Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for July 7th, 2017

The saucer people

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Seventy years ago this week, a newspaper report in the Roswell Daily Record stated that the Air Force had captured a flying saucer on a ranch in New Mexico. For most of the next three decades, however, if you had mentioned this incident to your average science fiction fan, you probably would have gotten a blank stare. Roswell didn’t become a cultural touchstone until the late seventies, and it was overshadowed that same year by a more famous sighting by the pilot Kenneth Arnold, who claimed to have seen nine flying objects near Mount Rainier on June 24, 1947. Arnold’s account was so widely covered that the editor John W. Campbell felt obliged to write about it in Astounding Science Fiction. His editorial on the subject, which appeared in the October 1947 issue, ruled out the possibility of a secret government project—“They’d have been test-flown off some small Pacific island, where none but a few selected personnel, plus a few thousand fish, would have been around to report”—and speculated idly that flying saucers might be a form of surveillance. If we wanted to study another planet without being seen by the natives, he noted, we would take much the same approach:

For several months, our investigation would be conducted by non-contact observation; until we know much more about the people, we’ll do well to stay clear of them…A stealthy raid might kidnap a few inhabitants for general questioning and investigation…Investigation of local animals can give all the necessary basic biological science for the preliminary understanding of the local race…After several months of watching, listening, and picking up radio broadcasts, plus investigation of kidnapees, there would be a lot of material to digest. Captured books, particularly children’s books, would give adequate keys to the languages. At that point, we would be smart to clear out for at least a year of concentrated study of the material at hand…It might be a year or five years before any further steps were taken.

Years later, Isaac Asimov, who had a horror of unidentified flying objects, would list “flying saucers” among the causes on which Campbell became increasingly irrational, along with psionics and dianetics. In reality, Campbell wasn’t particularly interested in the subject, and he only covered it in the magazine when outside events obliged him to weigh in. Arnold’s sighting was one such incident, and the McMinnville photographs, which caused a sensation, prompted him to treat it again in the October 1950 issue, at a time when he was far more interested in other matters. Campbell said that flying saucers represented a problem of “no data,” and he compared such sightings to the “background count” picked up by a radiation detector—most of it was just noise. But there were some intriguing patterns:

Some type of real artifact, referred to as flying saucers, appears to exist; the incidence of reports far exceeds any reasonable level of “background count.” Too many observers—too many places—too many simultaneous observations of the same unknown. Something real exists; that we can file as real, valid data…But—this is an important datum—the planet-wide reports do not noticeably exceed the normal level of what we have called here the “background count”…It has been suggested that the flying saucers are interplanetary visitors. But the frequency of occurrence does not show an even planetary distribution; there is a background-count level around the world, with a high peak level in the United States.

He pointed out that most of the sightings took place in the Pacific Northwest, but not in adjacent regions of Canada or Mexico, and he concluded: “It’s a remarkable interplanetary visitor that shows such keen awareness of political boundaries.”

In a reversal of his earlier stance, Campbell hinted strongly that he thought that it was some kind of military program, which he confirmed in another editorial in January 1953: “Their marked tendency to confine their operations to the western United States was, in fact, a factor which made me feel, for a long time, that they were a United States military secret weapon. I was at a loss to explain why an alien, an extraterrestrial, would show such marked preference for that particular geographic area.” (As editor of the magazine Air Trails, he implied to a friend that he had seen a “flying disc,” although he wasn’t able to talk about it.) Campbell then playfully suggested another possible reason why such sightings tended to take place over “the square states,” proposing that aliens were telepathically sensitive, and that they would avoid big cities—where the psychic tension was high—in favor of less inhabited areas that showed a high degree of technological development. For the most part, however, his attitude remained cautious. At the end of the decade, in the April 1959 issue, he wrote:

To date, despite reams of argument and statements, the only sure, positive statement about UFOs that can be made is, “There is a phenomenon. Its nature and cause are totally indeterminable from the data and the technical understanding available to us at the time.” They might be scout ships of interstellar visitors…and they might be giant plasmids of ionized gases of our own atmosphere. They are not the result of any phenomenon adequately known to modern science.

Campbell, who had featured a crashed spacecraft in “Who Goes There?”, was also reluctant to publish fiction on the subject, writing in a rejection letter in 1952: “I’m afraid I can’t touch this one; the flying saucers scare me. Essentially, the point is this: science fiction is speculation based on science. That’s sane, sensible, and helpful. The flying saucers aren’t science; they’re speculation. Now speculation built on speculation is not sane, sensible, and helpful—it’s wild-blue-yonder stuff. It’s insane, and confuses the issue.”

What’s funny, of course, is that Campbell was perfectly willing to publish “speculation built on speculation” about countless other subjects, such as psionics. In October 1953, in the editorial “Unwise Knowledge,” he even made the case that science fiction was the best possible place to talk about such strange matters, since speculation for the purposes of entertainment had a purely positive value. (It’s also worth noting that he didn’t avoid the topic entirely. In the March 1961 issue of Analog, he published a very odd piece by Arthur W. Orton titled “The Four-Faced Visitors of Ezekiel,” which made the case that the vision of the merkabah was really a visit from ancient astronauts. The article generated a lot of attention, and even Asimov liked it, writing a complimentary letter that was printed a few issues later.) Yet Campbell was mostly uninterested in flying saucers, despite the fact that he was naturally sympathetic to such accounts—as a college student at Duke, he had seen a display of ball lightning at his house in Durham, North Carolina, only to have it dismissed by one of his old professors, and he later suggested that a similar phenomenon might lie behind UFO sightings. So why did he steer clear? One reason is that the territory had already been aggressively claimed by Raymond A. Palmer, the former editor of Amazing, who wrote The Coming of the Saucers with Kenneth Arnold and even founded an entire magazine devoted to it. Campbell may have figured that there wasn’t room for two editors. But there was also a more important consideration. In 1954, he wrote to a correspondent:

The flying saucers aren’t facts; they’re Somethings. They may be optical illusions, interstellar travelers, St. Elmo’s Fire, weather balloons…who knows what. To speculate on something so vague and unsure itself is the essence of insane thinking. Quite literally, it would be dangerous for a mind to speculate on unknown-somethings…I don’t know what causes “flying saucer” reports. As soon as sound data as to what it is that causes the reports is available, I’ll be willing to discuss the implications!

The italics are mine. Campbell liked data, even if it came from questionable sources, which was why he was so enthusiastic about such devices as the Hieronymus Machine. He wanted something that he could control. And when it came to flying saucers, he just couldn’t get on board.

Written by nevalalee

July 7, 2017 at 9:18 am

Quote of the Day

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The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum—even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.

Noam Chomsky, The Common Good

Written by nevalalee

July 7, 2017 at 7:30 am

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