Robbie Graham (editor) UFOs: Reframing the Debate. White Crow Books, 2017.

I am starting this review on 24 June 2017; the seventieth anniversary of Kenneth Arnold’s sighting of nine strange objects over the Cascade Mountains, which launched the social panic that began the age of the UFO. This book, a collection of fifteen essays, coincides with that anniversary and seeks to present new and differing perspectives on ufology.

If by 'ufology' is meant what editor Robbie Graham calls the 'Megachurch' of unthinking belief in the reality of UFOs as extraterrestrial spaceships, the inhabitants of which go around abducting people willy-nilly and that the US government has access to this 'truth' and must be badgered into 'disclosing' that truth, then indeed this book offers new perspectives. If however by ufology is meant the entire history of the subject, then there is little that is truly new here.

The contributors fall into two broad categories; those such as veteran Canadian ufologist Chris Rutkowski along with Micah Hanks, Jack Brewer and Curt Collins who look to a 'scientific ufology', stripped of its numerous cultural accretions. Hanks, for example, refers back to Allan Hendry’s UFO Handbook (1979). It is an approach typified the painstaking demolition of alleged slides of the alleged Roswell alien by Curt Collins. The central proposition is that if ufology could only be cleared of cultists, or more politely, a quasi-religious world view, then proper scientists would take an interest in the subject.

However this is exactly what ufology was striving for forty or even fifty years ago. Themes like these can be found in early issues of MUFORG Bulletin and MUFOB. Even Flying Saucer Review published quite scientific papers on the then hot topic of orthoteny. Sober and serious books were written.

Conversely other contributors to this volume argue exactly the opposite that the fringe material is an integral part of the subject and indeed ufology must broaden its scope to cover all sorts of anomalous personal experiences, with the general assumption that such experiences are evidence of some exotic external reality. Joshua Cutchin beliefs that this will challenge 'materialist' science and that 'materialist' science will fall some time soon, but people have been saying that for over 150 years without effect. Susan Demeter-St Clair argues that ufology is connected to parapsychology. Someone calling himself 'Red Pill Junkie' links the subject, as does Cutchin with magic or rather 'magick'. Greg Bishop argues that we somehow co-create 'The Phenomenon'. Experiencers such as Mike Clelland argue that anomalous experiences are much more widely prevalent and often much weirder than is usually assumed. Of course Clelland still thinks in terms of the UFO folklore, describing himself as an abductee rather than someone who has had some very unusual experiences.

This line of thought can also be traced back fifty years, to the writings of John Keel, and the ur-text quoted is Vallee’s Invisible College, written 42 years ago. Themes along these lines can be found in issues of MUFOB going back to the 1960s. Indeed much of the writing in this book has a very sixties feel to it. Some of the themes here can be found in the writings of Tom Comella aka Peter Kor in Ray Palmer’s Flying Saucers magazine back in the early years of that decade.

Another theme that runs through a number of the contributions is that somehow ufology was created and maintained by the US government for various obscure reasons, perhaps to make the Soviet’s believe that the Americans had access to various not altogether pleasant technologies, or as mechanism of social control in the event of a crisis. Or perhaps more plausibly as a cover for testing various experimental aircraft.

The problem that most of the contributors have is that they possess at least a residual belief that there is some exotic stimulus out there which might be the core 'UFO phenomenon'. The more likely probability is that while a small minority of UFO reports might well be generated by uncatalogued natural phenomena or rare neurological events, the real core 'UFO phenomenon' is a social and cultural construct rather than a physical one.

If the UFO phenomenon is essentially a product of our imaginations then so too are the kinds of ideas invented to explain them, which might be one reason why the same ideas keep cropping up time and again. Another reason is that in the age of the Internet we are gradually losing our history.

This is rather amusingly demonstrated by an article by M J Banias who argues that ufology is a sort of anti-capitalist protest movement which is ignored by the establishment because they can’t make money out of it. This might seem plausible in the age of free Internet sites and self-publishing, but in its heyday ufology was very much a capitalist enterprise fuelled by the desire to sell books, magazines and newspapers. Publishers only published books on the subject in order to make money and judging by the number of books published in the 1960s and 1970s they were quite successful at this. The truth is that UFOs have been a saleable commodity from Kenneth Arnold onwards.

What struck me also about this book is that like much of what it critiques it is overwhelmingly Americocentric despite its editor being British. There are only passing references to Hilary Evans, David Clarke, none to Peter Brookesmith, Nigel Watson, Andy Roberts or even Charles Bowen. No mention of Fortean Times or for that matter Magonia, and certainly none of the likes of Bertrand Méheust, Jacques Scornaux, Mauzio Verga, V. J. Ballester Olmos, Clas Svahn, or even the European pioneers like Aime Michel.

That being said this is still well worth reading particularly for newcomers to the subject, and brings out what appears to be a division between those who see UFO experiences in strictly secular scientific terms and those who see them as essentially religious experiences, a modern version of the distinction between 'UFO' and 'Flying Saucer' belief systems that I noted in my 'Revisionist History of Ufology': http://mufobmagazine.blogspot.co.uk/2014/03/revisionist.html -- Peter Rogerson

1 comment:

  1. " . . . some exotic stimulus out there might be the core of the 'UFO phenomenon'. There's no flaw in that hypothesis. Where the train jumps the tracks is assuming whatever the phenomenon is, it’s under intelligent control and is willfully interacting with humans. I think that's a false assumption.

    Yes, there is the cultural phenomenon of Ufology, which consists of UFO true believers, totally unqualified, self-identified “researchers”, 20th century pulp science fiction, comics, films, books, TV shows, bogus research organizations (e.g. MUFON), conferences, festivals, and now YouTube videos, podcasts, live streaming, social media, blogs, and even electronic games.

    But there are also silent, credible witnesses who aren’t now nor ever were involved in any of the above. Members of my own family shared an event that could be described as a UFO encounter. What they saw terrified and confused them. To this day their experience defies any mundane explanation. They've never reported it to any organization. Over time, they’ve come to shrug it off as “just one of those things,” and chuckle at my occasional interest in UFOs (though their experience was its catalyst). I strongly suspect the real phenomenon is represented by these types of witnesses, not those who file high-profile, dodgy reports with government agencies and questionable UFO organizations.

    I think it might be premature or inaccurate to insist there is no phenomenon behind UFOs (and other paranormal events). But, I believe that whatever the phenomenon might be, it’s natural, random, infrequent, brain scrambling, and some of its most credible experiencers, who might unknowingly hold information that’s key to identifying it, refuse to come forward. Ufology has shamed them into silence.