Stranger Than We Can Imagine: Making Sense of the Twentieth Century

Stranger Than We Can Imagine Book Cover

A breathtakingly lucid and coherent map of the tectonic shifts which drastically reshaped the human psyche, and the human world, within a hundred thrilling, terrifying years [and which] leaves us asking ourselves how we could have missed so much about the wider implications of a time we lived through. An illuminating work of massive insight, I cannot recommend this magnificent work too highly.

-Alan Moore

When Alan Moore describes a book - Stranger Than We Can Imagine: Making Sense of the Twentieth Century - in such an effusive manner, you can bet that it's going to be a fantastic read. And when the author is our good friend John Higgs, and the subject is a tour of the backwaters of history and science, you can double down on that bet. John's the writing genius behind, among others, two brilliant non-fiction books on counter-culture icons Timothy Leary (I Have America Surrounded) and The KLF (KLF: Chaos Magic Music Money), as well as a couple of wonderful 'strange fiction' books (The Brandy of the Damned and The First Church on the Moon).

If you've read John's non-fiction, you'll know how adept he is at illustrating history in a different light, by finding and connecting various esoteric moments via synchronicities and hidden history. If you haven't, see as an example his Darklore 7 article "From Operation Mindf**k to The White Room: The Strange Discordian Journey of the KLF" (PDF), or more quickly this article I wrote discussing some of the wonderfully odd material about Doctor Who covered in John's KLF book.

John's a long-time collaborator and friend - he's contributed to multiple Darklore releases - and was closely involved with the Cosmic Trigger revival last year in the UK. But even if I only knew him through his writing, this would likely be the book release of the year for me - so I can't recommend this highly enough. And I'm not the only one - apart from Alan Moore's high praise, Stranger Than We Can Imagine is already getting big ups from many quarters, from New Scientist to Robin Ince.

The book is released today in the UK (later this year in the Americas, but since when do geographical boundaries bother us anymore?), so head to Amazon UK and grab a copy, stat! For those interested, here's the blurb:

The twentieth century should make sense. It's the period of history that we know the most about, an epic geo-political narrative that runs through World War One, the great depression, World War Two, the American century and the fall of the Berlin Wall. But somehow that story doesn't quite lead into the world we find ourselves in now, this bewildering twenty-first century, adrift in a network of constant surveillance, unsustainable competition, tsunamis of trivia and extraordinary opportunity.

Time, then, for a new perspective. With John Higgs as our guide, we step off the main path and wander through some of the more curious backwaters of the twentieth century, exploring familiar and unfamiliar territory alike, finding fresh insight on our journey to the present day. We travel in the company of some of the most radical artists, scientists, geniuses and crazies of their age. They show us that great innovations such as relativity, cubism, quantum mechanics, postmodernism and chaos maths are not the incomprehensible, abstract horrors that we assume them to be, but signposts that bring us to the world we live in now.

John Higgs brings us an alternative history of the strangest of centuries. He shows us how the elegant, clockwork universe of the Victorians became increasingly woozy and uncertain; and how we discovered that our world is not just stranger than we imagine but, in the words of Sir Arthur Eddington, 'stranger than we can imagine'.

For those wanting to learn more about the book, check out John's recent appearance on the Little Atoms radio show. And to put a face to the name - and learn a little bit along the way - see John's talk about Robert Anton Wilson embedded below.

Link: Stranger Than We Can Imagine: Making Sense of the Twentieth Century on Amazon

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LastLoup's picture
Member since:
6 April 2010
Last activity:
17 hours 21 min

wow, can I just have the cover as a poster for my room? it is amazing.

...I forgot how I got here but everyone seems to be heading off in that direction. I hope someone brought food. I have a feeling this is going to be a long journey................

jupiter.enteract's picture
Member since:
21 January 2005
Last activity:
3 weeks 19 hours

.... very interesting! Will definitely check it out (when it's available in the U.S., anyway).

Charles Pope's picture
Member since:
23 October 2009
Last activity:
13 hours 23 min

I'm not so sure humans achieved anything of cosmic significance in the 20th Century, at least up until the time that The Daily Grail was founded (ahem). Maybe a few individuals managed to somehow do something of eternal value, but what would that be?

Maybe there is some value in allowing an intelligent race (if that is actually the case here) to develop organically from a "starter kit" from outer space? It's obviously a painful process, but perhaps necessary. Yet, when we talk in terms of our "great innovations such as relativity, cubism, quantum mechanics, postmodernism and chaos maths" this comes across as some kind of cosmic comedy. We are so low on the universal learning curve that it is hardly appropriate to say we have yet invented anything at all. We are learning, but what else can we say about ourselves. We are toddlers taking joy in simple things and creating a lot of messes along the way. Hopefully our parents think this is cute!