October Cryptozoology

Here in New England, it’s the month of apple-picking and pumpkin-selecting, sweet ciders, freshly baked pies, autumn harvests, local honey, hayrides, and trees spreading bright phoenix-wings.

I have two announcements to kick things off. The first is the sale of my sci-fi novelette “The Monsters of Olympus Mons” to F&SF, due out in the first half of 2020. This is a tale of war, propaganda, artificial intelligence, and cryptozoology, in a mix I think readers will enjoy.

The second announcement is an entirely different story, though roughly similar in subject vein: my story “The Sightflower” was sold to Pole to Pole Publishing’s Not Far From Roswell anthology. My contribution is an X-Files-flavored tale of conspiracies, UFOs, and alien abduction.

Completely different stories, though both arising from the same wellspring. When I was young, you see, I wanted to be a cryptozoologist.

I suppose it was a natural outgrowth of my interest in dinosaurs and mythology: the notion that there might still be dinosaurs in the Congo, megatheriums in the Amazon, and living myths lurking about in the odd corners of the world: ogres and trolls as Sasquatch and yeti, sea serpents as Nessie and Ogopogo.

The literary interests of my adolescence came to include Whitley Strieber, Budd Hopkins, Erich Von Danikan. I devoured books on Mothman, Chessie, mokele mbembe, and the Mongolian Death Worm. I memorized case studies and photographs. I was Fox Mulder and Charles Fort in one, in training.

My youthful plan was nothing less than to discover all the world’s cryptids as if in some proto-version of Pokémon Go. I’d organize and lead a series of globe-hopping expeditions that would begin with Bigfoot. He seemed the logical specimen to start with, since his alleged habitat in the American Pacific Northwest was far more accessible to my nine-year-old self than a mountaineering expedition into Tibet or a river cruise to seek giant ground sloths in South America. There was no doubt in my mind that these creatures existed: I wanted them to exist, after all. (I hadn’t discovered scientific rationalism or evidence-based inquiry; life in my single-digits was thoroughly swimming in the waters of magical thinking.)

My grandiose strategy was nothing less than a cryptid-by-cryptid blowing open of the doors of perception. It would be a string of wonderfully monstrous revelations. I even toyed with the notion of adding part-time ufologist to my future plans, because why not aim for the stars? I just knew that aliens were tooling about earthly skies. I’d seen Richard Dreyfuss in his red jumpsuit departing Earth as human ambassador to some galactic society; if he could do it with mashed potatoes and awesome interior home decorating skills, surely I could too! I bought a corkboard, my own Wall of Weird, where I tacked newspaper clippings and photocopied magazine articles. I’d trek to the library with my backpack and a notebook, and return with printouts of microfiche for my collection. My corkboard became stuffed with bulbous-headed aliens and leering monsters, maps and legends.

After Bigfoot, I would turn my attention to the Loch Ness Monster. After all, Loch Ness presented a finite area to investigate, too. I figured I could hire out a fleet of ships with sonar and undersea probes, and we’d ferret out that wily underwater resident…

… and that’s when my Spidey sense began thrumming, alerting me to a problem I hadn’t considered.

The two best candidates for the Loch Ness Monster in cryptozoological literature were a plesiosaur (the Jurassic Age reptile), and a zeuglodont (an ancient toothed whale.) The problem was that both creatures were air-breathers. On the one hand, that should make them easy for my crypto-seeking fleet to find. On the other hand… why had no one else, in all the decades of searching, found them? After all, there couldn’t be just one Loch Ness Monster, or two, or four; there had to be a viable breeding population.

How was it possible that the people of Scotland were not seeing an entire breeding population coming up regularly for air? And what food sources were filling the bellies of this population?

The short answer was that it wasn’t possible. My nascent stirrings of scientific methodology began to shine a critical light on Nessie. And Bigfoot. And the kongamato. And Ogopogo. And the Yowie.

I decided to expand my list of reading materials to include skeptical perspectives, which I had hitherto avoided. Suddenly, the whimsical layer-cake of magical worlds began dissolving before a lack of credible evidence. It was fine to posit the existence of cryptozoological wonders… but extraordinary claims required extraordinary evidence. Within two years, I abandoned my plans of being a cryptozoologist.

I’d be a science fiction writer.

Over the years, as I’ve openly discussed scientific rationalism (which my country could greatly benefit from) and formal skepticism (see previous parenthesis) I’ve had more than a few people ask me if it has dulled my sense of wonder. It has, in fact, done quite the opposite. There are mountains of wonder around us, revealed through microscopes and telescopes and formulae and rational investigation. The real world is an exquisite, exciting, extraordinary place. We are the only species in history equipped to fully appreciate that fact.

Magical thinking, by contrast, is not a good thing. Fact-free discussions and a culture addicted to raw belief is problematic at best, and destructive at worst. We’re on the cusp of 2020, after all, and yet are surrounded by a rising tide of Flat Earthers, antivaxxers, Creationists, and conspiracy theorists of every stripe. The Internet and social media hasn’t given us a new Age of Reason, but a common cry of “believers of the world unite!”

Maybe 2020 will give us better vision and a better future. People have asked, “Where’s my flying car?” I actually don’t want a flying car (have you seen how people drive while Earth-bound??) but I’d like to ask, “Where’s our New Enlightenment?”

Because at this moment in time and space, it seems as mythical as any cryptid.

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