Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)

Unidentified flying objects – flying saucers – are, despite tabloid portrayals of sf fans, quite rare artefacts in sf stories outside a brief period during the 1950s when they were simply part of the cultural backdrop: the USA as a whole was in the middle of a "saucer flap" from which it has never entirely recovered. The reason that sf largely ignores ufos is not hard to appreciate: by its very nature the ufo, when viewed as an alien spacecraft, has no more scientific standing than a ghost or a goblin. Many modern researchers in the field believe that ufos are in fact psychological rather than physical phenomena, and have circumstantial evidence to back this up: we need ufos, is the claim, in the same way that we need God. In earlier ages mysterious lights in the sky were explained as Witches on broomsticks, while during the 19th century there were accounts of mysterious airships – as if people chose explanations that were always a step ahead of currently possible human technology (in the case of witches, of course, the technology was Magic). It is thus more rational, when discussing the deployment of ufos in fiction, to regard them as fantasy, rather than sf, devices.

Also, there is a very strong link between ufos and Faerie. People who have given accounts of their meetings with ufonauts have produced descriptions markedly resembling those that folklore ascribes to Fairies of various kinds; those who claim to have been abducted in a ufo often complain of suffering a time distortion indistinguishable from Time in Faerie, although frequently the imbalance is reversed (they were in the ufo for a long time but, on being returned to the mundane world, discovered that only moments had passed). It is not a surprise that a very famous US ufo case is universally known as that of the Hopkinsville Goblins.

Fantasy writers generally use ufos with caution. Bernard King, in his Chronicles of the Keeper series, blends them with other devices of fantasy and supernatural fiction in order to derive a basic rationale for virtually all of the unknown. In Out of Their Minds (1969) Clifford D Simak has a Devil protesting that humans have infested their subjective Reality with such Technofantasy items rather than traditional figures like, say, himself. Garfield Reeves-Stevens tackles the topic in his Nighteyes (1989). In Stephen King's The Tommyknockers (1987) the occupants of a long-ago-crashed ufo are envisaged as sources of techno-magical Evil. There have been a few notable screen treatments, especially Escape to Witch Mountain (1974) and its sequel, Return from Witch Mountain (1978) – in both of which it becomes apparent that, while the superficial explanation as to why two children have Talents is that they are lost members of a ufonaut culture, the subtext is that they are really denizens of a technofantasy Faerie who have become stranded in our world – and The Flipside of Dominick Hide (1980 tvm), which is best read not literally (time machines [> Time Travel] look like flying saucers, and a time traveller returns to present-day London) but as a sort of Allegory about innocents abroad, a notion linked with some of the ideas of C G Jung on the subject of ufos (> Jungian Psychology). The most famous of all movie treatments of the theme, Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), while generally treated as sf, is again much more easily interpreted as technofantasy: the moment of Recognition as the vast spacecraft heaves into view is one of the most powerful in all Cinema, as the Gods, who are also Children, arrive to offer humanity salvation. [JG]


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.