The Day the Gods Died by Walter Ernsting
Bantam Books, 1976
Originally published as Der Tag, An Dem Die Goetter Starben
Translated by Wendayne Ackerman
Price I paid: 75¢
ERICH VON DÄNIKEN CONTACTED WALTER ERNSTING BY TELEPATHIC TELEGRAPH…Then entrusted him with the most important object on Earth—a small stone sphinx. The tiny statue was the secret key to the Gods from outer space. It unlocked a hidden stronghold in Peru, revealing their ultrahuman civilization. Walter Ernsting entered a sense-shattering world unbounded by time or space—where he saw the fantastic technology that enabled the Gods to bridge 20,000 years in an instant. Where he discovered the true purpose of the Gods’ interplanetary mission. And where he learned the awesome prophecy that foretells the fate of humanity. THE DAY THE GODS DIED.
You know what one of my favorite sentences to begin a review is?
“Well, this was certainly…something.”
A feeling I’ve learned to love to cultivate—when it comes to books, that is—is a complete lack of any kind of sense of what is happening or why. I don’t love that feeling when it comes to anything else, which is perhaps a shame because it’s the single most common emotional state I experience.
When a book is completely inexplicable it can also be a lot of other things. Sometimes it’s great, other times terrible, frequently confusing, occasionally rewarding. The important thing is that it gets me to think, and that’s great. It means that it stood a good chance of avoiding the cardinal sin…being boring.
This is by no means a guarantee, just a trend. This book, in fact, bucked that trend on more than one occasion.
I look back on some of my older reviews and see a tendency for me to say “I didn’t understand this thing the book did, so I won’t think about it anymore, it’s probably garbage.” While I’m certainly not immune to that now, I’m glad to see that I can go against it if my will is strong enough. It doesn’t mean that I’ll come to any answers. In fact, I usually don’t. But I try. I’m not a guy with a lot to be proud of, but I’m proud of that.
So let’s talk about how much this book made me stop and question why the hell the author did anything he did. There’s…a lot.
I was not familiar with the author before now. I looked him up, and it turns out that he was the co-creator, with K. H. Scheer and probably other authors, of the Perry Rhodan series. That’s a name I’d heard before, usually in connection to being an inspiration for Star Wars. It’s apparently a big deal, “the longest running science fiction series in history” or whatever.
In the 60s, some of the books were translated into English by Wendayne Ackerman, who also translated this novel. Wendayne was a powerhouse of the sf fandom of the time, but her contributions are eclipsed by her husband, Forrest J Ackerman. I can’t find much information on her, but what I do find indicates that she deserves some attention.
Ernsting mostly wrote under the name Clark Darlton. There’s an interesting note in his Wikipedia bio about the state of German science fiction publishing in the 50s. It was easier for English writers to get published in translation than for native Germans, so Ernsting created the Darlton name and claimed to be translating “Darlton’s” work from the English. I admire that level of commitment.
The main character of this book is also a German science fiction writer named Walter Ernsting who is better known as Clark Darlton. This book is of the genre we might call This Really Happened (Except It Didn’t).
I don’t know how seriously we’re supposed to take the events of this novel. I don’t know how seriously we’re supposed to take the ideas laid out in this novel. I don’t know anything about how seriously anything anything anything.
At least one other character in this book is based on a real person: Erich von Däniken. You might recognize that name. Von Däniken, currently best known as a guest on The History Channel’s various Ancient Aliens type shows. This is appropriate, because von Däniken is the daddy of all that type of stuff, starting with Chariots of the Gods? in 1968.
So this leads us to our very first question about seriousness. Does Walter Ernsting, author, take von Däniken as seriously as Walter Ernsting, character? I have no way of knowing. There is a foreword by the author, but it treats the manuscript as fact, so it’s clearly a foreword by the author-as-character.
The very first thing in the book is a letter to the author from von Däniken. Is it real? If it did come from von Däniken, was he just in on the joke?
The letter tells Ernsting that no one will publish this book, but in the wild off-chance that someone does purchase it, Ernsting needs to change the names and places. Either the author didn’t follow this advice, or he retroactively did and also changed the names that von Däniken mentions in the letter. The only obvious exception is that throughout the novel von Däniken himself is referred to as “Erich von X,” even though his real name is still part of that letter at the beginning and is plastered all over the outside matter.
It’s a hard nut to crack.
Of course, there is the interpretation that everything in this book really did happen and Ernsting is reporting the truth as he experienced it. I do not entertain this idea very seriously, but hey, it’s a funny old world. I won’t say there’s a 0% chance. More things in Heaven and Earth, y’know Horatio?
The book begins with Ernsting being given a mysterious object and a series of instructions by Erich von Däniken. The object is a small stone sphinx. The instructions are to go to Peru and find a place described by a fella named Marcel Thomé.
There’s some buildup to all this but it’s interminable. I know I said earlier that books that puzzle me this way are often not boring, but this book was an exception. Maybe “boring” isn’t the right word, because there were plenty of things to keep me interested, but more than once I found myself saying I DON’T CARE GET ON WITH IT URRRGH.
Ernsting follows the instructions and finds a time machine. The stone sphinx is its key. He goes back in time 20,000 years, roughly, and meets members of a highly advanced precursor civilization. All of this proves von Däniken’s theories about ancient alien civilizations right.
The existence of a time machine is never explained. It’s speculated on a little bit, but even the ancient alien pre-Incan civilization with robots and laser guns has no idea where it came from.
Ernsting himself doesn’t understand their language, but he finally runs into Marcel Thomé, who does. He explains the situation.
These people came from Altair. They are illegal emigrants. The book consistently uses the word “emigrant” instead of the word you’d expect, but it wasn’t illegal for the Altairians to leave Altair, so I don’t know what the deal is. Maybe a spot of bad translation, maybe something deeeeeeper.
In Earth’s even-more-ancient past, scientists from the Galactic Federation came to Earth and modified our ancestors’ genes to develop human intelligence. After that, nobody else was supposed to land on the planet until it has developed sufficiently. An interesting twist on the Prime Directive.
The illegal Altairans came here when the ship they hired to take them somewhere else landed, took their money, dropped them off, and then left again. It’s not even the Altairians’ fault that they’re illegally here, but nevertheless, they must remain in hiding so that the Galactic Federation doesn’t discover they’re here and exterminate them. At least they got to keep a lot of their robots and laser guns and gravity gliders.
Elsewhere in the book, the Galactic Federation is presented as something that humanity will one day have the pleasure of joining, but nothing else in the book makes me think that they’re benevolent. They showed up and futzed around with our genes and then later are willing to use lethal force against people who were brought here against their will without any opportunity for explanation or due process. I am not a fan of the Galactic Federation or its policies, and I, for one, would lobby against our joining.
So knowledge from our present shows that this judgement comes to pass, but some Altairians survive and incorporate themselves into human culture. A main reason why I have trouble believing that any of this actually happened (as if I needed reasons) is that some of the basic scientific accuracy of this book is lacking. More succinctly, it frikkin sucks at Freshman science crap.
One thing that the Federation did to our human genes was to make it so that we had 23 chromosomes, because that is the galactic humanoid standard.
First off, we don’t have 23 chromosomes. We have 23 pairs of chromosomes. Maybe we can chalk that one up to translation error.
Second, I’m not sure what that is supposed to accomplish. We can perhaps attribute that to the ineffability of creatures far beyond our cultural and scientific development.
The third thing is that having the same number of chromosomes means that the Altairians and the humans can breed. This is the easiest part to believe once you take into account how much interbreeding occurs between humans, Reeves’s muntjac, the sable antelope, and paryhale hawaiensis (a kind of shrimp), all of which have the same number of chromosomes (46).
Ernsting spends a fair number of pages back in the past getting into some adventures, until he comes home and tells von Däniken all the cool information and how it proves him right about so many things.
Now, the back of the book told us that we were gonna learn about a prophecy regarding the fate of humanity. It is perhaps not a surprise by now that the back of this book scores maybe 1/10 for accuracy. There is no prophecy, and the title of the book actually references not a real event but one character’s interpretation of these discoveries. Namely, the evidence that all the ancient gods of Earth were really alien visitors has killed the idea that they were gods, hence they died.
But the book hasn’t revealed all of its secrets yet. Erich goes back in time himself, but we don’t learn much about what he learned because it’s covered in his real life books. Instead, we get this flashback to when Ernsting was serving in the Wehrmacht and had a weird experience in Finland. Incidentally, the part about the Wehrmacht is true. Author-Ernsting was drafted and served in Norway.
One of the things that Ernsting learned on his trip to the past is that there is some kind of observation post on Earth, operating perhaps since before the Altairians themselves arrived. This base still has to be somewhere. Due to a series of coincidences—this book loves coincidences and is constantly questioning whether they are, in fact, coincidences—Ernsting remembers seeing a weird gold flash and a weird old man who turned him away on top of this “haunted” mountain in Finland during WWII, so he decides to go check it out again.
He climbs the mountain and instead of a weird old dude, he meets multiple dudes, and those multiple dudes turn out to be (very human-like) aliens.
So much of this book is Ernsting being told things or describing what he sees so that later someone can tell him what he saw. The finale of the book is more of that, but at least it’s got some real aliens, and what they have to say is Very Important.
I actually laughed out loud at one point. Ernsting asks the aliens if the Altairians he met were really the source of all the gods and mythological dramas of all lands, and the aliens say no, that was a different, unrelated incident.
They also tell us that the Tunguska explosion was a UFO being shot down.
But the main thing is that humanity is still under observation and that observation is nearing its end. We are currently in the W Generation, nearing X. We might be able to skip X, if we learn to work together. It’s nuclear war. Y will be interplanetary travel. The aliens expect this to happen soon, with a Mars landing by 1982.
Once we hit Z, interstellar travel, the aliens will have finished their job and we will be cordially invited to join the Galactic Federation, of which I have already spoken against.
Ernsting asks the aliens if they’re going to wipe his mind or whatever, since they know he’s a writer and won’t be able to not write about all this, to which they respond no, they won’t, and he can go ahead and write all he wants about it, because it’s not like anyone will believe him.
And that’s where the book ends.
So if this were just a book about a person who meets ancient aliens and then meets the contemporary aliens who reveal interesting truths, that would be fine. A major thing I don’t understand is why it was presented in such a This Really Happened way. I’m not sure what that accomplishes. Why incorporate Erich von Däniken at all? He starts the whole thing by giving Ernsting the sphinx (which is the key to the time machine) and telling him enough to get him started, but that didn’t have to come from a real dude, even if we’re going to play with the “factual” metanarrative.
With so much bad science and meandering pointlessness and counterfactual assertions, I’m torn between thinking that this book is earnestly supporting von Däniken and taking the piss out of him. Maybe both. Maybe it was all in good fun. There’s just so much that I don’t know.
And it’s hard for me to just accept that I’ll never know and accept the story for what it is, because it seems like knowing that is important to getting the point of why this book was written in the first place. I could be wrong about that, or it could be that it’s entirely subjective, but it’s a hard feeling for me to shake.
The last chapter of the book is basically a series of questions, highlighting some of the mysteries that the narrative introduced without finding explanations for. Where did the time machine come from? Why were there so many date-based synchronicities? And so forth. I can’t tell if that was Ernsting saying “and yet there are still more mysteries” or he was just trying to cover up the things he never got around to because he hit the required word count.
As much as I love ruminating over all this, my feelings are that this whole experience was tongue-in-cheek. My only reason is that I’m looking at this picture of Walter Ernsting on his Wikipedia page and to me he just looks like a guy who would write a confusing metanarrative for his own enjoyment and let the rest of of puzzle over how much of it is true while he chuckled knowingly. I know that’s not a lot to go on, but it’s also all I’ve got.
I’m sure someone out there has some of the facts for me. I’d like to know if Ernsting really did know von Däniken. I’m curious if Ernsting really was sympathetic to von Däniken’s theories of ancient alien contact. I’m curious about a lot.
And now I’m getting a little more meta, but it’s interesting how much this book has made me curious about itself when its main theme is a sort of curiosity about humanity’s ultimate origins and place in the universe.
I’m never going to go and say this book was good, but hot damn did it give me a lot to think about. Not about ancient aliens, mind you, but about the line between truth and fiction, between narrative and metanarrative, between what an author says outright and what they mean as subtext. How important is it to appreciating this book that I know the life of Walter Ernsting, or even the writings of Erich von Däniken? How does this relate to the experience of reading any other book, or experiencing any other medium?
I don’t think I have any answers, but I’d like to hear what yours are.