Wednesday, December 2, 2009

My Fictional Autobiography (part 3): The Alien Years.

I recall writing to Arthur Shuttlewood in the 1980s. He was a one time journalist who became a kind of UFO guru. He had written several books about his home town’s relationship with UFOs, starting with The Warminster Mystery. Over many years Shuttlewood claimed that Warminster in southern England was an important hot spot for UFO activity.
I had been fascinated by UFO stories since the mid 1960s when England became the focus of a UFO “flap”. As an 8 or 9 year old during the time of the space race, the idea of alien visitation inspired a lot of excitement. I read many books from that time onwards including a few of Shuttlewood’s. Since I came across this topic at such an early age I can’t blame myself for maintaining a degree of gullibility for many years after. I lapped up the wildest claims with barely a degree of scepticism and a lot of my reading leaned towards things unexplained.

There was a strange tension in my life from trying to live with contradictory beliefs. In the late 70s I became a Christian, and yet I still tried to hold onto the interest in visiting aliens. To some extent I was able to do this by redefining the UFO phenomenon, moving from aliens visiting earth to an understanding that the whole thing was a demonic delusion. This view was not merely an idea permeating fundamentalist circles; some of the most popular and respected UFO writers were saying the same thing. The most well known that come to mind were John Keel (Operation Trojan Horse) and Jacques Vallee (Passport to Magonia). While these writers did not necessarily hold to the Christian interpretation of “demonic”, they raised the possibility that entities that had once been viewed as “demons” in some cultures were now being interpreted in terms applicable to the space age. Vallee saw the possibility that they were “Inter-dimensional” rather than Extra-terrestrial.

The 1980s was a boom-time for UFO books, aided by some highly questionable TV specials claiming Government collusion with extra terrestrials. I recall one that featured interviews with alleged CIA agents who described interaction with a captive alien (or “gray” as they came to be known). One of the major revelations provided was the flavour of ice-cream the entity preferred.

Books that were part of this trend included Above Top Secret by Tim Good and Communion by horror writer Whitley Strieber. The latter describing Strieber’s claimed abduction by “the visitors” was followed by several sequels such as Transformation and Breakthrough: the next Step. Strieber was another UFO writer who noted the similarities between his “visitors” and the demons of various religious traditions but his later books became more and more esoteric in content, making him seem more like a mystical guru than a serious contributor to UFO literature.

It was in the 90s that I woke up to my gullibility thanks to books by Jim Schnabel. Round in Circles examined the crop circle craze and Dark White looked at alien abductions. Rather than follow the tried and (not so) true path of examining countless witness reports, Schnabel turned the spotlight on the investigators who were presenting their own interpretation of the reports to the public. In my view he well and truly blew these phenomena apart, showing how much the investigators projected THEIR desires and expectations onto the evidence they claimed to have.

While the books and authors mentioned above would be classified as non-fiction, the borders between fact and fiction were clearly blurred by a lot of wishful thinking (both on the writer’s part and more significantly mine).

Hollywood returned to the UFO/Alien visitor arena starting with Spielberg’s Close Encounter’s of the Third Kind (in the 1970s) and later with his more popular ET.
Joe Dante’s Explorers starred very young River Phoenix and Ethan Hawke, while Cocoon directed by Ron Howard made an Oscar winner out of one of its aging stars (Don Ameche).

Starman one of John Carpenter’s less gruesome films was (like ET) part of the “alien as benign but threatened visitor” genre that contrasted significantly with the hostile aliens portrayed in many 50s SF films, when Hollywood had previously exploited an interest in things alien.

Some of the most popular films were converted into “novelisations”, of which I only recall reading Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I also owned the book version of Explorers but I don’t remember reading it.

Away from Hollywood’s exploitative inspiration, John Wyndham’s novels were favourites for a while, some of which had tenuous links to UFOs and/or alien visitors. The most significant being The Midwich Cuckoos, a story about a village that was temporarily cut off from the world by a mysterious force field (an idea that Stephen King has also used in his recent novel Under the Dome). In Wyndham’s book the temporary isolation is lifted and the entire female population of childbearing age are found to be pregnant. The story has been twice filmed under the name Village of the Damned. (Did I say I had moved away from Hollywood’s exploitation of the genre? Clearly that is not possible!)

One of the earlier and most well-known novels about alien visitors cannot be ignored. War of the Worlds has inspired films, radio plays and a musical extravaganza, and it was the latter that most closely followed H G Wells book. I read Wells’ novel many years ago and it’s one that I intend to read again when time and discipline permit. It is one of those science fiction stories that has taken on iconic status. A popular SF writer also wrote a sequel. Christopher Priest’s The Space Machine takes elements of War of the Worlds and another Wells novel The Time Machine and creates a story from a mix of the two ideas.

Perhaps the most cerebral book dealing with UFOs that I’ve read was Ian Watson’s Miracle Visitors, which dealt with the psychological nature of UFO encounters and gave a very ambiguous view of them. The cerebral approach to alien intelligence was also taken in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey created with Arthur C Clarke. I later read Clarke’s novel to see whether it would help me make sense of the film (which it did). In this story an alien presence has been alongside mankind from the very beginning of man’s development, following his progress and leaving clues of their existence that mankind will find at various stages of his technological journey.

Clarke was one of the most well known and admired science fiction writers and created various differing scenarios in which mankind came into contact with alien civilisations. Apart from 2001, the most memorable to me were Childhood’s End – which from memory gave an interesting spin to the alien as demon concept; and Rendezvous With Rama, a story dealing with the exploration and examination of a massive alien craft passing through our solar system. Rama was followed by a series of sequels.

I have only touched the surface of the ways in which human-alien contact has been explored in both fiction and “non fiction”, and all of it refers to aliens visiting US. There is probably far more about man visiting alien worlds stretching from early stories of men visiting the moon, through to Star Trek TV shows and movies and their various spin offs and imitations. The possibilities for stories about alien contact of various types are potentially limitless.

And here, on that cliched note, ends the latest part of my "fictional autobiography".

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