Link and Comments: UFOs and Other Fairy Tales

No I don’t “believe” in UFOs, in the sense of believing them to be evidence of extraterrestrial visitors, because I’ve long been too familiar with the many ways human perception can go awry and of the many ways reports of supernatural phenomena have turned out to have mundane explanations.

It’s probably worth making this key point: science fiction writers, and readers, are generally far less credulous about such matters than the general population is. That is, just because we read SF doesn’t mean we believe in UFOs or psychics who predict the future or any other supernatural phenomena; that these are recurring themes in mass media SF — movies and TV shows — is because these must appeal to audiences far wider than the relatively hard-minded crowd of SF readers, and it’s partly for this reason that SF movies and TV shows are disrespected by the more knowledgeable and rigorously thinking readers.

Ross Douthat, of all people, makes this in a recent NYT op-ed, Flying Saucers and Other Fairy Tales.

Rather, it’s that our alien encounters, whether real or imaginary, are the same kind of thing as the fairy encounters of the human past — part of an enduring phenomenon whose interpretations shift but whose essentials are consistent, featuring the same abductions and flying crafts and lights and tricks with crops and animals and time and space, the same shape-shifting humanoids and sexual experiments and dangerous gifts and mysterious intentions.

He recalls the Victorian zeal for beliefs in fairies (you know, tiny little winged creatures found amongst the garden flowers), and Erich von Däniken’s of evidence for ancient alien astronauts in the 1960s.

Certainly for most sensible secular scientific-minded people, to say that our era’s close encounters are of the same type as encounters with the unseelie court of faerie is to say that they are all equally imaginary, proceeding from internalized fancies and hallucinatory substances and late-night wrong turns, plus some common evolved subconscious that fears shape-shifting tricksters in modern Nevada no less than in the mists around Ben Bulben.

But then Douthat takes refuge in the (to me equally imaginary) contingencies of his Christian faith.

So the glamour of U.F.O.s, like the glamour of faerie, is an understandable object of curiosity but a dangerous object for any kind of faith. The only kind of God worth trusting is the kind who does not play tricks.

It is trivially easy, of course, to imagine ways in which God’s presence might be made less evasive and dubious than the experience of the real world, and the fragmentary inconsistency of the Gospels, actually provides; and dismiss that fairy tale too.

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