UFOs and Science Fiction

Mac Tonnies @ 19-11-2008

Mac Tonnies - Loving the AlienLoving 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.

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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.”

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MacMugshot 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]

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21 Responses to “UFOs and Science Fiction”

  1. GLP says:

    Interesting post. I suppose the separation between UFOlogy and Science Fiction may have been caused in part by each side perceiving that association with the other might weaken their credibility. There is a negative perception by some sections of the general public that Sci-fi is all “flying saucers and ray guns” (due in part to camp 1950s movies) and SF authors have understandably been keen to distance themselves from that stereotype. Conversely, I can see how a UFOlogist would be keen to distance his claims from association with a genre of literature that tends not to be taken entirely seriously by the wider world.

    I had a bash at writing a UFO story for my recent short story collection. The story is available online here: http://www.aphelion-webzine.com/shorts/2007/12/TheRedoubt.html

  2. Nathan E. Lilly says:

    I’m surprised that you didn’t mention the gran’daddy of UFO/Science Fiction: the works of Richard Sharpe Shaver published in Amazing actually had a hand in the UFO craze of the ’40s. One could argue that it was this Palmer/Shaver affair that put SF writers off of the concept.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Sharpe_Shaver

  3. Ian Sales says:

    Problem is, the bulk of UFO novels – with the exception of the Shirley – are pretty bad. Majestic is awful; and reading Harbinson’s Projekt Saucer [sic] quintet is a real slog… Plus, there’s also the possibility the author will get sued by some litigious “ufologist”. Or their fictional treatment could enter UFO mythology and morph into “fact”…

  4. Tom Marcinko says:

    One of Robert Reed’s novels dealt with UFO researchers as a starting point. I’m blanking out on the title, and Amazon.com is giving me Brady Bunch items as search results.

    Scott Spencer’s 1995 novel Men in Black (no connection to the movie or comic) was pretty good, but if memory serves it dealt with UFO sightings as a social/cult phenom rather than anything real.

    Point well taken, though. Usually the idea of saucers is played for laughs in print, as in Good News from Outer Space by John Kessel.

  5. 0uterj0in says:

    Internet? Fanfic? Can a cultural phenomenon only be talked about in terms of mass media?

  6. Tom Marcinko says:

    I’m sure there’s more to it than mass media (leaving aside the question of how “mass” the written word in science fiction actually is).

    FWIW, I remember quite a body of nonfiction literature on UFOs from the mid-60s, and I devoured magazines like Flying Saucers/UFO Report along with 2001, Childhood’s End, and every episode and paperback adaptation of the original Star Trek. Both of them seemed to speak to the part of me (us?) that hoped wiser aliens might show up to save us. (I don’t think I ever noticed how Flying Saucer/UFO Report seems to want to have the authoritative rhythm of US News & World Report)

    Close Encounters seems to be about the last gasp of that hope, when the aliens started poking us with rectal probes. Who wants to believe in aliens like that?

    How about music? The Byrds’ “Mr. Spaceman” comes to mind, but I’ll bet we could put together a great playlist. “Have You Seen the Saucers?” by Jefferson Airplane…

  7. intense says:

    On an odd note of serendipity, I once attended a MUFON presentation in San Francisco hosted by John Shirley many years ago, where Dr. Robert Wood and his son Ryan Wood talked about their research and “authentication procedures” regarding the infamous, and as most now acknowledge, bogus MJ-12 papers, and at which Joe Firmage was also present and spoke briefly. Odd, I say, because Johnny Rotten (John Lydon of the Sex Pistols) was also there, and hanging out with Shirley. It was definitely a weird meeting, for various reasons.

    Shirley later wrote a column about it:
    http://tinyurl.com/6fdllv

  8. Rudy Rucker says:

    Nice article, Mac. I too have often wondered why there aren’t more UFO SF novels. One modern classic you forgot to mention is Ian Watson, MIRACLE VISITORS. (There are, of course, quite a few aliens-invade-earth SF novels, and the aliens do sometimes arrive in UFOs, but I guess these don’t really fall into the category you’re thinking of.)

  9. Henry says:

    Man, thanks for writing this post. I’ve been desperate for some UFO fiction, while writing my own attempt at the Great American UFO Novel. UFO fiction is usually just painfully bad. Just read 25 pages of “The Archangels of Dreamland” which I had to put down. Read a novel called “Alien Log” which should tell you everything. Even genius Vallee has written a terrible novel, Fastwalker. I think Streiber’s novels fall into the same category. Still waiting for Valis meets UFO fiction.

  10. John F. says:

    I’m almost done with Neil Stephenson’s Anathem, and it is a quintessential literary UFO story; albeit in another cosmos higher up the causality chain from us.

    So far, great story along with thought-provoking philosophy.

  11. Tom Marcinko says:

    And just for the sake of completeness, let’s not forget that every other documentary on the History Channel is about UFOs.

  12. Russ M. says:

    I am a frequent attendee at literary SF conventions, and I’ve found that
    SF fans are even more sceptical of the UFO subject than even the
    general public. This is frustrating when I try to strike up a serious
    UFOlogical conversation and get ridiculed. I’ve almost given up. Since
    SF writers try to be more serious and professional than the fans are,
    I wouldn’t look for this situation to change anytime soon.

  13. Tara says:

    I can think of two good short stories in the ufo/aliens/abduction genre.
    “The Womb” by Australian writer Damien Broderick, and “Music Lessons” by Douglas Lain. Both excellent stories in my opinion.

  14. Julian Morrison says:

    I think UFOs and SF don’t get on so well, because SF is ultimately about the universe as understandable, and UFOs are an attempt to cling to romanticism. They’re modern versions of the Greek gods, reflecting our culture’s id.

  15. Mac Tonnies says:

    I think UFOs and SF don’t get on so well, because SF is ultimately about the universe as understandable, and UFOs are an attempt to cling to romanticism.

    Are you seriously proposing that science fiction isn’t tinged with the romantic? 🙂

  16. linus r. says:

    UFO’s and classic comics really go well together…. the obscure “UFO Encounters”, “UFO Flying Saucers” and “Flying Saucers Comics” really “captured” the imagination…. and UFO’s in comics have always been somewhat rare for some strange reason….

  17. alex poray says:

    Check out “LEVEL ABOVE HUMAN” it’s a comic book about a hoax alien invasion.
    It’s free to read at http://www.myebook.com

  18. yeremenko says:

    I have always thought UFOs were a reality since the sighting of thousands of flying lights off the coast of Portugal when I was a kid. Front page news then. Now Nexus and other websites such as this one spark my interest.
    I love science fiction writing and think it is a great mind expanding genre. I am a humanitarian but agree with the concept of therio primitivism for humans and their interaction with other species. I have tried to use it as a motive in my own fiction writing. I have tried to show the fundamental horrors of not being ontop of the food chain in my novel called Doom Of The Shem.
    Doom Of The Shem is a science fiction novel that incorporates the horror of military action with the unavoidable hostilities that occur when an alien species invades a planet in search of food. The barbarity of war is brought to light by the work achieved by the nurses and medical personnel of the planets inhabitants. While a full blown military action story emerges from an ensuing war that involves the whole planet. It is especially centered on a squad of the planets army forces, who fight the alien invaders. These nasties try to subjugate captured species my genetic manipulation such as in Dr Moreau, and use these creatures to run fast food outlets across their empire, giving out a free plastic toy with every sale of a Happy Hatchling Brain Burger.
    doomoftheshem.blogspot.com

  19. P. Fitzpatrick says:

    I think it was John Campbell who insisted that humans always defeat aliens in his story. UFO’s may not be common in written SF, but aliens sure are. 2001: A Space Odyssey’s enigmatic denouement was all about the aliens, though certainly more along your “ontological buffers” line of thinking, and certainly productive of “neurological restraints” in many a stunned viewer. But that Jupiter sequence is unbelievably beautiful on a big screen. I think this is what is missing in current UFO fiction – the beauty of transgressing the Speed O’ Light, that bugaboo to space travel which makes so much of space opera problematic. If UFO’s are spaceships, interplanetary travel becomes feasible, and the fictional universe opens up considerably. I do have great nostalgia for the older SF works that embraced aliens and UFO’s so readily.

  20. Steve Fellick says:

    As it seems novels about UFOs are quite rare, and you may be interested in seeing a new one, I thought you might be interested to know I have just written one.

    It’s called ‘A Strange Encounter’ and is set in the UK in 1991.

    I think it may be quite close to what would really happen if a couple of UFOs turned up over the UK and were then identified by the military as being the real thing. Real alien spacecraft.

    If you give it a go I hope you enjoy it.

    Cheers,

    Steve Fellick

  21. HARSHINI says:

    One of Robert Reed’s novels dealt with UFO researchers as a starting point. I’m blanking out on the title, and Amazon.com is giving me Brady Bunch items as search results.

    Scott Spencer’s 1995 novel Men in Black (no connection to the movie or comic) was pretty good, but if memory serves it dealt with UFO sightings as a social/cult phenom rather than anything real.