Loving the Alien returns after a brief hiatus, and Mac Tonnies takes the time to wonder why literary science fiction has never embraced the UFO as a conceptual alpha or omega point.
A casual onlooker might assume the anything-goes literary arena of science fiction and the often wild-eyed domain of contemporary ufology might make natural partners. But strangely (to my mind), science fiction has never gravitated to UFOs.
Conversely, those intrigued by the UFO question (“enthusiasts” and researchers alike) seem to have consciously distanced themselves from genre fiction, having seen the subject of alien visitation achieve the status of caricature among the mainstream media. But in its justified bid to be taken seriously, ufology has forsaken a potentially vital weapon — and science fiction writers, for their part, have denied themselves a warehouse of conceptual fodder.
Not that there haven’t been exceptions. John Shirley’s Silicon Embrace is a genuine genre mutant that weds cyberpunk with the UFO scene of the 1990s. Compelling and sometimes scathingly funny, Silicon Embrace nevertheless remains little-mentioned, especially among the (very) loosely knit UFO “community.” And although there’s little point attempting to distance Whitley Strieber from his UFO-related output, Majestic, his first work of fiction after penning the autobiographical Communion and Transformation, is a splendid SF novel – and arguably the best of his canon.
Some science fiction writers pursue the UFO meme for the sheer fun of it. Flying saucers make repeated appearances in Rudy Rucker’s novels (the most conspicuous being Saucer Wisdom, which masquerades as autobiography). Like Vonnegut, Rucker appears to revel in the UFO as pure idea, leaving the question of what the phenomenon might actually represent to others.
Of course, some argue that the UFO phenomenon has always been pure idea. Kevin Randle, a vocal proponent of the purported Roswell UFO crash, remains highly skeptical of abduction claims, often citing science fiction as a vehicle for cultural and psychological contamination. In his attempt to dismiss the controversial abduction of Betty and Barney Hill, for instance, Randle points out that alien imagery subconsciously derived from “The Twilight Zone” might have played a significant role in Betty’s description of her encounter with apparent saucer-pilots. (Ironically, Randle is a prolific author of futuristic military thrillers. Aside from Strieber’s Majestic, his Operation Roswell remains one of the very few fictional treatments of the now-eponymous event.)
And although John Shirley is an astute observer of fringe culture, he’s generally dismissive of the possibility that UFOs are extraterrestrial vehicles. Like psychedelic philosopher Terence McKenna, he seems to relish the role of UFOs as “epistemological cartoons”: mythic placeholders for deeper truths we stubbornly refuse to acknowledge. On the other side of the spectrum, W.A. Harbinson’s UFO thrillers (Genesis and Inception) take the phenomenon’s physical reality at face value (even if they bypass the extraterrestrial angle in favor of a more relentlessly paranoid vision).
None of this is to suggest that UFOs are mere kitsch, ripe for the literary harvest. Extraterrestrial spacecraft or something else, I’m convinced that we’re dealing with a very real phenomenon. However, I tend to think a true understanding will occur only when we take stock of our own neurological constraints; perhaps the devastating weirdness of the UFO spectacle needs our imagination in order to give voice to the inconceivable.
I predict that the Great UFO Novel still lies in science fiction’s future, when the ontological buffers still in place sixty years after the phenomenon’s modern inception become even more porous than they are already. Free to wander the byways of popular culture, the UFO may well lose some of its mystique. But in the process of becoming commodified, its “fringe” trappings will weaken, fray and ultimately vanish… and UFO will become new again.
Sound unlikely? One word: “steampunk.”
Mac Tonnies is an author/essayist whose futuristic fiction and speculative essays have appeared in many print and online publications. He’s the author of Illumined Black, a collection of science fiction short-stories, and After the Martian Apocalypse (Paraview Pocket Books, 2004). Mac maintains Posthuman Blues, a widely read blog devoted to emerging technologies and paranormal phenomena, and is a member of the Society for Planetary SETI Research. He lives in Kansas City, Missouri, where he writes, reads and surfs the Net. He is currently at work on a new book.
[Loving the Alien column header image credited to RedMonkeyVirus]