with the same intensity he put into rockets. That's right, friends: the greatest rocket scientist in American history was also a devout Crowleyan who regularly performed all sorts of magick rituals in his home. In fact, he engaged in a series of rituals alongside the notorious L. Ron Hubbard with the intention of summoning the Whore of Babylon before he and Hubbard had a falling out.

It gets stranger. Parsons' parents split up when he was a child because his father was a philanderer. Jack developed a hatred for his father that was so deep he sought to live out an Oedipus Complex. Shortly after Parsons died in an explosion at his home (due to experiments with chemical explosives---what a way to go out), rumor has it that a black box was found containing home video footage of Jack having sex with his mother...and her dog. [[*shivers*]]

3. From Nazi to NASA

Speaking of the crazy careers of rocket scientists... In the same chapter as the Jack Parsons story (a chapter devoted to the Space Race which was, along with the chapter on WWI, my favorite part of the book), Higgs tells the story of Wernher von Braun, a rocket scientist and high-ranking Nazi SS who in 1943 presented a pitch to Hitler on the benefits of the V-2 rocket he helped develop. A little over a decade later, as a member of NASA, he appeared on the Disney Channel helping to promote rocketry and space travel to American audiences.

In '43, von Braun successfully convinced Hitler of the effectiveness of the V-2 rocket leading to resources being invested in the program and eventually the long-range bombardment of England. Stories of V-2 rockets shattering lives and buildings in London recalled for me Thomas Pynchon's WWII novel Gravity's Rainbow. The novel also features grim scenes from the rocket factories in Mittelwerk and Peenemünde which were built by slave labor. Conditions for the slaves were as horrific as one could fathom: they were starved, not given any water (they had to drink from puddles), and were regularly subject to mass hangings. Tens of thousands of slaves died in the construction of these factories. And Wernher von Braun was personally responsible for recruiting the slave labor from concentration camps.

After the War, he was brought to the United States along with many other Nazi scientists as part of Operation Paperclip and later became a part of NASA, helping develop the rocket technology that launched the missions to the moon.

4. Bill Cosby's favorite song

Toward the end of a chapter devoted to the evolution of sexuality and sexual expression in the 20th century, Higgs qualifies his discussion of the 1960s sexual revolution, noting that despite the advancements in civil rights, gay rights, environmentalism, etc this was not actually a period of feminist progress. Women were subverted and sexualized more than ever.

To emphasize this point, Higgs informs us of a song from this period that is so astoundingly bad on so many levels that I must quote his description in full:
Perhaps the nadir of the early 1970s objectification of women was the song "Rape" by Peter Wyngarde. Wyngarde was a famous actor, best known for his portrayal of the womanising spy Jason King ... [who] was a key inspiration for Mike Myers's comedy character Austin Powers. Wyngarde signed to RCA Records and released an album in 1970. This included a song where he suavely discussed the differing pleasures of rape that resulted from raping women of different ethnicities, over an easy-listening musical background and the sound of women screaming. This was a song released by a major record label and performed by a famous celebrity at the height of his fame. (pg. 208)
I refuse to include a link to that song here, you'll have to Google it if you want to hear it.

5.  "almost everything is already discovered"

To close on a much lighter note...

It's almost hilarious reading the quotes from the scientific community around the turn of the century about how sure they were that they already had everything figured out. In a 1900 lecture---that is, pre-relativity, pre-quantum mechanics---Lord Kelvin remarked, "there is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement."

Higgs provides a bunch of quotes like these while recounting the scientific environment Einstein's theories appeared in. "The more important fundamental laws and facts of physical science have all been discovered and these are now so firmly established that the possibility of their ever being supplanted in consequence of new discoveries is exceedingly remote," said physicist Albert Michelson in 1903.

On the cusp of Einstein's relativity, and before Hubble's discovery that the universe is expanding, astronomer Simon Newcomb said in 1888 that we were "probably nearing the limit of all we can know about astronomy." Ha!

Max Planck, before he became one of the most important physicists in history with his development of quantum theory, was told by his teacher Philipp von Jolly not to pursue physics because "almost everything is already discovered, and all that remains is to fill a few unimportant holes."

Similarly, scientists thought it was virtually impossible that rockets would lead to space flight a mere few decades before it was achieved. Higgs notes that a 1931 textbook declared there was "no hope" for such developments, and that "only those who are unfamiliar with the physical factors involved believe that such adventures will ever pass beyond the realm of fancy." Within 30 years humans had launched the first satellite and sent a human in orbit around the Earth.

The recurrence of such foolhardy assuredness from scientists should serve as an important lesson for the present. Soon as you think you have it all figured out, the world flips upside down.


  1. This is the best review of Higgs's book I've seen so far. Higgs's eye for boggling details is a big reason why this book is so essential for those who want to develop their extracurricular historical consciousness. And you've highlighted a few of those mind-altering details here. You make me want to read it again. Thanks!

  2. Wow, thank you Michael!

    This book sparked a new interest in 20th century history for me. It made me realize, aside from having read about the avant garde art movements and scientific advancements, I really haven't, as you say, developed my extracurricular historical consciousness yet. I'm compelled to do so now.

    What most impresses me, though, is how neatly Higgs packed the whole crazy century into an engaging, entertaining and compact book. The guy is a phenomenal writer.

  3. Yea, Higgs can write, that's fer sure. My previous favorite history of the 20th c. was Everdell's book on Modernism, which was IIRC _ The First Moderns_. Higgs has it in his bibliography. But it's more academic and far longer. Higgs somehow managed to produce the first book I'd consider as a possible "gateway" history of what "just happened" in the scheme of things.

    I often talk to students who tell me things like they've already "had" History. Like it's chicken pox. And now they don't have to worry about "getting it" again. If they were exposed to a book like Higgs they would probably have thought about History differently. Because it's far more wonderful and weird than any of the stories about our past that we're exposed to in school, eh?

  4. Yeah, definitely the type of book that a cool college professor will assign to students.

  5. Excellent review of Higgs’s book. I agree, to synthesize major events of the 20th century on some 323 pages seems quite a challenge and an accomplishment. What caught my attention in this post was the word “theme” and later in commentary “extracurricular historical consciousness”. As I was reading the book I was thinking along the same lines/thoughts: why this kind of a history book appeals to me more than many other history books do, especially the ones we are exposed to in school?

    It seems to me that my brain processes information easier when history is presented thematically rather than chronologically. “An Alternative History”, as Higgs subtitles his book, sounds more inviting.

    And I wonder how unjust it is to grade a student with low grades just because his or her brain does not process the information in a way that is presented? When alternative way could possibly be more accommodating !? I wonder how many teachers actually take this into consideration?