Sometime late in the 1960s, in the countryside of Vermont, my sister and I saw in the evening sky three round lights, apparently far-off, perfectly still and unchanging, each the size of a thumbnail held up before the eye. We hadn’t seen them appear—they were just there. They remained for a few moments, and then with instantaneous acceleration vanished over the horizon: in the blink, that is, of an eye.
The ability to stand stock-still in the sky and then vanish away at impossibly high speed has long been a hallmark of saucer sightings, explained by believers with fantasy physics or appeals to cosmic forces. Flying saucers, so named as a sort of dismissive joke, first entered public awareness in 1947 when pilot Kenneth Arnold reported seeing nine flying past his plane near Mt. Rainier. The public’s obsession with UFOs reached fever pitch during the height of the Cold War, and had already lost much of their psychic force by the time I saw mine. I had not yet begun writing what could only be called science fiction novels (they were rather non-standard ones) but I had noticed that the issues and hopes and fears that animated science fiction since its beginnings—faster-than-light spaceships, telepathy, time travel, people-shaped robots, etc.—hadn’t come much closer to reality.
Flying saucers, though, were special: they inhabited a realm neither plainly actual nor wholly fantastic, explored in fiction but also by real-life investigators with extremely varied credentials, who published reams of exposés and personal accounts. And they persisted, as threat or promise, without ever actually appearing in any ascertainable way.
Flying Saucers Are Real is Jack Womack’s wondrous compilation of flying-saucer materials—book covers, quotes, photographs, portraits of aliens by those who saw them, illustrations from handmade and mimeographed saucer tracts, authentic saucer blueprints, accounts from witnesses, including Kenneth Arnold, and stapled pamphlets of messages from cosmic visitors in the 1980s. SF novelist William Gibson says in his brief introduction to the book, “out of the world’s wrack of lost books” Womack has collected “the only physical evidence of the advent” of what he considers a meme—an infectious thought, a notion, a dream passed on through evolving media, at once inside us and outside.
Jack Womack is a science fiction novelist himself, a major one, famed for the dystopian Dryco series that began with Ambient in 1987 and continued with Terraplane (1988), Random Acts of Senseless Violence (1993), and Elvissey (1993), which posits an alternative-history Elvis who is a doomed religious visionary. Among the most recent of the saucer items Womack offers is The Elvis-UFO Connection by Richard Daniel (1987), which Womack describes as “perhaps the most memorable of all such volumes on the subject.” It recounts Elvis’s long association with alien beings, who (as Womack says) “helped him all along the way in his career, until they didn’t.”
Flying saucers inhabit a realm neither plainly actual nor wholly fantastic.
Flying Saucers Are Real, which borrows its title from Donald Keyhoe’s 1950 Fortean classic about UFOs, is not a historical account or a sociological study of the flying saucer craze, though it will be invaluable to anyone pondering such a work (if anyone still is). It might best be considered a catalogue raisonné of Womack’s personal collection of UFOiana. Indeed, the catalogue’s publication coincides with the acquisition of Womack’s collection by Georgetown University library, which will exhibit portions of it next year.
Womack’s curatorial career began on the day in 1964 when he acquired a copy of Strange World, a paperback collection of weird and astounding events and things, all true. “I read the book twice, believing the unbelievable.” But it was the tales in the book of flying saucers—“UFO” was just then coming to replace the older term—that most gripped his imagination, and set him on a forty-year path of collecting.
Womack opens the catalogue with a narrative vignette about Ray Palmer, an editor of the famed SF pulp magazine Amazing Stories, discovering in 1946 the writings of one Richard Shaver about an underground realm called Lemuria, where two races flourished “pre-everything.” These races eventually parted, one abandoning Earth to the up-and-coming proto-humans and going out to the stars, the other remaining below the surface and degenerating into monstrous beings—the Dero—who to this day capture lost humans, enslaving, raping, and finally eating them. Palmer collected Shaver’s unrolling sado-fantasies and began publishing them as fact.
Then, on June 24, 1947, Kenneth Arnold saw those nine reflective discs moving silently around his plane. The story immediately went viral and Ray Palmer was on it. He invited Arnold to investigate some similar sightings around Tacoma for the pages of Amazing Stories. This produced tales of: flying discs that ejected shards of a mysterious lightweight metal; the crash of a bomber ferrying these strange metal bits, which killed two Army investigators; a Tacoma witness who had actually fought with beings of Shaver’s underground realm while in Burma during the war; the later disappearance of the saucer metal, which had somehow been replaced with common pig iron; the appearance of men in black suits with unknown purposes driving brand new black Buick sedans; the revelation that the Army pilots were not dead but only sequestered elsewhere—on and on, and we haven’t even reached 1948. Within two years, Frank Scully’s Behind the Flying Saucers reported that alien bodies—“small in stature but well-proportioned”— had been found in a crashed saucer in New Mexico. Soon shown to be shamelessly fraudulent, Womack writes, Scully’s book “nevertheless sold 60,000 copies, far more than his preceding book, Fun in Bed.” The New Mexico stories have of course exfoliated mightily since that time. And yes, Agent Dana Scully in The X-Files was named in Frank Scully’s honor.
After this initial period of experimentation with the basic narrative elements, tales of—and beliefs about—saucers do not so much advance or evolve as ramify, producing new theories, advocates, promoters, self-promoters, telepaths, Theosophists, speculative engineering theories, new sightings, suppositious artifacts, more evidence, on and on, each compounding the mythology without ever resolving any actual issue it raises. The enthusiasts, channelers, warners, and alien-greeters are often connected to one another, disputing or supporting one another’s claims, meeting at famed alien-observation sites such as Giant Rock in California, acquired by George Van Tassel (I Rode a Flying Saucer, 1952) and until the late seventies a gathering place attracting thousands of saucer fans a year. Truman Bethurum (Aboard a Flying Saucer, 1954), who met and conversed with the beautiful saucer captain Aura Rhanes from the planet Clarion, married his third wife at Giant Rock. (The divorce from his second apparently involved Captain Rhanes.) The resemblance to the conventions and “world” meet-ups of science fiction fans, which were growing in size and popularity at about the same time, is surely not coincidental, though I am under the impression that SF fans and writers were not as enmeshed with UFO mania as one might suppose. Writers and readers of the frankly fictional mix uneasily with true believers.
Only those who still really, truly believe in the coming of the saucers will fail to find this big book wonderful.
The artifacts and ephemera in Womack’s book vacillate or vibrate between the two poles of Bad Aliens and Good Aliens: those who come in peace bringing cures for cancer and so on, and those who snatch up unresisting citizens, probe them cruelly, and are likely in the business of domination and exploitation, in league with the Russians if not the Dero. Carl Jung became fascinated with the saucers, theorizing that sightings were hallucinations, resembling portents seen in the past that were interpreted as premonitions of war and pestilence, “like the dark premonitions that underlie our modern fear.” By the end of his treatise on the subject (Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies, 1959) he was apparently convinced there was something out there—“either psychic projections throw back a radar echo, or else the appearance of real objects affords the opportunity for myth-making projections.” Among these projections must be counted the wise Venusian Captain Valiant Thor, whom a ufologist named Frank Stranges brought to a hidden subbasement in the Pentagon to meet President Kennedy.
The more elaborate and story-like the visitation reports become, the less interesting I find them. Mysteries that refuse easy narrative, endlessly shuffled but never dealt, are the ones that persist for me. Those ubiquitous but not quite actual men in black who lurk everywhere in UFO history have reasons and overlords that can’t be discovered: are they aliens themselves, or government agents searching for aliens, or out to suppress public knowledge of alien visitations, or what, and why? The cattle mutilations in the 1970s were—and in some circles still are—blamed on aliens (Womack provides The Night Mutilators, 1979) though to this day no one knows what they wanted with cow lips and anuses. The conspiratorial fantasies and fears that powered saucer stories first arose in the context of the Cold War, the bomb, and the first intimations that our government kept secrets from us. But the arousing power of conspiracies, whose shifting reasons and hidden casts can’t be determined, has certainly not diminished since then.
In addition to covers and jackets, Womack includes a spread of saucer photographs, mainly from UFO Photographs Around the World (1985–86). They are mostly vague and pale or grainy and high-contrast, black dots and cigar-shaped blobs in white skies; or they are flying toys, paste-ups, flung pie plates and pot lids, the clearest being the least convincing. Some do seem genuinely enigmatic. The story is told—not in this volume—that when Douglas Trumbull was doing the effects for Steven Spielberg’s awesomely enthusiastic Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Spielberg (a UFO devotee, at least at the time) pestered Trumbull about why he wasn’t representing all the different kinds of vessels that witnesses reported seeing, with their varied arrays of lights and bumps. So the great model-maker finally provided a sky full of every shape, size, color, and movement to whiz around all at once as Richard Dreyfuss stands marveling. It stands now as the phantasmagoric Catalogue of Ships that can be drawn from witness narratives but were never seen so clearly or convincingly.
Spielberg’s aliens were the friendliest and nicest of any, though descended in form from the least empathetic ones reported by abductees—the small soft gray beings with big heads, lipless mouths, and huge slit eyes, like those who abducted Barney and Betty Hill in 1961 as they drove through the New Hampshire night and then ruthlessly probed them aboard their craft. The Hills’ account, published as The Interrupted Journey (1966) can be credited with inaugurating the alien abduction phenomenon. The UFO abductee or victim became as common for a time as the demoniac or the Marian visionary had been in ages past, and with the same binary quality—recipient of divine messages of joy, or tormented victim of demons? When abductions and sightings became rarer (and I believe they are rarer now, though they may simply not make the news), their absence was easier to account for than the similar retreat of the Devil or the Virgin Mary: they had come, delivered their message of peace or done their evil, and gone away.
The three lights in the sky I witnessed in the credulous 1960s did not, somehow, awe or mystify me, or cause me to join the search for explanations. It is no surprise that a person with Womack’s predilections took a lifelong interest in UFOs, but the difference between him and the believers—and between him and the scoffers—is that he feels no compulsion to make a decision about the actuality or otherwise of UFO phenomena. He possesses the smiling negative capability of the imaginative writer, the gift “to be in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason,” as that great seer John Keats put it. Only those who still really, truly believe in the coming of the saucers will fail to find this big book wonderful throughout.
• • •
A different sort of passing away is pictured in Tom Gauld’s comic book Mooncop, which is as short and obvious as a children’s story. In fact it almost could be a children’s book, except for a pervasive sadness that remains undissipated at the end.
“Living on the Moon. Whatever were we thinking? It seems rather silly now.”
In his beautifully clear and plain style—just blacks, whites, and night-blues, faces drawn nearly expressionless but still affecting—Gauld tells the story of the last cop on the moon. It is some years into the future, or in an alternative now. A little colony has existed for a number of years, set up by the government after the model of a small town. In the stark stony landscape, a tree grows here and there under a glass bell. There are some basic buildings in a sort of discouraging Brutalist style—an apartment tower (eight apartments), a LunarMart, a coffee-and-donut dispenser, a police headquarters. Among these few stations the Mooncop drives his hovercraft. His life has an utter simplicity that he seems okay with: his quarterly crime report shows zero crimes reported, none investigated, zero solved, for a Crime Solution Rate of 100%.
But the loneliness is increasing. Lauren is leaving for earth; her dad manages the LunarMart, which is going to be automated. Mrs. Henderson and her dog, Kaspar (in his own moon sphere), are both getting old. The Mooncop’s apartment building is being reduced in size. The colony is failing. Mrs. Henderson, who was on the colony design team, has lost faith: “Living on the Moon. Whatever were we thinking? It seems rather silly now.” “Not to me,” the Mooncop replies. “I think what you did was wonderful.”
The only adventures are a brief search for Kaspar the dog and retrieving a wandering animatronic Neil Armstrong lost from the Lunar Museum, which is closing too. It is hard to describe how Gauld shows the Mooncop himself growing no less committed but lonelier. Then, as the story reaches its end, a new person arrives on the moon, come to manage the upgraded donut mini-café. She and the Mooncop are now the total population of the moon (he checks). And she likes it there. The last we see of them they are in his hovercraft, looking at the stars.
I couldn’t help thinking—maybe because I live in one—of all the tiny American towns that are losing population, stores, facilities, amenities. Shutting up shop. Mooncop’s colony is not a hopeful place. And the Mooncop can’t be said to be hopeful either. But he loves his home.