(the Astrological Association's 'Journal of Research in Astrology')
Vol 20 (1) 2001/2
Astrology In The Year Zero by Garry Phillipson
published by Flare Publications, London, UK pp272 Price: £15.99 ISBN 0-9530261-9-1
Astrology in the Year Zero is the best book on astrology I’ve read in years. I read it cover-to-cover at one sitting and felt a genuine sense of disappointment when I’d finished it. It takes a special kind of writer to make a book like this so compelling — a book based on interviews with well-known ‘star’ astrologers - and Garry Phillipson is such a writer. The way he interweaves astrology and its practitioners together flawlessly is masterful, as is the way he keeps his distance from the debate by using a deft editorial touch to carry us along without intruding too obviously into any part of the textual discussion.
There's something in this book for everyone with an interest in astrology, no matter how sophisticated or basic it may be. For, in a systematic discussion of the whole area of astrological practice ranging from Sun Sign columns to the use of astrology in business, health, counselling, and as a method of successful gambling and prophecy, we are led to the sort of understanding of astrologers and astrology of a sort that's quite impossible to obtain from any textbook on the subject.
Given its compass therefore, it would not be surprising to discover that, at least in readers who know little of astrological practice, or who are impartial and undecided, this would evoke different responses. Some would find it fascinating reading, some would find it incredulous reading, and some would be, frankly, worried. Amongst many other things, the book explains how astrology is now used almost routinely with apparent success to underpin major financial transactions, to detect fraud,to facilitate political decisions and to advise individuals on highly personal aspects of their lives that can include such matters as the choice of religion, illicit sexual experiences and the time of death. Given this, it might be a matter of concern for some that there is still no consensual agreement amongst astrologers about what enables them to determine these sorts of things by scrutinising horoscopes. For when asked how they actually get their information, their replies vary.
Jung, Sheldrake, intuition, synchronicity, spiritual revelation and totem poles, all get a mention in this respect, but that would leave many prospective readers none the wiser and leave some of the more sceptical ones thinking that astrologers simply don't know. This latter conclusion would be endorsed I imagine by the fact that many astrologers are still unclear as to how they can get accurate readings from inaccurate horoscopes.
And, while I have my own ideas on how both natural and judicial astrology may ‘work’, I felt it would be better all round if we had an agreed mechanism to account for astrology's validity: one that would provide astrologers with a unified theory of mechanism of action and method. For these are necessities, I think, when we undertake to advise such as financial institutions, politicians and potentially vulnerable individuals on the courses of their affairs and their lives. This aspect of the debate is not ignored by the intrepid Mr Phillipson either, however. Enter the scientists.
A group of well-qualified scientists who have researched astrology over a quarter of a century or more are also given their say by Garry Phillipson. And a well thought-out and well-argued one it is too - albeit familiar to those who keep abreast of the appropriate literature. Statistics, facts and figures abound, and concepts such as the placebo effect, artefacts, and the benefits of critical thinking are brought out, aired, and allowed to freshen things up a bit, while we wait expectantly for an equally well argued riposte from what is, very evidently, the opposition.
But this riposte doesn't really materialise in a wholly convincing manner and the upshot of it all is predictable. With a few notable exceptions that, for me, include Garry Phillipson himself, who poses some searching questions on the pertinence of scientific methodology to astrology, most practising astrologers appear to have so little time for the diktats of scientific study that they simply ignore them. For their part, the scientific researchers don't appear to be able to convey to, or convince, their astrologer colleagues their conviction that many if not most of the astrologer's prognostications are a credit to human credulity and inventiveness, rather than to the positions of the planets in the skies above us.
As a formally trained research scientist myself with a long-term interest in astrology and a conviction that it can, on occasion, achieve quite remarkable results in a variety of applications, I found this disappointing. Maybe there are different agendas at work here as, for the life of me, I can think of no better common-law marriage in the diffuse field of astrology than one where astrologers freely cohabit with well-qualified practitioners of scientific method. For that's all science is: a method - a way of doing things, not a way of finally and forever explaining them away. So, while I found some of the more considered speculations with respect to the nature of astrology and science elevating and exciting, others I found facile, naive and totally unconvincing. They were the sort of thing that makes me wonder why it is that I'm not one of the many who appear to understand quantum physics, superstring and chaos theory, implicate order and the tenets of special relativity. Everyone else in the world of astrology seems to understand these things despite their apparent difficulty. So why not me?
So, from the perspective of this particular reviewer, while many criticisms could be made of certain aspects of the content of the book, much praise can be given to this too. And some of the more reflective astrologers argue their case with a subtlety that would grace any debate of the ‘science-astrology’ type and give us all edible food for thought. That said, few criticisms can be made of the overall structure of the book itself.
Before I finish, I'd like to mention one aspect of this book that I found particularly moving. It was an account of the views of David Hamblin, formerly an eminent member of the astrological community who, for reasons of principle and altered conviction, left that community. If any one doubts that there is still principled behaviour around, let them read David's account of his experiences. For whatever his reasons for doing what he did, and whatever their relative merits, they are an outstanding reflection upon him. And the account of his decision and of its consequences, in the most general way, is an outstanding addition to this book.
In summary, I'd recommend Astrology in the Year Zero by Garry Phillipson wholeheartedly to anyone who, as we head into the third millennium, wants to know exactly what astrology is. Unfortunately, they won't find that out by reading it. For it seems to me that, even in the year 2000, no one's really quite sure what astrology really is, or, if they are, they soon find that others disagree with them and, en masse, we're no further forward. But that's the magic of the enchanted world of astrology; so don't let us carp about differences of opinion. Astrology has held my attention for almost thirty years now and it has done so through all sorts of change and drama of the sort that makes it so endearing.
Given this, and on careful reflection, I wish I'd read this book or one very much like it all those years ago. For though it would not have answered the perennial questions astrology appears to confront us with, it would certainly have set most of them before me in one easily accessible place. So, given that I couldn't read it then, I'm very glad I've read it now - and I'd urge you to do exactly the same.
Reviewed by Frank McGillion