UFO sightings are having another moment in the sun. Or the night sky, if you will. The US Senate—that august body of calm, deliberative, level-headed people—will hear from the Pentagon in June about the newest evidence for unidentified flying objects. The TV networks will zoom in on fuzzy video showing bright lights performing amazing, inexplicable feats, and Google searches on “alien invasion” will crash the internet.
As a science fiction writer and reader, I love every minute of this comedy. When I was a teenager in the 70s, I gobbled up tons of books and articles “proving” UFOs were alien craft with suspicious intent. People had been seeing UFOs since the mid-19th century, when manned balloons started dotting the sky over county fairs and battlefields. In the mid-20th century, a private pilot spotted nine “flying saucers” in 1947 at Mount Rainier, near Seattle, birthing the new pseudoscience of “ufology.” People thought there was something serious going on, because “trained” observers, including cops, military pilots, and people with Phds, were seeing them. Guess what? They’re as easily fooled as the rest of us.
The flying saucer story midwifed the UFO-industrial complex, which I experienced in movies and TV shows, as well as books presented as non-fiction. Programs such as “Outer Limits” put the mystery front-and-center; “The Invaders” made a hidden alien invasion, a close sibling to UFO sightings, its main premise. One British-made sci-fi show made no bones about its point: It was called “UFO.”
Television news is treating the newest revelations of a secret government program to study UFOs as if it’s something new, which it isn’t, of course. 60 Minutes spent a May 17 segment (see below) on the latest claims, but only briefly mentioned Project Blue Book, a 15-year effort by the Pentagon in the 1950s and 60s to decipher UFO phenomena. The military’s furtive, cloak-and-dagger treatment of UFOs (They’re now called “unidentified aerial phenomena,” a distinction without a difference) spawned more exposure of color film stock. My all-time favorite is “The X-Files,” wherein outcast-but-still-employed FBI agent Fox Mulder attempts to unmask the government cover-up, believing “the truth is out there.”
This is the actual truth: Some folks want full explanations for every mystery, and when one isn’t forthcoming, they assume the darkest scenarios.
As usual, the discussion misses the forest for the trees. The foundational emotion to UFO madness is fear of the unknown, or more precisely, that things are not what they seem. After the horrific experience of World War II and the emergence of a perceived existential enemy in the Soviet Union, Americans saw spies and invaders in every dark corner; aliens from space arriving in mysterious craft were an easy way to express this anxiety.
After the Cold War ended in 1989, a more diffuse, but still compelling belief in secret conspiracies by powerful corporations and governments took over. In 2021, amid a pandemic and at the sunset of the most disastrous presidency in history, loss of trust in institutions and the lightning spread of false ideas on social media blossomed into the January 6 insurrection, a direct result of delusional thinking. The Senate taking up the cause of UFOs just five months later fits nicely into the current American zeitgeist.
I’m having a great time watching this unfold. I’ve seen it all before, but it’s fun watching it morph into its own 21st-century form. It’s nostalgic and a little sad. We’re so easily distracted, especially as we stare down a deadly virus and gird ourselves to fight climate change. Let’s enjoy these shiny objects for a while, as long as we get back to the real work of survival.
Do you believe in UFOs? Why?