When a cloning company claimed last month that it had successfully implanted a cloned embryo in a Korean woman, it caused a sensation. Television channels across the world showed a spokesman for the company, Clonaid, predicting that the woman would give birth to the world's first cloned baby early next year. They cut to footage of a man in a judo outfit with Flash Gordon shoulder-pads and a topknot.
This man, who founded Clonaid five years ago, was once known as Claude Vorilhon. Back in 1973, when cloning was still the preserve of sci-fi novels, Vorilhon was a motor-racing journalist. Jogging around an extinct volcano one day, he saw a little man with olive skin and a wispy beard emerge from a silver spaceship.
The man, who called himself "Yahweh Elohim", explained that the human race was created by aliens using DNA technology. The aliens wanted Vorilhon to establish an embassy near Jerusalem so they could return to Earth. As a mark of his mission, Vorilhon was given the name Raël (messenger). Two years later the aliens granted Raël a greater favour, whisking him to their home planet, where he met Jesus, Muhammed, Buddha and Moses, and enjoyed perfumed baths attended by comely robots.
Raël, 55, has worked relentlessly to spread the aliens' message. As many as 55,000 people in 84 countries now belong to the Frenchman's Raelian Movement. His teachings are a curious blend of 19th-century scientism and Sixties hippiedom - Auguste Comte meets the Grateful Dead. On the futuristic side, Raël proclaims science as the new religion, the answer to mankind's age-old metaphysical problems. On the hippy side, he preaches free love and urges followers to "revolutionise yourself to revolutionise humanity".
On closed retreats, adherents are encouraged to practise "sensual meditation," "awakening the mind by awakening the body." (To get the picture, think of the recent ice-cream advert where wide-eyed adepts chant: "Pleasure is the path to joy, before downing spoonfuls of peanut butter fudge chunk.) Glenn Carter, leader of the British Raelian Movement, describes Raël's philosophy as "Buddhism with the mysticism taken out." Carter, an actor who embraced the movement six years ago, says there are 1,000 Raelians in Britain, ranging from artists to housewives and singers to scientists.
Raelians are stridently critical of traditional religion. After September 11, Raël declared monotheism the "root of evil" and "cause of the greatest tragedies humanity has known". After the Pope criticised divorce, Raël issued a statement encouraging "all people who love one another to not get married and all those who are married to divorce with love." He has launched an aggressive "apostasy campaign", encouraging disillusioned Roman Catholics to be "debaptised" online.
Raël divides his time between the movement's Canadian headquarters, UFOland (an alien theme park), and a follower's house in Florida, where he reputedly spends ten hours a day on the internet and playing racing video games. Raël promotes the movement through shrewd publicity stunts. Last month he conferred honorary membership on George Michael for the singer's record criticising the American War on Terror; at the same time, his cloning company offered a cell preservation service for US soldiers serving in Afghanistan.
Despite Raël's genius for publicity, the Raelians have made little progress towards their goal of an alien embassy. Time is running out before the Elohim's deadline of 2035 and Israel has repeatedly turned the movement away. (Raelians recently petitioned the Swiss Government to give diplomatic status to the Elohim; one official responded by asking if the Elohim would be prepared to allow a Swiss Embassy on their home planet.) Until their latest announcement, it seemed that the Raelians had been scarcely more successful in their attempt to create a human clone. Raël's obsession with cloning stems from his close encounter in 1973, when he learnt that life on Earth was created 25,000 years ago in an alien laboratory and that Jesus was resurrected using an "advanced cloning technique". As he explains in Yes to Human Cloning: "Once we can clone exact replicas of ourselves, the next step will be to transfer our memory and personality into our newly cloned brains, which will allow us to truly live for ever."
Raël is a champion of eugenics: the selection of the healthiest human beings for reproduction. In contrast to Nazi eugenics, Raël insists that modern genetic eugenics "will allow us to improve the human race as a whole, irrespective of race, ethnicity or religion".
In a speech to the US Congress last year, Raël warned politicians not to ban the controversial science. "You will be responsible for the delay and the deaths and suffering it will create," he said, adding menacingly: "This death and suffering could be yours, too, since lawmakers are not immune to sudden diseases, or those of your own children or grandchildren."
When he founded Clonaid in February 1997, Raël garnered massive publicity. But before long he was forced to concede that the company's headquarters in the Bahamas did not exist. ("It was just a PO box," he said. "There was nothing.") In 2000 he handed the company over to Brigitte Boisselier, a French Raelian "bishop" unqualified in embryology and genetics.
An American couple paid Clonaid several hundred thousand dollars to clone their dead ten-month-old son. Boisselier got as far as setting up a lab in a classroom in West Virginia before federal agents arrived. Earlier this year she announced that Clonaid had set up a lab "in a country where cloning is not illegal."
In less than nine months we will know whether Clonaid has created history in South Korea. Mainstream scientists fear that even if a cloned baby is born it may be grotesquely malformed. For the Raelians, this is a price worth paying for progress. "I think it wonderful that a baby will be born from a clone," enthuses Glenn Carter. "I can only think of good things that will come of it."