Keep Watching the Skies
In an idle moment last night I found myself browsing through some of the more neglected and forgotten volumes that adorn my bookcases.
Scanning the shelves, I quickly passed over categories like "Novels I've been meaning to read for years" and "Popular Science books whose content failed to match their jazzy covers", before my eye (I only have one) finally came to rest on a mini section of aging paperbacks that speak of my interest in the…em…'esoteric'…
From the sober (and po-faced) UFO's: A Scientific Debate (eds. Carl Sagan & Thornton Page), to the alarmingly entitled Somebody else is on the Moon (George Leonard), and on to the hubris and confidence of Philip J. Klass's UFOs Explained, the dusty edges of the titles not only reflect my negligent housework, but also highlight a phenomenon that (now) seems decidedly dated…and rapidly disappearing over the horizon of the zeitgeist.
If Kenneth Arnold's famous sighting of 'Flying Saucers', coupled with the 'Roswell Incident' (both 1947), managed to set the modern obsession with UFOs in motion, then the turn of the millennium seems to have (almost) succeeded in bringing the phenomenon to a grinding halt. Or so it would appear…
I have no clear idea what publishing/sales figures are for UFO-themed literature, but my intuitive zeitgeist radar would hazard a guess that the 1990s (a period when conspiracist thinking, of all hues, reached a kind of zenith) was the most fruitful of decades for work of this sort. Much of the material published was, of course, of the lurid, bargain-basement, variety…with little ambition other than riding the X-Files cash cow in search of a quick buck.
The popularity of such literature may have been interpreted by some (Carl Sagan et al.) as reflecting a worrying slip toward 'paranoia' and 'unreason', but it can also be (convincingly) argued that readers in the 90s engaged with this material in a manner more playful (and knowing) than earnest and committed/convinced. After (at least) 50 years of exposure to UFO/Alien-themed cultural artefacts, it's hardly surprising that 'readers' had become (reasonably) savvy and literate consumers of the 'genre'.
A look back at some of the 70s publications on my shelves, however, reveals a more pragmatic (and in some ways charmingly 'old-fashioned') engagement with the subject. The Sagan edited volume (for example) is actually a collection of papers delivered to a symposium on UFOs sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (and published by W. W. Norton, by arrangement with Cornell University). The possibility of such an august gathering of serious scientists coming together for such a purpose would seem extremely improbable today.
The reasons for possible changes in attitude to the phenomenon are no doubt complex, but it seems to me that following the genesis of 'Ufology' in the 50s, and the development of (and serious engagement with) it in the 60s & 70s, the 90s could be seen to represent a period of over-satiation and 'blow out'. Without wanting to appear excessively 'decade-ist', it's not hard to speculate how a flooded book market, and an increasingly absurdist, dumbed-down (Sky/Fox) TV engagement might have led to a 90s implosion, followed by a 00s vacuum. Whatever the real reasons, the net result is a cultural phenomenon that appears (and that's a key word) to have gone into hibernation.
Of course, it should be clear to most readers – especially in today's news climate – that just because the ol' mainstream media (such as it is) no longer pays much heed to a particular phenomenon/situation, it doesn't necessarily follow that that which it ignores has ceased to be relevant or significant. Though the current fixation with 'terror' may seem to have pushed our extraterrestrial friends onto (and off of) the back pages, there's no reason to assume that 'ufology' is not still being engaged with by passionate devotees. The 00s may have seen Greys (and their ilk) supplanted by far more human bogeymen, but the great wheel of cultural trends may spin back in an extraterrestrial direction before too long.
If nothing else, such a renaissance will give me a few more titles to gather dust on my bookshelves…
January 15, 2006