Do you believe that civilisation began with the help of visiting aliens? And that these visitors will one day return to see how we're progressing? No, I don't either. Or I didn't until I sat down and talked it all through with the drily humorous and decidedly non-cranky Robert Temple - an exiled American who divides his time between London, Somerset and - at any rate in his head - star systems millions of light years away.

I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, "Hang on. Don't give me that pre-millennial inter-galactic life-force stuff. Even The X-Files is passe now, you know." Well, maybe. But not even the harshest sceptic could deny that Temple's latest contribution to the somewhat maligned literary genre of popular science is at least a digestible and entertaining read, even as it grapples with advanced maths and delves into astronomy and the ruins of ancient history with a quite dazzling display of scholarship.

The Sirius Mystery, to be published by Century on 15 January, is an extensive update of Temple's best-selling 1976 original, which can be said to have helped launch the boom in "alien" studies. Temple believes aliens visited the earth around 3,500 BC. The "proof" lies in the folklore of an African tribe, which contains knowledge of the Sirius star system of such detailed accuracy that it can only have been passed on to them by inhabitants of the system. Scientific findings since 1976 bear out the theory further. "What I've tried to do is write a serious book that explores only the existing hard evidence," Temple says. "People might not like it, but I think the burden is now on them to disprove it."

Uncovering secrets seems to have been a lifelong forte. As a boy growing up in Kentucky, Temple, who is now 52, knew the original Colonel Sanders - of fried chicken fame - and persuaded him to divulge the key ingredients. "It turned out that the crucial thing was dipping the chicken in milk first. That and the 13 different herbs he used."

This was an early example of Temple's extraordinary capacity for absorbing information. As an expert on China - and it's his status as a respected academic that adds credibility to his Sirius book - Temple read, without taking notes, no fewer than 8.5 million words' worth of research by the scholar Joseph Needham before distilling it all into his book The Genius of China. Indeed, the implications of Chinese development - economically and culturally - concern him much more than little green men.

"Nobody seems to be coming to terms with what this means," Temple says. "We're talking monumental change. We need a bridge between Western and Chinese cultures. To the West it's almost as if the Chinese were as strange as aliens."

Futurology has surely never sounded so respectable or persuasive. Aliens will return to earth only when advances in space travel enable man to put himself in touch with them, Temple says. He doesn't think the aliens will be hostile - "Why should they be when they've made an ivestment in Earth?" - but that hostility comes from us. Specifically from the religious fundamentalists for whom such explanations of our origins are most threatening.

So does Robert Temple believe in God? "I believe in divine levels of existence. I wouldn't want to have to come up with a definition of God. But I'm no atheist."

And if The Sirius Mystery doesn't sound like your kind of thing, you could always try the first ever collection in English of the complete Aesop's Fables, to be published by Penguin two weeks later. Translator: Robert Temple (with his wife Olivia).

Ever felt your brain was a bit small?

MY invitation to readers to nominate the six most memorable images of the century has produced a fascinating and diverse response. Keep them coming, and I'll publish the results in a fortnight. Send your list to: Six, Rex Fontaine, the Independent on Sunday, One Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL. Bottles of champagne go to three readers whose entries are drawn out of the hat.

A Bare of very little fame

ASK Mark Redhead what he thinks of the success of The Full Monty and you'll hear nothing but apparently heartfelt delight and approval. Which must make him the most magnanimous man in television.

Exactly two years ago - over a year and a half before The Full Monty hit the cinema screen - Redhead produced an hour-long television drama for ITV called The Bare Necessities. In it, a group of blokes had just lost their jobs. Then they discovered that they had a future as a striptease act. It was funny and touching. The setting was south Yorkshire. In fact just about the only thing that was different about The Full Monty - at least in terms of plot - was that in The Bare Necessities, written by Ken Blakeson, the men were ex-miners, not ex-steel workers. In spite of this, Redhead is happy to say "good luck" to all those involved in the most successful British cinema release of all time.

"I suppose my one regret is that The Bare Necessities wasn't made as a series. Then I think it would have had more impact. As it was, the duty officer at Granada told me she took more calls from people saying how much they'd enjoyed it than she ever did even for Cracker or Prime Suspect." Small comfort perhaps, and someone at ITV did at least see fit to give The Bare Necessities a repeat over Christmas, even if, as Redhead says, it passed almost unnoticed amid the morass of Yuletide TV. But no comfort at all in the fact that Peter Cattaneo, director of The Full Monty, was originally in the running to direct The Bare Necessities ...