The Big Idea: David Halperin
Posted on February 12, 2011 Posted by John Scalzi 10 Comments
Hey there, folks. As I am busy today doing panels and signing books and fighting back the alien invasion of Chicago, I thought I might fill the void that otherwise might be here today by dropping in a Big Idea post. And what a thematically appropriate Big Idea we have for today, as David Halperin, a former professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, is here to talk about his debut novel, Journal of a UFO Investigator. I mention Professor Halperin’s other gig not just to impress you with his book learning (and Book learning, as it were), but because as you’ll see, for Halperin, there’s a thematic connection between UFOs and his chosen field of academia. Here he is to explain how.
In the fall of 1960, when I was just about thirteen years old, I became a believer in Unidentified Flying Objects. For the next four or five years I made a substantial nuisance of myself, trying to convince anyone with the smallest disposition to listen that our skies were being visited by spaceships from another world, possibly here on a mission of peace and friendship. But more likely, in my considered adolescent opinion, they’d come bent on invasion and conquest.
How was it possible, the grownups around me demanded, that a bright kid like me could believe this stuff? My answer was that I was simply bowing to the weight of the evidence. Now, with the perspective of fifty years, I can see how I deceived myself. For me, and I think for those in our culture who share the views I once held, the conviction that UFOs were real was not a rational belief but something far more important and profound: a myth.
UFOs as myth—that’s the “big idea” behind Journal of a UFO Investigator. “Myth,” not meaning “bunk, hooey,” but in the positive Jungian sense of a collective tale that’s a royal road into the depths of our souls.
What’s its meaning? I start from the data I know best, my own experience. I became a UFO believer upon reading a single book, Gray Barker’s 1956 bestseller They Knew Too Much About Flying Saucers. This book “revealed” the doings of the Three Men In Black, who visit those who’ve come close to solving the mystery of the UFOs and terrify them into silence—with threats, but also with the awful horror of the secret itself. I believed in UFOs because I believed in the Men In Black. And I believed in the Men In Black because they were a true and faithful mirror of the reality I knew from my household. We indeed had a terrible secret, which none in my family dared to speak. Namely that my mother was not merely ill—a “semi-invalid,” we called her—but slowly dying, of an incurable heart condition.
The Men In Black are part of Journal of a UFO Investigator. The background of the novel is drawn from my own experience as a teenage boy with a dying mother. Other parts are autobiographical, but in a different sense. They start out from fantasies and dreams I recall having had during the years from 13 to 17, my years of being a “UFOlogist.”
Vividly do I remember: imagining myself standing outside my home, gazing into the starlit sky, watching as a glowing red disk blazed its way across the heaven. I say: imagining myself. I never had this experience, or anything close to it. But I was utterly convinced I would have it, might have it, that it was there for the having. This was the scene with which, many years later, I began the story of young Danny Shapiro, UFO investigator.
And I recall a dream I had as a teenager, or perhaps it was a waking fantasy. I was in an old house, somewhere in the country, attending a meeting of a society of ultra-serious teenagers like myself, dedicated to exploring the mysteries that lie just beyond the borders of science. Among them was a beautiful blonde girl in an evening dress … Thus was born the episode of the novel in which Danny visits the headquarters of the “Super-Science Society” and first encounters Rochelle, the lovely young seductress and thief who’ll entice him into the realms of wonder, terror, and ultimately wisdom.
I didn’t remain a UFO investigator forever. The unspoken, the unspeakable, at last happened: my mother died. Not long afterward I went off to college. My UFO belief, its function gone, slowly withered and waned. My interest shifted to other subjects—the mysterious “wheels” of the Biblical Book of Ezekiel, and the otherworldly journeys of the ancient Jewish visionaries who made their shamanic way toward the “chariot” that Ezekiel claimed to have seen. These were respectable subjects. They might yield a Ph.D. dissertation, an academic job, eventually tenure. Of course at bottom they were UFOs once more, a fact of which I was at least intermittently conscious.
I don’t now believe in visitors from outer space. But I’ve never lost my sense there’s something vitally important about the modern UFO phenomenon—the “modern myth of things seen in the skies,” as Jung put it in the title of one of his last books—and not for me alone. This “something” did not yield itself to being set forth in the discursive, analytic prose to which, as a professor of religious studies, I’d grown accustomed. So I turned to the most natural way of exploring a myth, the way of the ancients.
I told it. As a story.
It was my story. But not mine alone. There were times, during the 14 years that went into the writing of Journal of a UFO Investigator, that I felt the glorious winds blowing upon me from something beyond, and looking upon what I’ve written I can say: this is archetypal. The myth is greater than me, but also a part of me, bound up inextricably with my individual pain and hope and yearning.
At bottom, I’m persuaded, UFOs are a myth of death, of our soul-struggles in the face of death’s finality. Death—bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh, born with me at the moment of my birth, my inseparable companion all my life. Yet also death, the ultimate alienness, through which I cease to be I, cease to be anything at all.
The unknown interloper in my sky—and yours too—which paradoxically has always been there. The eternal “unidentified,” which can’t be banished or rationalized away. Only contemplated, in awe and wonder.
And its story told, in a thousand different guises.
As I’ve had the privilege to tell it.
David – this puts me in mind of the theory I’ve heard promulgated that UFO’s are but the modern incarnation of fairies, that they fulfill the same functions as the pre-Victorian fae once did. They come from the great dark spaces beyond the light of civilization, they have a deep and personal and upon serious consideration inexplicable interest in humans (just as the fae were wont to kidnap humans and take them into their fairy mounds, so do UFO’s take us now into their alien ships), they objects of wonderment, fear and awe, and the evidence we have for both is of the same nature (sworn affidavits from those whom have encountered them, but little more).
Fascinating, both alluding to a deeper mythological need that we humans have to populate the unknown with figures both fantastic, terrifying, seductive and mysterious.
I’m only a quarter or so into the book, but it’s told in a very tender, fragile teenage voice as young Danny is growing up in this world of Cuban Missiles, UFOs, and the suburban Philadelphia of the 1960s. (Actually I’m listening to the audiobook, which has so far been a very wonderful thing indeed.) When I was young, my dad picked up a bizarre Egyptologist/UFO guy on satellite (a very large, very heavy dish which had to be hand-cranked to select another satellite…) and so the myths upon myths, the myths replacing or augmenting myths, I’m definitely looking forward to the rest of the book.
One of the ideas I’m struggling to explore in the book I’m trying to write is related to this. I think it was Arthur C. Clarke that said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” I’ve often thought, “Any sufficiently advanced alien would be indistinguishable from God, so is God just the ultimate alien?”
A belief in UFOs certainly meets the definition of a myth and myths clearly can have power (with emphasis on the “can”) but to say that myths are “far more important and profound” than a rational belief, well, that’s stretchings things for many people.
That’s certainly true for some people and for others some of the time, but in general?
Fortunately, we don’t live in S.M. Stirling’s Emberverse, where any myth is more powerful than science, as long as enough people believe in it.
“This “something” did not yield itself to being set forth in the discursive, analytic prose to which, as a professor of religious studies, I’d grown accustomed.” Many academics do end up writing analytic books on the UFO phenomenon, but they rarely manage to indicate, let alone capture, this “something” you mention. Good on you for risking prose. I’ve read and appreciated your book on Ezekiel’s visions, but look forward to this in a different way.
A little while ago, in the midst of a discussion about the origins of the imagery of the Greys, I started wondering about where the earlier, jokier canonical image of a UFO alien came from–namely, the Little Green Men. They turn out to largely be evolved from the same sources as the Greys, but I think they’re also thinly science-fictionalized versions of the Little People who show up in the folklore of an astonishing variety of cultures. Something about us wants there to be Little People, with magical or ultra-tech abilities, who can be scary, funny or helpful as circumstances warrant.
This sounds like a fascinating novel; I’d certainly like to read it. David’s career trajectory offers an interesting counterpoint to that of C. Scott Littleton, the famous (for academic conceptions of ‘famous’) Indo-European mythographer. He recently went public claiming that all mythogies carry records of UFO contact. He published a rather so-so novel to this end. I have to say, it left me a little hesitant about his pre-rapture academic work. Luckily, there’s no such problem with David!
I’m persuaded, UFOs are a myth of death, of our soul-struggles in the face of death’s finality.
I hadn’t thought of it like that, but now that you put it that way, yeah, I’d agree.
Course UFO’s being a myth of death, they can be the myth of benevolent angels saving our souls (Cocoon and depending on your interpretation, Close Encounters) or evil incarnate (the devil with anal probes in hand, doing experiments on humans, cutting up cattle, knocking down crops, etc), There’s also the “bug hunt” type aliens (such as Starship Troopers type stories) but they’re not the same kind of alien as “UFO Aliens”. They’re not mythical. THey’re more like convenient evil enemy which we can tear up itno cannon fodder without much concern. i.e. space nazis. We understand space nazis. We don’t understand UFO Aliens.
UFO aliens are inherently a representation of “Mystery” of the likes that “X Files” successfully plugged into for years.
UFO aliens have some kind of power over death that we dont comprehend. Time dilation lets the people on Close Encounters return to earth after decades but only looking a couple years old. Cocoon lets old people be young again. ET could somehow cure living things with his glowing finger. Sometimes they want to steal oru soul, but that still requires that they have the power over our soul to steal it.
Reading this post reminded me of Ian Watsons’ book “Miracle Visitors”, it’s been a long time since I read it but from memory it deals with UFO’s as projections of mythical/mystical elements of the collective unconscious. I remember being blown away at the time but his take of the subject.
Yeah, there’s a difference between typical SF aliens and UFO aliens. SF aliens are, if not Space Nazis, then stand-ins for people of some sort, or animals. Now the Elder Race type of aliens, your Arisians/Eddorians, Vorlons/Shadows and such, shade more into the numinous, but it’s in a way that’s understood to be comprehensible at heart: “here’s the rational explanation for stories of gods and devils”. Whereas if the explanation is UFO Aliens, they’re just replacing one mystery with another.
I think that’s why I’ve always found it a little jarring when SF authors use the UFO alien tropes. When they do, it’s always deflating: the saurs in Ken MacLeod’s Cosmonaut Keep series were supposed to be the basis for Greys, but they were just another kind of intelligent being with comprehensible motivations (and they’d actually originated on Earth).
In the movie of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the unseen aliens are more like the UFO type. We don’t know what motivates them, and what they do to Dave is a cryptic myth of death-like transformation. But in Clarke’s novel, they’re domesticated and explained as just another SFnal Elder Race with their own reasons for doing things.