Summer 2021 may well be remembered as the summer of space. Not only did billionaires Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos race each other to the stars in their private rockets, but an intelligence report and a new Harvard research project renewed the public’s interest in UFOs—or “unidentified aerial phenomena,” as the government calls them. What’s more, a high profile docuseries on UFOs premiers tonight on Showtime, thoroughly rounding out this cultural moment.
Featured in the new series is historian Greg Eghigian, who also appeared in our pages this week. He argues that despite much anticipation, the government’s report was a mixed bag, with all sides being vindicated. Although the report admitted that most reported UFOs were real objects, it also focused on the many mundane explanations for them. And this ambiguity is nothing new. “From the first modern report of a UFO in 1947, the phenomenon has been caught in cycles of periodic, animated interest from government officials, civilian enthusiasts, and scientists.” Eghigian writes. “During such moments, it always seems that the riddle of UFOs is about to be solved. But the result is always inconclusive findings and a dispersal of interest, leaving few minds changed and everyone returned to their corners to await the bell for the next round.”
Celebrated fantasy novelist John Crowley corroborates this ambiguous dualism in a perennially popular archival essay about his own childhood experience with strange lights in the sky. “Flying saucers inhabit a realm neither plainly actual nor wholly fantastic,” he comments. “They are explored in fiction but also by real-life investigators.” He continues this theme in a new essay on the government’s latest report, noting how many questions remain unanswered—including whether they even are physical objects, considering that we have yet to examine one close-up (or at least, the government is keeping mum if it has).
One group for whom the nonexistence of extraterrestrial life is of particular political import are those engaged in the aforementioned Space Race 2.0. Indeed, Bezos, Branson, and Musk are quick to respond to accusations of space colonialism by pointing out that history cannot be repeated as no one lives there. But in a recent essay, Alina Utrata finds this excuse wanting. “The idea that space is open for the taking because ‘no one is there’ finds root in the exact colonial logics that have justified settler genocide for centuries,” she writes. “The noyion that only certain people, using resources in certain ways, have a claim to land and ownership.” In a 2020 essay from Bryon Williston, the philosopher agrees that contrary to the boosterism of billionaires, the need for space colonization must be argued for, not assumed. And the arguments aren’t good.
Completing this weekend’s reading list are a range of arts pieces that deal with space, stars, and extraterrestrials. Film studies professor Mark Bould comments on the Independence Day movie franchise and emblems of empire, while fiction from Julian K. Jarboe and Mike McClelland imagine worlds where you can commute to the moon or meet a “tentacled hell creature” respectively. Lastly, a short story from Japanese counterculture icon Izumi Suzuki—available for the first time in English—invites us to join the last human family as they try to remember how to picnic. Together these stories remind us that UFOs and alien life forms “may well be far more interesting to ponder than to actually solve.”
This summer, an intelligence report and a new Harvard research project have renewed the public’s interest in UFOs. But neither is likely to change many minds.