Aaron John Gulyas. Extraterrestrials and the American Zeitgeist: Alien Contact Tales Since the 1950s. McFarland, 2013.
For many years now it has been an axiom of ‘Scientific Ufologists’ that the contact experience is something totally removed from the UFO experience. The latter, they believe, is an objective but as yet unexplained phenomenon. In the second edition of his UFO Encyclopedia Jerome Clark draws a clear distinction between ‘saucerians’ - i.e. the contactees and their promoters - and the ufologists: “from the start ufologists and saucerians (people who believed and supported contactees) occupied separate mental universes…”
Later he declares “A UFO sighting was conceived less as an observation of a spacecraft than as an investigatable experiential claim … no sophisticated ufologist used the phrase ’spacecraft’ to characterise what a witness reported seeing … Early ufologists gave the ETH relatively little concentrated thought”. Of course the very title of Donald Keyhoe’s 1956 book UFOs Come from Outer Space gives the lie to this contention, as do other books featured in Peter Rogerson ‘First Read…' feature on this blog, as well as Life magazine’s 1952 article ‘Have we Visitors from Space?’ The idea of UFOs as alien spacecraft was present virtually from the birth of the UFO phenomenon, and preceded the contactees by several years.
The first two chapters of this book give a background history of the UFOs and contactees, and their relationship to the growing ‘ufology’ subculture and American political and social conditions of the period. It confirms that from the very earliest days of the UFO era there was a close and complex relationship between contactees, ‘ETH’ ufology and ‘scientific’ ufology. It was later in the evolution of the UFO myth that the various streams became separated from each other, although of course they have never completely parted company.
The third chapter, 'The Dawn of Contact', outlines the origins of the contactee movement oround the figure of George Adamski. Adamski’s earlier involvement in a variety of occult organisations such as ’The Royal Order of Tibet’ is well known, and here Gulyas emphasises the quasi-political nature of his early messages. His pre-UFO book, Pioneers of Space, A Trip to the Moon, Mars and Venus is less a virtually unreadable work of science fiction than a spiritual and political manifesto for the improvement of humanity.
The space civilizations which the fictional traveller encounter in Pioneers of Space are presented as models of the way in which Adamski urges earth-people to progress to a more perfect society. The aliens are drawn as quasi-humans (no bizarre greys or humanoid dwarfs for Adamski) as he attempts to demonstrate that creatures with much the same physical and mental characteristics as ourselves have the capacity to perfect themselves as individuals and as societies. And when Adamski claims to have met other space travellers in real life, they are represented as the moral exemplars from his earlier writings.
With the publication of his third book, Flying Saucer Farewell, Adamski’s writings and lectures took on a more spiritual nature, the theme of physical contact taking a lesser role. Gulyas traces his later influence and remarks on the belief that developed after Adamski’s death that he was a specially chosen individual, perhaps one of the space brothers himself, surviving in some spiritual form. British ufologists may be familiar with the Scorriton mystery, briefly mentioned by Gulyas, where the spirit of Adamski is seen to have been resurrected in the form of a saucer occupant the day after his death.
After Adamski, contactees such as Truman Bethurum and George Hunt Williamson continued the contactee legend, describing contacts with superior beings from other planets, but importantly, as with Adamski’s ski-suited Venusians, they were always described in ways which made them seem human-like, and a model to which our own race could progress, rather than some entirely alien spiritual or other-dimensional entity.
The contactee movement thus developed a socially radical agenda. The home-planets of the visitors, whether visited physically by the contactees, or as became more common later, contacted through telepathy or ‘channelling’, were almost all based around a utopian, egalitarian form of society. War and poverty were unknown, property was owned in common or allocated on an equal basis, money was not used, agriculture and industry - where it existed on these worlds - were either communally owned or directed by a group of benevolent ‘elders‘.
Clearly, most of these ideas were politically anathema in the Cold-War America of the fifties, but could be safely discussed in the unreal atmosphere of the contactee stories.
Mirroring the way in which the politically conscious rebellions of the ‘sixties morphed into the ‘personal transformation’ New Age of the seventies and later, the contactee movement also transformed into the cultism of groups like the Solar Temple, Heaven’s Gate, the Raelians and the ‘Ashtar Command’. He notes Jacques Vallée’s role in not only recording, but also promoting this transformation.
Here we also find England’s own ‘Dr’ George King, who much more than Adamski set up a functioning new religion. King had little in the way of detailed political prescription, and in his case, the UFO façade on traditional spiritual beliefs is much thinner. Now based in California, the Society’s British Headquarters in Fulham seldom if ever refers to UFOs in its window displays.
Gulyas also notes the growth of an extremist right-wing element in much of the later contactee literature, although there were always elements of this even in the earliest utopian period of contactees, such as George Hunt Williamson’s links to American extreme-right political movements such as William Pelly‘s ‘Silver Shirts‘. Later we encounter the explicit antisemitism in Billy Meier’s messages, and the outright Nazism of the channelled messages of ‘Hatonn’. He examines the negative aspects of the contactee story further in the chapter ‘Dark Contact', which draws a line from Bender’s Men in Black to the dark, conspiratorial milieu that had developed around the abduction phenomenon.
However, he sees the later development of the ‘exopolitics’ movement in a more positive light, viewing the ‘Disclosure’ campaign as something of a reversion to the original contactee message, where the crews of the saucers are generally positively inclined towards earth people and seek to help us, but are frustrated in their efforts by the US Government and multinational capitalism. The extraterrestrials that the exopoliticians champion have more in common with Adamski’s space brothers than the inhuman clinicians of the abduction stories.
A particularly interesting chapter looks at the role of sex and gender in the contactee narratives, with an extensive analysis of Elizabeth Klarer’s stories of sexual contact with an extraterrestrial, placing it firmly in the context of apartheid-era South Africa.
Challenging those who see the contactee stories as a minor and irrelevant footnote to the progress of ’scientific ufology’ he concludes with the comment “The contactees have been part of the fabric of western culture since the Second World War, telling stories and urging change. Their stories are important, and contain whole worlds.” It is hard to imagine a more ‘Magonian’ verdict. -- John Rimmer