Science Fiction, Folklore, Myth, the UFO, and Ufology: a note

Commenting on my review of Gerald Heard’s The Riddle of the Saucers: Is Another World Watching? (1950), part of an on-going series “Jung’s Ufological Bookshelf”, Martin S. Kottmeyer generously provides extensive cultural context to Heard’s speculation that the flying saucers were piloted by super bees from Mars. Kottmeyer concludes:  “Heard may seem prescient, but he was part of a tradition of science and science fiction speculations that was quite orthodox within the genre he was part of” (my emphasis). This sentence is curious:  what genre does Heard’s book belong to?

The beginnings of a rigorous answer would evoke genre theory and reception theory; a prima facie materialist answer would trace the way Heard’s book was marketed and  how librarians catalogued it over the nearly seven decades since it was published.

Kottmeyer seems to group Heard’s book, one of the first on flying saucers, with a  “tradition of science and science fiction speculations,” which seems paradoxical. Science writing, even when it is popular or speculative, makes a claim to being true, while science fiction, as a kind of fiction, does not (or, more accurately, it makes a claim to an artistic truth…). However much A Brief History of Time and The Time Machine might have the same word in their titles and be science writing and science fiction, respectively, they surely belong to two different genres.

Today, and surely for some decades before, ufology is a liminal, paradoxical genre. On the one hand, it makes claims to being true, but in a way that is difficult to pin down. Some ufological volumes, e.g. Jacques Vallée’s Anatomy of a Phenomenon (1965) would make a claim to being true, in a provisional sense, in the same way any other sufficiently speculative science book might. Others, such as Desmond Leslie’s Flying Saucers Have Landed (1953) stake a different truth claim, one more akin to that of a religious work.

However much the truth claim of that paraliterature ufology is oscillates between the natural and spiritual, it can’t quite claim to belong to the same genre as, e.g., Carlo Rovelli’s Reality is Not What It Seems:  The Journey to Quantum Gravity (2017) regardless of how speculative the later chapters of Rovelli’s book might be. As many have pointed out, ufology is a pseudoscience (perhaps a genre all its own), though, as Vallée has cogently remarked, no problem is scientific in itself, only the approach to the problem can be properly called scientific.

For these reasons, perhaps, the literature about the UFO that is not explicitly fictional has been read as a kind of folklore in the making or mythology, not that either term in its  generality gets us much further. But this middle way has the advantage that it can make its truth claim and bracket it, too. However much folk wisdom might possess a merely heuristic truth, that truth is still practical and uncannily modern:  however much depression might be ultimately a result of brain chemistry, the folk psychology that underwrites meditative practice prescribes an effective therapy, and stories of faeries are as age old as they are contemporary (just ask highway builders in Iceland). A mythology, likewise, following Levi-Strauss, can claim an effective truth, just of a different kind than that of the natural sciences:  regardless of whether an axe is made of stone or steel, it’s still an axe. Myth, like folklore, in the case of the ufological literature, is possessed of a weird reality, as daemonic as those entities and situations it deals with.

For these reasons, I tend to take the pseudoscientific ufological paraliterature as belonging to a genre neither scientific nor science fictional, as its truth is neither one that is subject to experiment nor calculation nor one that invites us to only imagine the world as other than it is or was. Its truth, like the flying saucer, hovers between the two; like the UFO, it is both/neither material and/nor immaterial; nevertheless, like its namesake, it leaves traces, in the culture and its imaginary.

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3 thoughts on “Science Fiction, Folklore, Myth, the UFO, and Ufology: a note

  1. Heard’s literary output is chronicled in Brian Stableford’s Scientific Romance in Britain: 1890-1950, pp. 299-312 and may be helpful in sorting out the issues that are bothering you. I can scan and email them if you feel you need them.

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  2. Thanks for generously sharing the relevant passages from Stableford’s study, which refers to _The Riddle of the Saucers_ as “one rather eccentric exercise in speculative non-fiction,” a description that speaks volumes (especially to one who received his academic training in philosophy and English in the 80s and 90s, the era of High Theory…) but at least pegs Heard’s book as non-fiction (like popular science writing) as opposed to fiction, whether American science fiction or scientific romance.

    But I wonder if this really clarifies the matter: on the one hand, Stableford is doing genre theory, outlining a new subgenre of fiction, which doesn’t touch on the materialist dimension of the book’s or any book’s institutional reception, which isn’t the whole story either mind you (I don’t collapse the concept of literature into ideology as a critic such as Terry Eagleton might), but it’s an important part, given the subject matter, which is surely one aspect of determining how a book is understood, a subject matter new at the time. A question (that _can_ be answered) is whether “flying saucer” books, such as Heard’s, and Arnold’s, and Keyhoe’s, etc, were marketed, reviewed, and catalogued all the same way. The difference between _The Flying Saucers Are Real_ and _Flying Saucers Have Landed_ is very stark today: a historian might see both as evidence; a religious studies scholar, only the latter. Nor do I find Heard’s own thoughts on science fiction especially illuminating in this regard: I don’t believe you claim Heard wrote _The Riddle of the Saucers_ as science fiction nor that it was received (read) that way, nor that the idea of the saucers’ pilots being bees is inspired by science fiction, but rather by the same speculation in both the science writing of the day and the article you so acutely remark.

    On the other hand, Stableford’s pages don’t seem to me, offhand, to touch on the kind of truth folklore or myth claim for themselves, which is “eccentric”, falling between a certain distinction between truth and fiction, or between the truth of the sciences and the truth of art, which I fumbled at fingering (which is why I quite consciously termed the post “a note”). The virtue of the myth of the flying saucer for a literary artist is that unlike a purely imaginary world such as Star Wars which is received as purely and only fiction, stories about flying saucers, etc. have “a ring of truth”, however uncanny or eccentric; we both know the statistics on the belief in extraterrestrial intelligence or concerning such intelligences’ visiting earth. For this reason, I grope for a middle way between nonfiction and fiction the way I do (given world enough and time, one could articulate a more elaborate position). Or, I do wonder if, I may just not be understanding your point.

    Your sentence that spurs my writing the note is curiously worded, referring to the “genre _he_ was part of,” but Heard wrote in a number of genres, philosophy, fiction, popular science, science romance or fiction, etc. His oeuvre was not of a piece. I’d wager that way of wording your point is symptomatic of your more general approach to the topic in general, an approach or standpoint that, I think, underwrites how you see Stableford’s pages clarifying the issue. (I don’t pretend to be very clear on that standpoint, though from the far too little of your writing I’ve had the chance to read, I guess it’s a fairly thoroughly worked out psychosocial stance?).

    All that being said, let me clarify a little my conclusion to my review of Heard’s book. In part, I was moved to try to salvage something of value from the labour of having read the damned thing: it is unbearably turgid; I was often left with the feeling he was being paid by the word. But more importantly, as a historical document, it is interesting how the stories he chooses to relate remain canonical ones (Arnold, Maury Island, Chiles and Whitted, etc.); often in the development of a social phenomenon, such consistency is not the case. This consistency is probably more due to our modern media environment than the phenomenon itself, but that’s a hypothesis that would need some study. And however much the notion the _insectoid_ (or vegetative!) Martians might have been in the air, what is striking is that Heard’s Martians are not merely insectoid but _are_ insects, i.e., his argument proceeds from observations of and reflections on earthly bees, which leads him to non-anthropocentric conclusions, which, if you’ve had a chance to read around Skunkworks (especially the post on the narcissism of anthropos) is very important, and quite untimely. But, as you point out, I grant him too much prescience when it comes to how his superbees prefigure encounters with Mantis ETs in the following decades; the same could be said regarding speculations among the ufophilic or ufomaniacal concerning the “hive mind” of ET races, itself a provocative imagination.

    Thanks again, for 1. taking an interest (!), and 2. the effort of scanning and sharing the pertinent passages from Stableford’s study. I very much appreciate your interventions and your sharing your not inconsiderable erudition.

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