Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Bognor Regis, Flying Saucers and Me

Beyond the Burn Line is, in part, a kind of First Contact story that's set in the aftermath of the Anthropocene and employs tropes from the UFO literature of the last half of the twentieth century. How did I, somewhat unwillingly labelled a 'hard' science fiction writer (that is, someone whose fictions find various uses for actual science), get involved with that flying saucer stuff? We have to go a long way back. The third quadrant of the twentieth century to be precise. The groovy late 1960s, in not-so-groovy Gloucestershire.

I was a bookish child, hooked on science fiction from an early age. My family was pretty poor, I couldn't afford to buy many new books and there were no secondhand bookshops in my little town, so my main sources of supply were libraries, church sales and Woolworths' trays of cheap American paperbacks. Allegedly shipped across the Atlantic as ballast, there were a scattering of science fiction novels and story collections amongst the florid romances and remaindered copies of Thrilling Detective Stories. I still have a few of them -- John Jake's Asylum World, Clifford Simak's All the Traps of Earth and other stories, Theodore Sturgeon's A Way Home -- but most were lost to moves and years of strategic winnowing, including the only non-fiction title I bought, back then. A slim paperback by George Adamski: Inside the Flying Saucers. I was expecting some kind of gee-whizz space adventure; instead there was a plodding linear narrative interspersed with tedious lectures and steeped in a stifling sense of virtuous self-importance. Even at age 12 or 13 I wasn't much impressed, and that was it, for me and flying saucers, until the summer of 1970.

We were poor, but an aunt owned a boarding house in the south-coast town of Bognor Regis, where my mother's family came from, and that's where we went on holiday for a fortnight every other year. It was, and still is, a somewhat low-rent resort, but there was a park with a boating lake, a miniature railway and a small zoo, and a long promenade with a theatre, a pier and miles of sandy beaches from which, on clear days, the misty coast of France could be glimpsed at the horizon. As far as we were concerned, not knowing any better, it was a kind of paradise.

But in August 1970 the weather for the first week of our holiday was wet and windy, and my sister, my brother and I mostly stayed indoors. In one of the sea-front cafes, in the pier's penny arcade (with its mechanical depictions of a haunted house and a hanging, and the head and torso of a sailor that, for a penny in its slot, would roll its eyes and laugh so horrendously and relentlessly that we'd shriek and flee after triggering it), or in my aunt's cosy kitchen, where my great-grandfather was a benign presence beside the cast-iron grate and we sat at a table covered with green oilcloth, listlessly fiddling with jigsaw puzzles, squabbling and listening to my sister's transistor radio. She was into pop music far more than I was, back then, but I remember one song that came around frequently, that August: Joni Mitchell's 'Big Yellow Taxi'. You know, the one about paving paradise to put up parking lots, visiting trees in a tree museum, and saving the birds and bees from DDT. A perfect miniature anthem that fused environmental and personal loss in two minutes fifteen seconds. Meanwhile, the rain didn't stop, and after I exhausted the handful of books I'd brought with me, emergency measures were required: I persuaded my aunt to help me join the local library.

It was in a modern brick-and-glass building a few streets away from my aunt's boarding house, and one of the first libraries in the UK to install an electronic ticketing system, which meant that you checked out books yourself, rather than having them approved and stamped by a librarian. I'd already read most of the books in the science fiction section, but there was a short shelf of UFOlogy literature nearby, and perhaps prompted by that purchase in Woolworths a few years before I borrowed several likely looking volumes.

During the rest of the fortnight I read my way through that shelf, five books at a time, even when the rain stopped and the sun reappeared, just in time for the opening of the third and last Isle of White festival -- it was just a few dozen miles west of Bognor, but as far as we were concerned it might as well have been on Mars. Amongst others, it featured the Who, the Doors, Miles Davis, Joan Baez, Sly and the Family Stone, Jimmy Hendrix (one of his last shows; he died of a barbiturate overdose a few weeks later) and Joni Mitchell, who was given an especially hard time by a bellicose crowd which had swelled to over 600,000 after French anarchists and other mutineers tore down the security fencing. At the end of our holiday, the coach to London, where we'd change to another coach that would take us back to Gloucestershire, made an unexpected stop, and a band of what looked like yetis recently returned from the trenches of the First World War clambered aboard. There was an empty seat next to me, and as these revenants shambled down the aisle I sent up a prayer to the cosmic overlords that none of them would sit next to me. But one inevitably did, wearing a damp Afghan coat whose damp, uncured goatskin smelled exactly as you'd expect, and that was as close as I ever got to the summer of love.

I don't remember much about those UFO books now. Apart from a few which attempted to give impartial overviews of the phenomenon, most were, like Adamski's book, eccentric personal revelations of contacts, kidnappings, cosmic secrets and conspiracies to keep the truth from the public. About fifteen years later, I interviewed the physicist John Barrow for the SF magazine Interzone (several of his books, notably his collaboration with Frank Tippler, the Anthropic Cosmological Principle, informed some of my early writing), who noted that members of the green-ink brigade who sent him their Theories of Everything only ever used algebra to explain the entirety of creation. There was definitely that kind of aura about those flying saucer tracts. But they were also utopian, hopeful, imbued with a need to understand the vast otherness of the universe and deliver outlines of utopias that could solve our all too human problems. As Jack Womack puts it, in his fine survey of UFOlogy, ... Flying Saucers Are Real, they were, like science fiction, 'ways to see beyond the neighborhood.'

I mostly forgot about the books I devoured in that reading marathon, but not entirely. One of my first attempts to write a science-fiction story was about UFO sightings in an idealised Cotswold village, which didn't go anywhere because (I know now) I took the subject far too seriously. Several of my early novels, and a couple of later ones, involved encounters with aliens whose minds and motives remain teasingly enigmatic* even when (or especially when) they arrive to help us. And some fifty years after my first contact with UFOs, when it's become all too clear that we really shouldn't have paved over paradise, I finally found a way to make use of those earnest chronicles of sightings and contacts, and their odd, short-lived cults.

*Wittgenstein famously wrote 'If a lion could talk, we could not understand him.' By which he didn't mean that we couldn't understand, at a basic level, the lion's need to communicate, but because his world and ours only partially overlap we could never intuit the full range of his feelings and emotions; we couldn't grok him as we can another person. And lions have much more in common with us than aliens, which is perhaps the major fault of much UFO literature, in which Venusians and Saturnians are simply idealised versions of ourselves.

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