UFO Imagery in John Wyndham's 'Worlds to Barter'

The psychosocial view of ufology argues that the UFO experience is essentially an internal, psychological event, whose imagery and content is shaped by contemporary events and culture. Much of this has its origins in occultism, popular science and astronomy, and Science Fiction. Magonia's long time contributor, Martin Kottmeyer, showed in his series of articles, 'Varicose Brains', how the aliens with large brains typical of many UFO encounters ultimately had its origin in Victorian evolutionary theory and speculation about the eventual form humanity would take in the far future. [1] This then entered Science Fiction, where it formed the basis of the diminutive, intellectually decadent Eloi in H.G. Wells' The Time Machine, and the Martians in The War of the Worlds.

John Wyndham is best known for his novels The Day of the Triffids, The Midwich Cuckoos, which was filmed as Village of the Damned, The Chrysalids, The Kraken Wakes and The Trouble with Lichen. Of these, The Midwich Cuckoos and The Kraken Wakes express and fear of space as the source of hostile aliens threatening to conquer Earth and exterminate humanity common to much of the SF at the time, and the general paranoia following the emergence of the Iron Curtain and the expansion of Communism. 

But Wyndham was also an author of SF short stories in the pulp magazines before the Second World War. One of these, 'Worlds to Barter', first published in 1931, and later anthologised in the collection Sleepers of Mars, published by Coronet in 1973, contains much UFO imagery from the form of the hostile invaders and their immense mental powers to the shapes of their aircraft.

Two scientists, Professor Lestrange and the narrator, Harry Wright, are working in the laboratory on the Professor's latest invention, when they are interrupted by the sudden appearance of Jon Lestrange, a time traveller from the 22nd Century. This new Lestrange is a refugee from an invasions of humans from half a million years in the future. Their world is dying, and to prevent the final extinction of humanity, this future race has travelled back to the far past with the intention of swapping places with their distant ancestors. The people of the 22nd century are to be forcibly transported to their time, while the people of the future take their places. 

Although dying, with the Mediterranean Sea now dried up to form a deep basin, Earth is not yet dead. The people of the 22nd century will enjoy all the benefits and machinery of the civilisation of the humans of the far future. There will even be enough time for them to give rise to a further three or four generations before the final end. The future humans, however, believe that coming back to the 22nd century will give them the necessary time for them to evolve into purely discarnate intelligences that can survive the final death of the Earth and sun.

The future people first warn the people of the 22nd century of their intentions and demands through a series of broadcasts heard simultaneously around the world, which are at first believed to be caused by them interrupting radio broadcasts. When these are ignored, They order the world's government to assemble a committee of ordinary people, who will be transported by the future humans to their secret city. Jon Lestrange, an ordinary citizen, was a member of this international party, who were taken to the future people's secret base in the Sahara desert south of Algiers. There the future race finally show themselves to them, and images of the Earth and its city, Cyp, of their own time. The delegates are, however, unable to convince their governments that the threat is genuine. In order to make their power and intentions clear, the people of the future cut off the electricity supply around the world, causing death and disaster as major services break down, including aircraft falling out of the sky. 

This then begins a war between the people of the 22nd Century and the humans of the far future, a war which the people of the distant future are winning. The future race also set up a series of sites in different countries across the world, where they will take the people of the 22nd century forward to their time. The landing site in Britain is Salisbury Plain. Jon Lestrange and his wife, Mary, make their way there, where they find one large time machine used to transport the crowds of refugees, and two smaller time machines used to transport the pilots from the future. 

Jon Lestrange is able to overcome the two future men, and he and Mary both take control of the smaller machines. Mary accidentally knocks one of the dials setting the machine's destination, and she and Jon become separated. Jon tells the Professor and Wright that he is afraid he has lost his wife forever in time. All ends happily for him as she then reappears after he has told his tale. She had only knocked the dial a little, so that she arrived a few hours after he did. The story ends there, with the couple safe, but the people of the 22nd century being conquered and supplanted by their far future descendants.

The people of the far future very much follow the established conventions of what Victorian evolutionary biologists and SF writers expected them to be like. They are short, with large brains and atrophied bodies. Before the future race finally make themselves known, two of them are killed in accidents, such as when one materialises in front of a train. The bodies are discovered, and forensically examined. Jon Lestrange gives his ancestors the following description of them.
There could be no doubt that the corpse was human, though to us, whose standards were still those of ancient Greece, the thing appeared a travesty. In height, it must have stood about five feet. The head had twice the volume of others, though the enlargement was mainly frontal. The neck was thickened to support the weight, until the shoulders barely projected. Puny arms ended in small hands, of which no finger carried a nail and none was longer than two inches. Each foot was just a pad showing no articulation of the toes.
'When the dissectors got to work on the body, they noticed many other curious malformations, such as abbreviated intestines, an atrophied aural system and absence of teeth.... (p. 67).
Various explanations for the body are suggested, including a hoax, the product of a vivisection experiment, and that the creature is an interplanetary visitor.

This is very much like the descriptions of various UFO occupants, like the notorious Greys, who are also short, with large brains, no ears and a severely simplified digestive system. Wyndham's people of the far future are physically weak, but they are able to affect their environment, including knocking over one of the party of 22nd century people, who is trying to interfere with one of the time machines, though sheer will power. (p.76) The creatures themselves communicate by mental projection. This is proved when the people of 22nd century London attempt to record one of the dwarfs' radio messages, only to find that nothing has been mechanically recorded. (pp. 78-9) 

This, again, is very much like the accounts of aliens, including Greys, communicating by telepathy. There are also several accounts of extraterrestrial contactees attempting to record UFO aliens supposedly speaking via radio transmission, such as those of Byron Goodman, George Hunt Williamson, John Otto, the South African contactee 'Edwin', Bob Renaud, Dr. Edward W. Goldstein, and the notorious Uri Geller. [2]. 

John Otto's case is somewhat similar to Wyndham's short story, as in 1954 he was on WGN, a Chicago radio station, and requested any extraterrestrials then visiting Earth to break into the station's transmission. Most people did not hear anything, though four listeners stated that they had heard sounds and another person recorded what sounded like a short-wave teletype transmission. [3] It is also quite different from Wyndham, in that it is the humans, who are attempting to communicate by radio, only a tiny minority of whom are able to pick up the reply, which, unlike that of Wyndham's dwarfs, could be recorded.

The aircraft the dwarfs use for flight, taking the international delegation to their desert base is described as a silver cylinder. Jon Lestrange goes on to describe it as
... about equal to one of our larger airships. Built of silvery metal, it tapered at each end, and along the sides were rows of windows. Nothing more was to be seen; it gave no clue to the manner of the propulsion. (p. 70).
This is again similar to the accounts of the cigar- and spindle-shaped UFOs also reported by UFO witnesses, such the pilots Clarence S. Chiles and John B. Whitted in July 1948, and the astronomer Professor Clyde Tombaugh in August 1949. [4] It also anticipates the theory that UFO aliens are visitors from the far future rather than extraterrestrials.

Wyndham did not invent the image of future humanity as small beings with large heads. The French astronomer Camille Flammarion did that in his Omega: The Last Days of the World [5] ( followed by Wells' The Time Machine a couple of years later, and the image had become a staple Science Fiction motif by the time Wyndham was writing, as were telepathy and psychic powers. Apart from entertaining his readers, Wyndham's story nevertheless served to keep the motif alive and disseminate it further. It provides further evidence to show that the persistent figure of UFO aliens as small, large brained creatures, like the Greys, has its origin in the SF and evolutionary speculation of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

  1. See, for example','Varicose Brains: Part One: Entering a Grey Area', in Magonia 62, and 'Heading Towards the Future: Varicose Brains Part Two', Magonia 68, pp.10.
  2. Janet and Collin Bord: Life Beyond Earth, pp. 116-21, 122-8.
  3. J. and C. Bord, op. cit., p. 121.
  4. John and Anne Spencer, Fifty Years of UFOs, pp. 25-6.
  5. Kottmeyer, op. cit., p. 3.

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