I saw a flying saucer the other day. I’d popped into the British Library in London to visit their current science fiction exhibition, and at the entrance was a model of a crashed saucer. It got me thinking about the changing mythology of UFOs.
To say that Unidentified Flying Objects are the subject of mythology is not the same as saying UFOs are imaginary. Throughout history people have noticed strange things in the skies, and at any one time there are competing attempts to explain what was seen. However, there appear to be fashions that affect which stories permeate the public consciousness most deeply at a particular time and in a particular place.
Sightings of fiery shapes in the air probably did much to influence ancient tales of dragons, for instance, as well as stories about the loogaroo of West Indian folklore (a vampiric witch who lives as an old woman by day but strips off its skin at night to fly around as a fireball). Around the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, reports from the USA, Europe, and New Zealand interpreted lights in the sky as mysterious airships.
These airships were often thought of as scientific wonders piloted by genius inventors, evoking the contemporary fiction of Jules Verne and similar authors. Other writers were simultaneously drawing on the idea that the planet Mars might be inhabited, enthused by the then-popular belief that apparently straight lines on the Red Planet’s surface were artificial canals. Those stories fuelled a sense that the airships might actually be Martian vehicles.
The idea of UFOs as spaceships really took off in 1947, following a US sighting by pilot Kenneth Arnold, and it’s fascinating to note that Arnold reported the objects he saw as crescent-shaped. It was their motion in flight that he described as like a saucer skipping across water, but widespread misunderstanding of a reporter’s subsequent phrase -- “flying saucers” -- struck a chord with the public.
That happened at the dawn of the Space Age, as World War II rocket technology blasted first machines, then animals and eventually humans into a new frontier. It was incredibly fertile imaginative ground for the concept of UFOs as spaceships, and, although the “flying saucer” itself gradually fell from favour, “UFO” and “alien spacecraft” remained largely synonymous.
I know I’m using pretty broad strokes here, but as I looked back at that crashed flying saucer I couldn’t help but wonder whether this familiar Space Age-influenced mythology will continue to evolve.
Interest in space exploration is waning, with the most visible indication being the end of the Space Shuttle programme. There are concerns about how much space exploration costs, and a growing feeling we should concentrate on matters closer to home.
With rising concern over the environment, might we soon be drawn more towards framing strange aerial phenomena as unusual weather effects? Perhaps heightened tensions among and between various religious groups will coincide with a shift towards interpreting heavenly sightings as visionary events. Might increasing paranoia over security manifest in reports of hi-tech surveillance craft? The possibilities are numerous.
Most interestingly, will a shift in popular mythology - if and when it emerges - move us closer to or further from the truth of what might be above our heads?
(Out of this World: Science Fiction but not as you know it is free and runs until 25 September 2011.)