I read that New York Times story last weekend on my phone. You know, the one about Navy aviators encountering UFOs that seemed to travel around San Diego at speeds of 24,000 miles an hour. The story had details about a secret government program that studied phenomena like this. It was the pride of Harry Reid to fund it; he always struck me as not quite human himself. There was also the crony Pentagon contractor who had collected mysterious and scientifically unidentifiable “alloys.” The report said that people who got near the alloys experienced “physical effects” and researchers were studying them. The story had corroborating video narrated by a Navy pilot.
I closed the browser and tried to enjoy the rest of my evening, which I was spending with my extended family. My phone’s battery was dying. Maybe it would be our last like this, I wondered. Because like anyone with my imagination, I had worked through the thought experiment about the effects of such a credible-sounding report and accompanying videos. I wondered if most of my fellow citizens would not share my skepticism, and if by the next day’s mid morning there might be rioting across major cities, reports of mass suicides, and the sudden appearance of new doomsday cults. Maybe Trump would tweet that he was communicating with the aliens. Or it would be admitted that they were communicating to us through him. However it was going to play out, I was anticipating some potential for generalized scream-until-you-need-to-gasp-for-more-air-to-scream-again panic.
But so far this week people are getting on with their lives like nothing happened. I’m wrapping presents and making long-term plans.
My mother was a fan of science fiction, especially the many incarnations of Star Trek and movies like Contact. The vision of human space travel and interplanetary interaction in these stories is informed by high-minded values, like the universal declaration of human rights. Aliens were just a new part of humanity’s mission civilisatrice. Man steps out of his old national and religious antagonisms. He unites with all other men and builds new alliances to explore a beautiful universe, for the good of all its creatures. There might be some scary moments, but fundamentally we’re all going to benefit from meeting each other.
This never made sense to me. Star Trek, like the theology of Karl Rahner, or fond memories of the Summer of Love, is the sort of thing that makes no sense to me when Boomers explain it. I simply cannot understand people who had some idea of what humans had been doing to each other during the first half of the 20th century being optimistic about human nature or a human future. Yet all the evidence suggests that some of them were.
I was more of an X-Files kid. Conspiracies, paranoia, and the uncanny appealed to me more than an interplanetary United Nations did. I believed with the fictional Fox Mulder that the truth was out there. And it was unsettling.
My idea of aliens was informed more by the grimly authoritative accounts in Time Life’s Mysteries of the Unknown; films such as Fire in the Sky, which sensationalized the alien abduction story of Travis Walton; or just the sadism of my boyhood. If there was life out there, it would probably treat me no differently than I treated ants. I had frequent nightmares about waking up, like Walton, underneath some disgusting membrane on a spaceship, or watching helplessly as mute, bug-eyed creatures vivisected me. I would scream as they excitedly pulled out what struck them as an improbably long digestive tract. I could tell they thought it was inefficient and primitive as biology. And then I’d wake up.
I can’t quite get a read on what the hive mind of the culture wants us to think and feel about the possibility of intelligent life on other planets.
I wrote juvenile short stories about alien abductions, and how the survivors were never believed even though they had become dead-eyed, emotionless versions of themselves. But some sympathetic twitchy polymath would come along and explain that abductions happen all the time; this is what changelings always were. The Fairies of folklore were just interplanetary jerks letting their bored curiosity ruin human lives in the same way that I might traumatize a praying mantis.
I can’t quite get a read on what the hive mind of the culture wants us to think and feel about the possibility of intelligent life on other planets. The smart and safe attitude seems to say that on the one hand the universe is far too large, and our place in it far too obscure and remote, for us to arrogantly believe we are the only intelligent life out here, much less that we are at the center of some great cosmic drama. On the other hand, a smart and intelligent person in our culture is also obliged to treat as a rube anyone who really believes that the aliens that must exist somewhere have visited us. We’re supposed to chuckle at someone who might react to the Times story with genuine credulity or alarm. We’re supposed to put all our chips on the italicized preface to one of those stories: “Experts caution that earthly explanations often exist for such incidents, and that not knowing the explanation does not mean that the event has interstellar origins.”
Over time I put away Mysteries of the Unknown and tried to forget my nightmarish preoccupations with life out there. And on balance, I resolved to believe we probably are alone. I’m fine being the sort of person unsophisticated enough to believe humanity really is at the center of the great cosmic drama, that all this space, all those lights, all the cosmic flashes, and all this beautiful and scary mystery was daubed across the great blackness for us. In fact I think this is the more humble view, the one that accepts that humanity isn’t left to “socially construct” all the meaning for itself.
But once in a while, I think it is okay to take a second glance at the mysterious picture and think to yourself the words on that poster in Mulder’s office: “I want to believe.”