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Entry updated 3 July 2023. Tagged: Theme.


A common item of Terminology, both inside and outside sf: UFO is an acronym for Unidentified Flying Object. In the first edition of this encyclopedia in 1979, the subject of ufology was discussed under the heading "Flying Saucers". The change of title reflects the fact that ufology itself has changed over subsequent decades, and may now be thought of almost as three separate disciplines or interpretations of the phenomenon, one of which (the extraterrestrial hypothesis) despite legitimate attempts at scientific investigation, is often straightforward Pseudoscience. The second is a hybrid of aspects of geology and meteorology, and the third deals with Psychology.

The term "flying saucer" was born in 1947 when the US businessman Kenneth Arnold, while flying his private plane near Mount Rainier, Washington State, saw what he perceived as nine disc-like objects flying in formation nearby; he described their flight as being "like a saucer would if you skipped it across the water". Sightings continued through the late 1940s and the 1950s, becoming ever more elaborate and intimate, and still continue today, many decades later, albeit not at the same feverish frequency as during the height of the Saucer Craze. Reports came, and still come, from all over the world. Early books on the subject were written by such disparate authors as retired American Marine Corps naval aviator Major Donald E Keyhoe, with The Flying Saucers Are Real (1950), and self-appointed contactee George Adamski with Flying Saucers Have Landed (1953; exp 1970) with Desmond Leslie. The latter book marked a new development, in that Adamski (whom see) claimed not only to have seen flying saucers but to have interacted with their advanced humanoid Alien occupants, receiving messages of peace, universal brotherhood and concern about Earth's naughty ways (nuclear testing in particular) that were mysteriously divulged only to himself. Also influential in its time was Behind the Flying Saucers (1950) by Frank Scully. Keyhoe, Adamski and Scully all appear in the brief early documentary film The Flying Saucer Mystery (1952). Later books include an attempt at objective analysis by scientist J Allen Hynek, The UFO Experience: A Scientific Inquiry (1972), and a sociological history of the phenomenon by historian Dr David Jacobs, The UFO Phenomenon in America (1975).

However, it would be wrong to think that flying saucers were solely a twentieth-century phenomenon. Reports of unexplained lights and objects in the sky date back at least to classical antiquity. In the nineteenth century, during winter and spring 1896-1897 there were widespread reports of an Airship being sighted over North America: it crossed the USA roughly west to east over a five-month period. The situation was complicated by hoaxers making false statements and even sending up appropriately styled hot-air Balloons, but this cannot account for the bulk of the sightings; nor can it explain why this particular flap started. It ended only when Thomas Alva Edison (see also Edisonade) firmly denounced the whole affair as a farrago. Clearly this was a flying-saucer flap in every respect except that people, or at least the newspapers, reported sightings of Airships rather than saucers; moreover, they did so at a time when the airship was at the cutting edge of Transportation technology and had for a time featured plausibly in sf stories. It has been noted that Spaceships, although not as yet in operation, occupied a similar position in the public consciousness by the late 1940s, although UFOs, being typically disc-shaped or spherical, did not conform to the general image of spaceships.

That people see unexplained "objects" in the sky cannot be denied. The vast majority of such sightings can be confidently put down to misidentifications of perfectly natural phenomena: oddly shaped and illuminated clouds, the image of Venus refracted in the atmosphere, ball lightning (itself only quite recently recognized as a naturally occurring, though rare, phenomenon), etc. Man-made phenomena are also surprisingly easy to misidentify: frequent examples include orbiting satellites, aeroplane navigation lights and various forms of Balloon – some designed with an intent to hoax. The remainder have been regarded as simply inexplicable; or attributed to flying saucers piloted by Aliens (variously supposed to derive from other planets, other Dimensions, the future, or the inside of the Hollow Earth; whichever, this is dubbed the "extraterrestrial hypothesis"); or to rare geological/meteorological circumstances involving processes that are explicable in terms of current scientific knowledge. The branch of ufology investigating what it prefers to call by such terms as "transient atmospheric phenomena" ("TAPs") has scored some minor successes, notably in demonstrating that stressed granite can, as a result of the piezoelectric effect, produce dancing lights in the air overhead.

The Psychological school of ufology accepts that people who report encounters with aliens are recording genuine experiences – in the sense that, say, a dream is a genuine experience – and seeks to find objective explanations for subjective events. Here again there is much to interest the cultural historian, for in the related abduction phenomenon there are astonishingly close similarities between modern descriptions of encounters with aliens and historical ones of meetings with the Little People. In early sf, Brian Stableford argues that La Hire's La Roue Fulgurante (1908; trans Stableford as The Fiery Wheel 2013) is the first sf instance of an abduction carried out by aliens visiting Earth in a flying saucer. Other significant alleged encounters involve the more human-seeming Men in Black, dark-suited agents of an assumed cover-up by governments, global conspiracies or Secret Masters – dramatized in such films as The Disappearance of Flight 412 (1974), Men in Black (1997) and The Shadow Men (1997). As with Airships/Spaceships, it would appear that the "contact" experience is interpreted by the human mind in terms of the state of technology of the age. Modern "contactees", who are frequently religious cultists using UFO belief to their own purposes, often base their interpretations on contemporary sf, a hypothesis buttressed by the fact that there was a noticeable qualitative shift in "contactee" accounts after the colossal success of the film Star Wars (1977) – for example, cute little 'bots were more frequently reported.

If sf feeds Ufology in terms of extraterrestrial interpretation, how does ufology feed sf? Despite the fact that most Genre-SF writers are hostile to the extraterrestrial hypothesis – a reaction to the unjustified public assumption that sf writers are deeply interested in ufology – sf writers did indeed frequently assume the reality of alien-piloted flying saucers, almost always for the purposes of story, irony or symbolism. Many treated the subject facetiously. There are exceptions: Adamski himself, some time before his alleged First Contact experiences, published the high-minded Pioneers of Space: A Trip to the Moon, Mars and Venus (1949), and Dennis Wheatley's Star of Ill Omen (1952) seems to be the work of a believer. Novels rooted in the extraterrestrial hypothesis include: Shadows in the Sun (1954) by Chad Oliver; I Doubted Flying Saucers (1958) by Stan Layne; The Flying Saucer Gambit (1966) by Larry Maddock in the Agent of T.E.R.R.A. series; Brad's Flying Saucer (1969) by Marian T Place (1910-2006); The Mendelov Conspiracy (1969; vt Encounter Three 1978) by Martin Caidin; The Gismo (1970; vt The Gismo from Outer Space 1974 chap) by Keo Felker Lazarus; Fade-Out (1975) by Patrick Tilley, by a very long way the most interesting of the books in this list; Alien (1977) by George H Leonard (not to be confused with the film tie Alien [1979] by Alan Dean Foster).

As ufological interest branched out into the new areas of Alien abductions and crash retrieval accounts, sf followed suit. Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind [1977], about abductions and related phenomena, generated enormous public interest and was unusual in depicting aliens as mystical benefactors. Novels include Leslie Waller's film tie Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) as by Spielberg; The Melchizedek Connection (1981) by Ray Fowler (1930-    ); Majestic (1989) by Whitley Strieber; Alintel (1986; no English trans to date) by Jacques Vallée, the famous French ufologist (the model for Lacombe, played by François Truffaut, in Close Encounters of the Third Kind) and winner, as Jerome Seriel, of the 1961 Prix Jules Verne; and the UFO Conspiracy sequence by David Bischoff: Abduction: The UFO Conspiracy (1990), Deception (1991) and Revelation (1991). A theme anthology is Encounters with Aliens (anth 1968) edited by George W Earley. The Strieber and Bischoff titles concern themselves with the notion of the "cover-up", a trademark Cliché of ufology: the paranoid belief that the US Government (or other authority figure) possesses the physical proof that aliens are visiting us but chooses to keep the information secret. In Strieber's story the case concerned is the Roswell Incident of 1947, in which a flying saucer is claimed to have crashed in the New Mexico desert; a story predating this incident and bearing some resemblance to it was "Mewhu's Jet" (November 1946 Astounding) by Theodore Sturgeon. Cover-ups feature also in ufological sf that does not subscribe to the extraterrestrial hypothesis. In W Allen Harbinson's Projekt Saucer series – Projekt Saucer #1: Inception (1991) and Genesis (1980; vt Projekt Saucer #2: Genesis 1991) – based on UFO reports during and just after World War Two, the flying saucers are human artefacts, the Nazis being largely responsible. (Some wilder ufologists have claimed that flying saucers are indeed piloted by ex-Nazis, who fled into the Hollow Earth at the end of World War Two.) A Secret Property (1985) by Ralph Noyes enjoyably focuses on secret experiments trying to harness a natural/supernatural (depending upon viewpoint) force, one side-effect of which is the manifestation of UFOs; the alien myth is a cleverly engineered disinformation campaign mounted by the US Government, which has even built phoney dead aliens which are occasionally, in order to spread the disinformation yet further, shown to ufologists with strict instructions never to breathe a word of what they have seen.

A number of sf writers have exploited not ufology itself but the social phenomenon of the widespread interest in it. C M Kornbluth used the Saucer Craze slyly in "The Silly Season" (Fall 1950 F&SF), in which Earth is invaded but nobody pays attention because the newspapers have cried wolf too often. Henry Kuttner used a flying saucer as a device for a moral parable in "Or Else" (August-September 1953 Amazing), as did Theodore Sturgeon in "Saucer of Loneliness" (February 1953 Galaxy), an early exception to the more facetious treatments. Robert A Heinlein exploited saucer fears (as he exploited communist-conspiracy fears) in his Invasion novel The Puppet Masters (September-November 1951 Galaxy; 1951; text restored 1990), and he later deployed a UFO in his entertaining juvenile, Have Space Suit – Will Travel (1958). Gore Vidal's Messiah (1954; rev 1965) opens with an analysis of UFOs as portents, which in some ways anticipates the theories of the psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961) in his Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies (1958; trans 1959). The made-for-tv film The Flipside of Dominick Hyde (1980) and its sequel use a flying saucer from the future as an enabling device. Very small flying saucers feature in Richard Francis's Blackpool Vanishes (1979) and in the films Liquid Sky (1982) and *batteries not included (1987). An Account of a Meeting with Denizens of Another World, 1871 (1979) by David Langford (whose central narrative presented as being written by William Robert Loosley) is a spoof Victorian narrative in which Langford as editor and commentator is cautiously sceptical about the wonders recounted by Langford as Loosley.

Saucer enthusiasts have themselves been the subject of sf stories, as in the television series Kinvig. J G Ballard's "The Encounter" (June 1963 Amazing; vt "The Venus Hunters" in Terminal Beach, coll 1964) leans heavily on Jung; Fritz Leiber's The Wanderer (1964) deals in part with the reactions of various ufologists to an actual celestial visitor of planetary scale; David Langford's "Encounter of Another Kind" (December 1991 Interzone) has a believer spreading the UFO gospel via an elaborate hoax.

Long before the above-cited Close Encounters of the Third Kind, there were two pioneering Cinema treatments of the theme: the Columbia serial Bruce Gentry: Daredevil of the Skies (1949), where the saucers are a secret Weapon of America's terrestrial enemies, and the feature film The Flying Saucer (1950), whose titular device proves reassuringly to be an experimental US flying machine. The more routine deployment of saucers as the vehicles of hostile Aliens is found in Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956; vt Invasion of the Flying Saucers), Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959), Gerry Anderson's television series UFO (1970-1973), Mars Attacks! (1996) and many other media presentations; friendly female aliens feature in the Three Stooges' short Flying Saucer Daffy (1958). A crashed saucer serves as the coveted McGuffin of The Bamboo Saucer (1968; vt Collision Course). The UFO Incident (1975) dramatizes a supposed 1961 sighting and abduction; The Fourth Kind (2009) draws on and indeed exploits more recent such reports.

The best novel about the UFO experience is perhaps Miracle Visitors (1978) by Ian Watson. Watson envisages UFOs and "contacts" in terms of altered states of consciousness and the dichotomy between objective and subjective reality – much as do ufologists of the "psychological school", in fact. His book, with its surreal inventiveness and loose links with ordinary causality, is understandably offensive to determined rationalists, who find it a nonsense; exactly the same could be said for "contact" experiences themselves, which is perhaps the mark of Watson's success. Another sf novel which effectively portrays the essential elusiveness of the UFO phenomenon – this time via frenetic manipulation of Parallel Worlds – is Adam Roberts's Yellow Blue Tibia (2009). [DP/JR/JGr/DRL/LW]

see also: Paranoia; Urban Legends; X-Com.

further reading

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