Six Damn Fine Degrees #103: Occupants of Interplanetary (Most Extraordinary) Craft

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

People don’t seem to get abducted by aliens anymore. Or, at least, if they still are being abducted we don’t get to hear about it. Because one of the strongest memories of my youth was the fact that, like Quicksand and Rabies, Alien Abduction was an ever-present danger. Indeed the whole idea that the Earth was being visited by Extra-Terrestrials was supported by so much anecdotal evidence that it seemed inevitable that they just had to be out there and it would all soon be revealed.

There was a lot of media out there to feed a young mind enthralled by the possibility. On television, science writer Arthur C Clarke hosted several TV shows about the Mysterious World or a World of Strange Powers, all of which touched upon the idea that it seemed very likely that UFOs were aliens and that they were out there. Indeed, bestselling books from the likes of Erich von Däniken suggested that they had always been here, helping us build all of antiquity’s finest moments. Even fiction like Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, with its pseudo-scientific title, seemed to be a fiction set in a world where “this kind of thing” was as likely as a Shark Attack.

But no book did more to engage me in the world of the UFO than the Usborne The World Of The Unknown book on UFOs. Indeed all three books in the series (there was also one on Ghosts and another on Monsters) did a lot to engage me into the world of the paranormal. The books were a treasure trove of anecdotes, stories, photos and illustrations that revolved around the central theme. They didn’t exist to proselytise that the supernatural was definitely real, and they didn’t set out to debunk it. They just tapped into the youthful idea that spaceships – along with aliens, poltergeists, werewolves, other planets, blood-sucking stones, Nessie, Beowulf, haunted houses and talking mongooses – were awesome. And that’s just the tip of what they covered.

As I got older and read more ‘serious’ works on the reality of ghosts and alien abductions, a very peculiar thing happened. I got less interested in the subject. The more it demanded to be taken seriously, and the more the books sneered at those who weren’t obviously true believers the sheer colour and vitality of these stories and these worlds seemed to drain away.

There is always a point in many of these books/TV shows where a ghost or UFO expert demands an answer to a variation on this question, “Which is more likely, that aliens are here or that all these good, honest and trustworthy people who claim to have seen them are liars?” At first, this seems like a pretty compelling argument that the aliens are out there, probing away. But at some point, like an epiphany, it switches. Or at least it did for me. That all these good witnesses are lying, or at least wildly misinterpreted what actually happened, seems far more likely to be what’s happening.

Going back to a lot of the supernatural media I loved as a kid is also a sobering experience. On the re-read or re-watch it is dreadful. Arthur C Clarke’s TV shows are shoddily constructed magazine shows, spouting gibberish in a po-faced serious narrator voice. After twenty-five minutes of the laziest research into the paranormal, Arthur C Clarke would appear at the end to invariably ask the question, “Was this all real? – Well, quite frankly we just don’t know.”

The casual racism of Erich von Däniken and those like him, unable to conceive that humans from outside Europe could build impressively, seems obvious now. What is interesting is not the reality of aliens and ghosts, but the extent to which a fantasy can become a cultural phenomenon. How they become modern myths and legends, and then how they evolve. Flying saucers and alien abductions, once ubiquitous, have become their own period myth, rooted in the second half of the twentieth century.

But one thing that does not disappoint is the Usborne books. Originally published in the ’70s, they acquired quite a cult following, so much so that the last few years have seen them reprinted. They remain beautifully bizarre, a smorgasbord of strange stories, odd illustrations and fantastical facts. Or at least, what might possibly be facts. Because, quite frankly, we just don’t know.

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