In the 1960s and early 1970s, my family's summer holiday was invariably a week in my mother's home town, Bognor Regis, on the south coast of England, where we stayed at my great-aunt's traditional seaside boarding house. When I reached my teens, the usual attractions of the beach and pier, the small zoo and boating lake, silly golf and slot machine arcades, had begun to pall. In an especially wet August in 1970, mostly trapped indoors and having read the books I'd brought with me, I joined Bognor Regis library and discovered that although its science fiction selection was disappointingly sparse, it had a solid two-shelf collection of UFO books (it also had one of the country's first computerised borrowing systems, with slotted plastic machine-readable tickets). And so, on that rainy holiday, I read my way through the lot.
There was a certain hypnotic fascination in their painstaking, trainspotterish taxonomy of UFO sightings, renderings of encounters with aliens in dull prose clogged with cliches and opaque details that failed to evoke any sense of wonder, and lengthy disquisitions on the fortune-cookie wisdom imparted to the chosen few by beings supposedly wise beyond human understanding. I once interviewed the physicist and author John Barrow, who told me that a common factor of the crank mail he received was that its authors attempted to develop a theory of everything using only schoolbook algebra. Similarly, the authors of those UFO books attempted to reduce the uncaring vastness of the cosmos to a human scale, with narratives in achingly ordinary people were chosen by aliens for revelation or experimentation, and their mundane lives were given as much weight as the descriptions of the aliens and their craft, and medical procedures somewhat less unpleasant than the real thing.
This strain of UFOlogy still persists in corners of the internet where sightings are recorded alongside images of Martian rocks that, because they look a bit like guns or coins or statues of human figures, must actually be guns, coins etc. But the cultural phenomenon of UFOs has not only diminished but mutated into something much less cozy. Stephen Spielberg captured that change in two films, Close Encounters of the Third Kind
and ET: The Extraterrestrial
, in which alien intrusions into skilfully rendered domesticity are far less threatening than ruthless government agencies bent on preventing the general population from discovering the truth. Since then, UFOs have become associated with suicide cults like Heaven's Gate or the Order of the Solar Temple, and absorbed into the hot stew of millennial, mostly right-wing paranoia which aggressively promotes the belief that almost every aspect of modern life has been infiltrated by government conspiracies invisible to all but the chosen.
In its first incarnation, The X-Files
embodied a version of that paranoia, suggesting that a quisling government was conspiring with hostile aliens bent on invading and colonising Earth. The new series, though, suggests that the aliens actually came in peace, and were traduced by a global conspiracy of 'über-violent ultra-fascists' planning to use stolen alien technology to mount an attack on democracy in general and America in particular. That the aliens are as much victims of a conspiracy as the rest of us is, I suppose, a slight improvement. A hopeful readjustment of the reputation of extraterrestrial intelligence. But I still miss the naive hopefulness of those old UFO books, back when aliens came here only to help.