Valcourt, Quebec -- Soon nano-robots will make salads and steaks from thin air. Artificial intelligence will end the need for money and labor. People will live long for love and pleasure. And humans will become immortal, cloning themselves and downloading their memories and personalities into hard drives, then into brand-new cloned teen bodies.
This is the prophecy of a man, the Prophet Rael, who is sitting draped in pure white in a cinder-block building in a compound called UFOland. As strange as it may seem, UFOland is not that far removed from reality, a two-hour drive from the bustling, worldly city of Montreal, 1 ½ hours if you know where you are going. Sometimes it takes people four hours. Sometimes they never make it.
Plain wooden signs greet those who do. The word "UFOland" is painted green, the green of Jell-O, the green of lab matter, the green of otherworldliness. After passing along a snow-covered dirt road, beyond a sign that promises "The Messiah is alive amongst us," past a gatekeeper in a leather hood, and through the concrete building into a yellow room down the hall from a spaceship, a seeker has come for the truth.
Where is Baby Eve? Who is this 56-year-old man who has the world's scientific and religious communities on edge, debating the morality of re-creating people in labs? Last month one of his followers claimed to have produced the first human clone, a baby girl called Eve born Dec. 26 who is supposedly an exact genetic replica of her mother. That announcement was followed by another, that a second clone had been born. The group has said three more cloned babies will be delivered soon. They have offered no evidence. Still the world awaits; some believe it is possible. If not now, when? If not the Raelians, who?
Rael, formerly Claude Vorilhon, formerly a French journalist and race car driver and now leader of the Raelians, the group that believes life on Earth was created by aliens who visited to share intelligence with humans they made - says the revolution toward immortality is only beginning.
In the yellow room, the seeker waits for the coming of Rael. A bishop with a long salt-and-pepper beard and dressed in white waits, too. Light shines through the glass patio doors. There is a hibiscus that hasn't flowered, and three chairs and a table have been placed on the wood floor for conversation.
But before the seeker can speak to Rael, the seeker is presented with paperwork. One form warns that Vorilhon must be addressed as "His Holiness Rael." Another discounts previous media accounts that have ridiculed the way he dresses, pointing out that nobody ridicules the pope's pointed hats or robes. And the form asks: Why is it so hard to believe that Rael has spoken with aliens? What makes more sense, the form asks, that humans are products of scientific DNA cloning or that Jesus was born to a woman who was a virgin?
As the clock strikes 3 p.m., His Holiness Rael walks promptly and quietly into the room. He is not a large man. He is wearing a futuristic white satin suit, matching white pants and shoes and a silver medallion. His dark hair is pulled back in a knot and he offers a peaceful greeting. He takes his place upon a plastic lawn chair covered by pillows and a sheet and across the table from a bottle of water and a folded card advertising his Web site, then sets forth in a very even tone on a quest to answer the questions of the universe. His eyes twinkle when he speaks. A gentleness emanates from him, and you are not sure what his reality is when he describes his encounter with four-foot space aliens called Elohim. He does not pause to look for reactions of incredulity.
"It was 1973," he recalls. "I was a journalist in France. I was on my way to my office at about 9 a.m. I felt pushed to go with my car to a volcano about 10 kilometers from the city. I left my car and went by the foot of a crater, then I saw in the sky a very shiny, flashing light. And a craft you saw on the Web site appeared. Then one of the Elohim came out and that was the beginning."
While Rael tells his story, four men, three dressed in pure white from head to foot, seem to be guarding him, focusing on the needs of the man sitting in a plastic lawn chair covered by pillows and a sheet. When this man sneezes once, all four men jump immediately for the same box of tissues.
He sneezes - four men jump!
The Elohim had long dark hair and olive skin and "exuded harmony and humor." They told Rael, he says, that they were the ones who made life on Earth, that humans were created from DNA by "scientifically advanced people who made human beings literally in their image." This first encounter, Rael is saying, lasted about one hour.
"There was a second encounter in 1975, two years later." He was taken to "the Planet of Eternal Life, where I saw the prophets and human beings who had been cloned after death, like Jesus, Moses, Buddha, Muhammad." Rael says those prophets are still alive on that planet.
The spaceship that took him there was 22 feet in diameter and 8 feet tall. An exact replica is hanging down the hall in a two-story room painted midnight black with silver stars splattered on the ceiling in the swirl of a far-away galaxy. A giant model of a DNA molecule twirls, casting shadows and making the room seem inhabited by creatures one cannot see.
Rael says that inside the spaceship he felt secure. Natural light poured in. Once Rael was seated inside, "the being touched a spot on the wall and the saucer became transparent except for the top and the bottom. Their technology is 25,000 years more advanced than ours and uses waves faster than light to travel. The craft is probably controlled by the mind of the pilot."
Rael says the Elohim gave him a message to destroy the "myth of God."
He said they told him: "We were the ones who made all life on Earth. You mistook us for gods." They say humans are now mature enough to understand cloning, and should build an official "embassy" near Jerusalem, near the Garden of Eden, where they say the first humans were cloned and where the Elohim could return and contact us again.
Rael says he is here to inform, not to convince. He says he was born in Vichy, France, reared by a Catholic mother, but he was never baptized. Rael says his mother's name was Mary. Mary "like Virgin Mary, but she was not a virgin." He says his father was one of the Elohim.
Rael says the Elohim created synthetic life as easily as the Bible says God created man from a handful of dirt. "There is no God in the Bible. . . . Elohim was wrongly translated into the word God. What does it mean? In Hebrew, 'those who came from the sky.' "
The seeker thinks of other references to people who have come out of the sky in different religions. Some faiths believe that when a person dies, his consciousness goes to the spirit world. And the preacher back home talked of an angel descending from Heaven holding a key to a bottomless pit to lock up Satan for a thousand years. This being in the Book of Revelation, where there is also mention of false prophets.
The seeker begins to ask another question, but one of the four men - the bishop, seated behind the seeker - interrupts to remind the seeker to please address the man as "His Holiness Rael."
His Holiness Rael continues his tale of creationism and science wedded with religion. The armholes of his vestlike smock are padded, and look a little like wings. As he talks, "Twilight Zone" episodes come to mind.
Soon, Rael - His Holiness Rael - is saying, there will be no need to make baby clones because technology will advance to such a degree that within minutes a person will be able to clone a teen version of himself. "They will immediately become the equivalent of between 15 to 17 years old," he says.
The seeker is thinking, why would anyone want to be 50 in a 17-year-old body? Then again, why not?
In his book "Yes to Human Cloning," Rael explains, "I saw the Elohim insert a cell taken from my forehead into a huge aquarium-like machine . . . then watched a perfect copy of myself grow in just a few seconds."
These teen clones will only be physical copies - "like computer hardware or virgin cassettes, they have no memory or personality." But soon, he promises, humans will be able to download their memories and personalities into them. "And so we could continue to exist and communicate with our environment indefinitely in a computer after our physical body dies, especially if this computer is fitted with sensors such as cameras and microphones."
The seeker is now thinking that these ideas are fascinatingly out - there, and now and again they sound like the preacher back home who spoke of eternal life and how humans are created in the Creator's image. Of course, in those sermons, nobody talked about downloading personality and zapping steaks out of thin air.
Technology, Rael says, will shock the world. "When you say 'lettuce,' this machine with raw chemicals will synthesize lettuce for a nice salad. And if you say 'beefsteak,' this machine will make for you a beefsteak."
The seeker is trying to understand in the same way the seeker tried to understand first-year physics.
His Holiness Rael is assuring that all matter is generally made of the same building blocks, and nano-robots will rearrange them so that a steak and salad can come out of the same machine. "And we are very close to this technology," he is saying. "It will destroy farming. Soon it will not be necessary to work anymore." And the seeker sees why this man has attracted so many followers.
He says there are 60,000 of them in 84 countries. Many members, he says, discover the group through the Internet, at www.rael.org. They are not accepted until they read Rael's first book, "The Message Given by Extra-Terrestrials." Then they receive a Raelian baptism, in which a Raelian priest puts his hands in water and cleanses the new member. The group is nonprofit, he says, and no member gets paid a salary. And there is no commune - the members live among us. For instance, one of the men in the room is a bartender, another a composer, another a scientist.
The members, Rael says, will be able to have adult or baby clones of themselves made, but they cannot do both. Neither the bartender nor the composer wants a baby clone of himself as of now. What they want is eternal life. "I have a lot to do on Earth," the composer explains later. "Life is too short. I have a lot of music to create."
It occurs to the seeker that Rael is combining science and religion but leaving out the hard parts, like sin.
Not so, says Rael. "We are for happiness," but against drugs, tobacco, coffee and alcohol because these substances can damage the genetic coding, which would damage the creation of Elohim." Except he, who is French, says a glass of wine occasionally is fine.
The only thing this group is fanatical about is nonviolence, he says. Rael wonders why so much attention was paid to the birth of a clone when a war that might kill thousands is planned.
The Raelians celebrate marriage with big parties and they celebrate divorces with big parties. It is okay to be married a day, a week or a year. Extramarital affairs are okay. And there are gay Raelians and transsexual Raelians.
There is no necessity to rise early on Sunday mornings because Raelian meetings take place only once or twice a year, and those are really seminars at which people are free to mingle. "We are for freedom of people," Rael says. "We think nobody should interfere with sexual life." At the seminars, people wear colored bracelets. "If you want to be alone, there is one color. If you are a couple, there is one color, if you want in contact with another there is another color."
And he goes on. But the seeker is still stuck on salad and steak coming out of the same thin air. And where is Baby Eve?
He doesn't know. "I don't know where and I don't know with what person," His Holiness says. "I don't know the family. I don't know where is the laboratory. I don't know the scientists. I know absolutely nothing. I just learned like everybody else, when she announced the birth of the child."
"She" would be Brigitte Boisselier, a Raelian bishop who is a chemist and president of Clonaid, the cloning company that Rael founded five years ago (getting the idea after Dolly, the sheep, was cloned). He says he sold the company, which he called no more than a "pillbox" with a name and a Web site for people intrigued by the idea of cloning. He says it was set up in the Bahamas (but Rael says he never visited the Bahamas). Because of pressure from the government, he sold it. He flat-out denies any connection between the Raelians and Clonaid and actual cloning. "I know no more than you," he insists.
But he adds: "Of course I support the idea. I wrote a book in favor of cloning."
And a year and a half after the company was created, he says, it had "a waiting list of 1,000 people who want to clone a child. We have many scientists who have contacted us. We have investors who have contacted us, saying, 'We can do it. Can I do it? May I do it?'
"I say, of course." But he says there were conditions. "First of all, no help from the Raelian movement. Do it on your own. Create a company and I don't have to know what you do. Number two: If you do it, do it well. Don't create a handicapped child. Create a healthy baby or nothing. And that was the beginning."
Rael says the only help the Raelians provided the cloning operation was female members, which gave Boisselier an advantage over other scientists in the race to make a clone. But says he supports the idea of not submitting the baby for a DNA test.
"They were supposed to do it, but this attorney in Florida started this process to have the child placed in guardian custody, ripped away from the mother," Rael says. "Instantly, when I thought about that I contacted Dr. Boisselier. I thought, as the spiritual leader, in order to protect your credibility and your company, will you accept that the baby will be ripped away from the mother? In my opinion . . . it is better to lose your credibility than to have the baby ripped away from the mother. . . . You have to choose between science and love, and love is more important."