Flying Saucers, Science Fiction, & Little Green Men
'Look! It's moving! It's alive! It's alive... It's alive, it's moving! It's alive, it's alive, it's alive, it's alive, IT'S ALIVE!
Henry - In the name of God!
Oh, in the name of God! Now I know what it feels like to be God!'
Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel – FRANKENSTEIN. These words are often attributed to it, which is funny as these words ‘It’s alive’ don’t actually appear in the book, but rather the screenplay for the 1931 film. FRANKENSTEIN is considered to be the first science fiction book ever written; a science fiction, because the book’s monster, which is called Adam (as in the first man), was not natural, or paranormal. It did not slouch forth from dark woods, come forth from Satanic realms, or emanate out from dark celestial plains unseen, but rather it was intentionally created in a lab, animated into life with electricity. As the 19th Century progressed, and then we moved into the 20th Century, more typical examples of science fiction emerged. H. G Wells' science fiction warned of the potential threat of technological progress. Well’s work was also used to challenge contemporary society. Take for example his 1989 book ‘The War of the Worlds’ which was about a super advanced alien race coming to invade England. An alien race which was cruel, and apparently unstoppable. He used this elaborate imaginative fiction to challenge us to rethink our colonial past. In the days of Empire were we not the cruel, super advanced alien race, invading where we liked, apparently unstoppable? One of my assumptions about life is that narrative and story is very important, perhaps the most important thing on our planet. The narratives we tell ourselves, the narratives we gather around in community, the narratives we like to consume, in novel, theatre, computer game, or film form - it is through the narratives we tell ourselves that we understand what we are, what we’re doing, and where we’re going. In 1890 the science fiction writer H. P. Lovecraft was interviewed. He was asked what he saw as the purpose of his writing. He said he was a writer of tales of the uncanny, and he hoped his writing would fill the void left in the wake of religion. He said, ‘Imaginative creations are our faith now’. I think this comment is incredibly insightful – the myths, and meaning inducing narratives, which were once disseminated by our Churches and Meeting Houses, today are far more convincingly propagated through games, novels, radio programs, television series, and cinemas. This profoundly impacts upon the way the world shows up to us, what we deem credible, plausible, and reasonable. We are shaped in no small way by the narratives we consume. This means that the world to an individual who regularly goes to Church as opposed to the individual who regularly goes to the movie house, really is different! This also goes a long way in explaining the generational gulf which we sometimes uncover, when collectively trying to understand things. If you’re exposed to different narratives, the world literally appears different to you. To illustrate this, I’m going to go back one-hundred years…
To August 1914 – Britain declares war on Germany. The first major battle for the British in that war was the Battle of Mons which took place on the 23rd August. Mons was a small abandoned town in Belgium. British soldiers fortified themselves up and down the canal of Mons, awaiting the advance of the German troops. The Germans arrived with immense force, with considerably more troops at their disposal. Ultimately British soldiers were forced to retreat and abandon the position, but not before achieving a considerable, disproportionate blow upon the advancing German ranks. A great deal of mythology in the months and years after the battle arose: miraculous tales of angelic warriors, and phantom longbowman. As World War I progressed, these stories were used to fuel the idea that the British were acting under divine providence, that the Allies were fighting on the side of God. The notion of angels coming tangibly to aid of soldiers on the battlefield in the early 1900s was a credible notion. By the World War II however, Christianity had declined enough that angelic warriors on the battlefield was no longer considered a reasonable possibility. The Christian narrative of the 19th and early 20th Century was so powerful, and so pervasive, informing the worldview of every man on the Western Front, that they saw and were willing to believe they saw angelic beings coming to their aid. This demonstrates the unbelievable power of narrative. It doesn’t matter what you see – it only matters what you believe you saw. So, this raises an interesting question. If the Christian narrative then, which was consumed by most, had that kind of impact, what about the narratives of popular contemporary culture? What about science fiction, fantasy, and the advent of cinema? And that brings me to UFOs. UFOs were a phenomenon that materialised post the Second World War. The whole idea of UFOs entered the public’s imagination in 1947, when an American aviator, Kenneth Arnold, sighted nine boomerang shaped crafts while flying in Washington State. The story captured the public’s imagination because Kenneth Arnold was not a crackpot, he was a skilled and experienced search and rescue pilot. When describing the objects he apparently sighted he said they were half-moon shaped, something like a plate cut in half, like a big flat disk, or saucer-like. It was this word ‘saucer’ that the media really ran with, and the term ‘flying saucer’ was coined. From that moment onwards, the ‘flying saucer’ seed was planted in people’s minds. Hundreds of reports followed which described UFOs in what has become their stereotypical shape (as you have on the front of your order of service): flying saucer-like crafts from distant galaxies. These sightings always had a boost after big UFO movies came out, re-energising the public’s imaginations. The ideas of science fiction were the best metaphors for what we didn’t understand. However, interest in UFOs has really declined over the last 10-15 years. And the reason for that, as John Higgs points out in his book ‘Stranger that we can imagine’, is the rise of the smart phone. Today it is not enough to just gossip unexplained sightings into the public imagination. No one has an excuse any more, as most of us have phones with cameras in our pockets. And perhaps not surprisingly, the unpresented rise of camera accessibility has not resulted in the sudden emergence of credible UFO evidence. This UFO story is very similar to the WWI angel story, as both illustrate the power of narrative. UFOs can only be seen in a world in which people read science fiction, and angels only come to the aid of soldiers, when soldiers believe in angels.
Right, now I’m going to return to my favourite psychoanalyst. In 1959 Carl Jung wrote a book called ‘Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies’. This was the final book he wrote, two years before his death in 1961, aged 85. Carl Jung was not interested in whether UFOs were real, he was much more interested in the sudden rise of people thinking they were real, which came about in the late 20th Century. Carl Jung noted that throughout history, people have reported unexplainable things: Spirits, Ghosts, Fairies, Demons, and Gods. Carl Jung believed that we interpret these kinds of phenomena through the lens of our culture. It was dependent upon what our cultured deemed credible. The fact that we were now interpreting the ‘other’ in this new way suggested to Jung that a change had taken place in our collective unconscious. Jung put this down to Cold War paranoia, and the ‘alien’ nature of our technological progress. He believed the UFO phenomena told us more about our own culture than it did about alien spaceships. So, culture, and the narratives we consume, shape the world we see. This morning I have used these very elaborate examples - alien spaceships and phantom longbowman - to illustrate what must be happening to all of us in a much more subtle way. Whenever we assess the likelihood of something, express a preference, or an opinion, we are perhaps hopelessly conditioned by the world as we have known it. And that brings me to consider ‘individualism’. The greatest science fiction epic of all time is surely the 1977 release of ‘Star Wars’. That single film’s impact upon popular culture, popular mythology, and our collective imagination is unquantifiable. It set the Hollywood blockbuster standard. Every child growing up in the 80s and 90s had some kind of Star Wars toy. If you were to poll my generation (and the generation before me) on what they deemed more credible, ‘The Force’ or ‘God’, I can guarantee ‘The Force’ would win hands down. To this day my friends are far more likely to quote the sage advice of the Master Jedi Yoda, than any religious teacher: ‘Do or do not. There is no try’. ‘Remember, a Jedi’s strength flows from the Force. But beware. Anger, fear, aggression - the dark side are they. Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny’. George Lucas, the writer and director of Star Wars, modelled his Space Opera on a book by Joseph Campbell that was published in 1949, called ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces’. The book proposed that all religious mythologies, popular narratives, and epic legends throughout history are all imperfect expressions of this one super myth that is rooted deep down within our collective unconscious. This Super myth is called ‘The Hero’s Journey’, and it goes like this: there is a man (and it usually is a man). He is ordinary, and in an ordinary place, but he is called to adventure, he encounters an older mentor. On his quest he is drawn into a realm of supernatural wonder, he confronts many trials before confronting and defeating a great evil. Ultimately, he returns to where he has come from, uplifted, and transformed, able to inspire good. This simple narrative arc was used very explicitly in crafting what became ‘Star Wars’, and its success impacted deeply upon the creation of subsequent fictional narrative and cinema. I would say every child of the 70s, 80s, and 90s was shaped to some extent by this narrative. Every child grew up identifying with the Hero, with Luke Skywalker. Every child framed the ark of their own life through the lens of the ‘The Hero’s Journey’, the individual’s journey to rise and conquer the forces of evil.
So, we can ask the question, is Joseph Campbell right to believe ‘The Hero’s Journey’ underpins all other narrative? Most mythologists today would be very critical of that reductionist understanding. Most today would argue that there is not a single mono-narrative like that, but many. And perhaps we should not be surprised that this individualistic, patriarchal, might-makes-right narrative was the narrative of preference for a post-WW2, white American male - Joseph Campbell. Still believing in the myth of redemptive violence. Narrative doesn’t just shape the world we see, it shapes how we understand ourselves, how we make sense of our place in this world, what we expect for ourselves, and what we believe our futures hold. In conclusion then, narrative is important. It shapes our world. Perhaps no other narrative today impacts upon us more than Science Fiction, and that is obviously the case whether you watch it or not, because it informs society at large. To be a conscious human being today requires critical engagement with the world’s narratives. Its requires us to be culturally multi-lingual, it requires us to listen, be present, read, and watch.
Citation: Some of the ideas in this address come from a great book I am reading at the moment, John Higgs' 'Stranger than we can imagine: making sense of the 20th Century'.