Jacques Vallee. Anatomy of a Phenomenon: Unidentified Objects in Space - A Scientific Appraisal. Neville Spearman, London, 1966. By John Harney

When I first read this book nearly fifty years ago I, along with many other ufologists, thought it was a valuable contribution to the serious study of the subject, in contrast to some of the wild speculation and nonsensical contact stories available at that time (and ever since). However, on recently reading it critically I did not find it so impressive. It became clear that Vallee was committed to the notion that there was such a thing as a UFO, as distinct from hoaxes, misinterpretations, unusual aircraft or natural phenomena. Perhaps the simplest way to record my impressions of the book is to go through it chapter by chapter.

Chapter One: The Legend of the Flying Saucers
This includes such profundities as "The legend of the flying disks has existed throughout history". Vallee starts by quoting from writings which seem to be descriptions of mysterious flying craft if they are interpreted literally. Only very brief accounts are given, and for most of them there are no references to sources for readers who require further details. Where references are given they are to newspaper reports or to items in UFO books or journals, often by writers notorious for their unreliability.

Vallee also shows no apparent interest in attempting to find explanations for the reports he mentions. For example, he gives us several reports of giant rotating luminous wheels seen from ships, even though the explanation for this phenomenon is well known. These wheels began to appear as sailing ships were being replaced by steamships. They are caused by small organisms in the sea which emit light when subjected to mechanical vibrations, such as those caused by ships' engines.

Chapter Two: Probability of Contact with Superior Galactic Communities
This is a short essay on the possibility of contact with intelligent life in the galaxy, although most of it is devoted to speculation about the possibility of life in our solar system.

Chapter Three: Modern UFO Reports and their Reliability
Here we are back to the flying saucers. Vallee admits that the accumulation of sightings since 1946 is "a problem of sociological significance" and that scientists have been discouraged by "the number of misinterpretations and hoaxes among which the true phenomenon seems very difficult to find". He notes, though, that about 10 to 30 per cent of American sightings kept up to date in Dayton by ATIC "could be called intriguing, to say the least". Of course, they don't have to be "real" UFOs to be intriguing, and we are not given any guidance on how to detect the genuine UFO sightings.

We are often given estimates of the speeds and altitudes of the UFOs, but we are never warned that such estimates can be little more than guesswork.

For what seem to be the most interesting cases we are given the fewest details. The most absurd example of this is an event which allegedly occurred in 1950. "On March 18 an observation at Farmington, New Mexico, had several thousand witnesses. The phenomenon -- another demonstration of 'aerial fight' -- lasted no less than one hour." No references or other details are given.

Chapter Four: The Scientific Problem
This is not only the problem of devising a meaningful hypothesis to account for UFO reports, but a problem with scientists, particularly astronomers. "They cannot replace in the world of life and their imaginations the huge cosmic cemetery for celestial bodies which they describe in their books with a world of life and thought." Also, they "...have jumped directly from their doctoral dissertation into research and teaching without indulging themselves in any romantic affair with earthly matters". This allegedly results in their inability to survive in a different environment, so they do nothing to risk losing their astronomical positions. He does not provide any evidence to support these assertions.

As well as discussing the alleged inadequacies of UFO investigators, amateur or professional, Vallee proposes that UFO reports can be classified by eliminating all the identified reports and all the moving objects similar in behaviour to conventional objects as they would usually appear. The others are then said to belong to a small number of types depending on their appearance and behaviour. The classification system defines five main types, numbered from I to V, with subdivisions for each.

Having devised the classifications, Vallee fails to consider normal explanations for them. For example, Type III "can be described as aerial forms hoverng in the atmosphere, or following a path interrupted by a stationary point; a precise point will be defined on the ground from this discontinuity"

He gives a number of examples, and the attentive reader will note that they tend to be described as hovering, then moving in a spiral or "falling leaf" motion. The attentive reader will also be aware that these are remarkably like descriptions of autokinesis, the effect of staring at something against an almost featureless background, which causes involuntary eye movements giving the impression that it is moving.

Chapter Four ends with a proposal that UFO research should be reorganised by arranging co-operation between the official US Air Force investigation of UFO reports and "a team of from six to ten civilian researchers competent in their various fields and already familiar with the field of UFO research, who would volunteer to conduct independent studies". It seems to me, though, that this would not have worked back in the 1960s, and would not work now. Civilian researchers, including scientists, are notorious for disagreeing about how to investigate UFO reports. Indeed, some of them are known for strongly objecting to those who submit what they regard as inexplicable and genuine UFO reports to critical examination.

Chapter Five: Flying Saucers and Human Reason
We are again told, as in the previous chapter's remarks on the alleged social and emotional inadequacies of astronomers, that "men of science react to UFO reports in a very peculiar fashion". They "... also go so far as to neglect to conform with the basic rules of scientific honesty when confronted with this problem ..." This is nonsense. Scientists do what they are paid to do. Astronomers study the stars and the planets; meteorologists study the weather. They are not paid or given facilities to investigate UFO reports. This is one of the questions ignored by Vallee: who is going to pay for these investigations?

Some of Vallee's pronouncements are quite baffling when you stop to think about them. For example, he deplores the fact that there are today (the 1960s) only a few specialists in the study of Mars working with obsolete equipment on "what could become, in a few years one of the most important problems facing our civilization". The planet Mars is certainly of great interest to scientists, but Vallee fails to give us any idea how it could become a threat to our civilization.

Having dealt with the professionals, he goes on to sneer at the amateurs. "The UFO mystery, because of its appeal to human imagination provides an opportunity for persons who lead a generally dull life to bring a touch of extraterrestrial horror into their existence."

Most of this chapter is used to persuade his readers that the stories told by contactees such as George Adamski, Gabriel Green and Orfeo Angelucci, are based on nothing more than dreams, fantasies and hoaxes, and thus prepare them for the following chapter.

Chapter Six: Typical Phases of UFO Behaviour
Vallee begins by trying to draw a distinction between the stories of the contactees and what he calls Type I events, landings or near landings, which he claims are very simple. He gives a number of brief descriptions of these, usually without giving any references, and without apparently realising the need to check that the reports are reasonably reliable, and to give little weight to those without independent witnesses. Some of the landing stories involve UFO "occupants", but he rejects those where they allegedly speak to the witnesses, thus neatly distinguishing them from contactee stories.

He was greatly impressed by the famous 1959 New Guinea sightings, as he apparently has a tendency to take the accouts of seemingly sincere witnesses literally. Later studies of this case by serious researchers have indicated a psychological explanation, possibly by gazing at bright stars and planets and exercising over-active imginations.

He then brings in the incidents at Fatima, Portugal, in 1917, where three children claimed to have had visions which the Catholic Church eventually announced to be apparitions of the Virgin Mary. Although this is one of the best known of such occurrences - there have been thousands of them in different parts of the world - it is difficult to discover the facts concerning what did or did not happen at Fatima. If you consult the voluminous writings on the subject you will find that the non-religious describe it in psychological or sociological terms, with most Catholics describing it as genuine encounters with the Virgin, and Protestants asserting that it was the work of the Devil.

Vallee's excuse for including Fatima is that "older events suggest different interpretations, and they consider with increasing interest reports that were, in older times, simply classed as miraculous by theological authorities". He was seemingly not aware that there is, and has been, no shortage of alleged apparitions of the Virgin Mary, although most of them attract only local attention. I suspect that his inclusion of Fatima only serves to confuse most readers, as it has very little in common with any of the UFO reports he mentions.

Chapter Seven: Theories and Hypotheses
Vallee sums up by reviewing a number of hypotheses "even if they appear as mere speculations with little factual support". These speculations are generally of little interest, as they tend to be examples of biblical literalism, or musings about why and how extraterrestrials might visit us, and what they might or might not do. In other words, they provide plenty of material for pub bores.

In the middle of the chapter we get an account of the classic Kelly-Hopkinsville incident of 21 August 1955, in which a family claimed to have been besieged by strange creatures which apparently emerged from a flying object which landed behind their house. As the witnesses all belonged to the same family a psychological explanation seems the most rational. However, it was emphasised that they were a family of non-drinkers, although many people are quite capable of getting hysterical without any assistance from alcohol.

There is really not much to say about Vallee's discussion of UFO reports and witnesses. He rather clumsily sets out to convince his readers that there is some mysterious intelligence behind the phenomena. The only reason for this that I can think of is that he knows that most readers prefer this to the critical analysis of interesting reports, undertaking psychological and sociological studies of UFO flaps and beliefs, and generally treating UFO stories as modern foklore.


  1. Oddly enough, I just read this book again myself, finishing it a month ago. My impressions are different, it has stood the test of time. Vallee was only 25 or 26 when he published it, and in some ways it is superior to some of his later wilder, even uncharacteristic speculations, published in some of his books decades later (perhaps Vallee would later be unconsciously motivated by increasing mystification and frustration at a phenomenon that remains impervious to our attempts to get to grips with it, at a fundamental scientific level). The idea that there is a 'mysterious intelligence' - having nothing to do with ET or even extradimensional fractal beings as Vallee has speculated - behind the phenomena is not mutually exclusive to recognizing the folkloric and psychological/sociological aspects to ufology. On the contrary, they may well be mutually complementary, even if that mysterious intelligence is nothing but ourselves. And by the very fact that we still know next to nothing about our *conscious* selves (that is the true depths and reach of the mind and how and to what extent it interacts with the physical world), and perhaps in this day and age, less than ever before, it remains in every way a 'mysterious intelligence'. As mysterious as it has ever been.

    Whatever criticisms one may have of this giant in the field, I think it hardly fair to say that he has ever pandered to audience expectations! Hardly. Let us not forget that approximately four years later, Vallee would publish Passport to Magonia, a landmark book on the folkloric dimension to ufology, whilst continuing to emphasize a hidden inscrutable intelligence to the phenomenon. And he has never wavered on both fronts over the decades. To repeat my point, they may well be two sides of the same coin.

  2. Vallee: "The UFO mystery, because of its appeal to human imagination provides an opportunity for persons who lead a generally dull life to bring a touch of extraterrestrial horror into their existence."

    John Fuller, in Incident at Exeter (1966), called UFOs "a Space Age ghost story."