On Tuesday, Sarah Scoles published They Are Already Here: UFO Culture and Why We See Saucers (Pegasus, 2020), and to promote the book, which I have not yet read, she published an excerpt in Wired magazine. Mostly the excerpt is a fairly standard description of the first two decades of the modern UFO era, from the Kenneth Arnold sighting to the Air Force efforts to investigate and debunk saucer sightings. I am, however, interested in Scoles’s sociological approach to the question of flying saucers. In the excerpt, she asserts that even without Kenneth Arnold, UFO culture would have emerged anyway:
If Arnold hadn’t said a word, history probably would have nevertheless been set on a similar course. Someone else’s sighting would likely have catalyzed a similar flap—a year later, maybe two, or five. All events unfold in a cultural medium, after all. And the medium of Arnold’s time—colored by the fear of outsiders, fear of invasions, and awe of technology, just like today—was fertile ufological ground. Perhaps, in a world without Arnold’s encounter, people would have described “the phenomenon” differently. Perhaps we wouldn’t have the term “flying saucer” at all. Maybe it would have been pancakes or spheres. But Arnold and saucers are what we’ve got. So the flap that followed—and, really, all flaps to follow—bear his imprint, however faint.
If find this an interesting question, but not for the reasons Scoles does. It is perhaps true that someone somewhere might have seen strange lights or objects in the sky. World War II pilots reported seeing “foo fighters” in the sky, after all, and Theosophy had already spoken of Venusians who flew to Earth in shiny, fiery ships. But Arnold’s sighting didn’t become major news simply because he saw something in the sky and reporters thought it was amusing enough to write about. If that were all it took, any number of amusing weird news stories should have yielded similar results.
Arnold’s sighting really took off because Amazing Stories editor Ray Palmer jumped on the story in order to use it to help promote his science fiction products, notably the Shaver Mystery titles. Palmer sent a letter to Arnold on June 26, 1947 in which he told Arnold that he had a collection of similar sightings and wanted to publish Arnold’s account, which he did. Within days, the FBI was investigating Richard Shaver’s science fiction as a possible origin point for the flying saucer flap, and by the end of the summer of 1947, they concluded that regardless of whether Arnold actually saw anything, the entire complex of related ideas tying lying saucers to space aliens was the work of Palmer’s promotional machine. There remains no reason to doubt the FBI’s conclusions about the origin of the myth of flying saucers as alien spacecraft.
This aspect of the story, missing from Scoles’s account, suggests that we can’t simply assert that broad social forces inevitably created the myth of the UFO. Instead, it was the deliberate work of specific individuals who imposed a story on ambiguous events. That this is the case can be found in early FBI reports of spook lights and flying saucers in the wake of the Arnold sighting. The descriptions are all over the map, including a large number that were supposedly the size of saucers, not just the shape of them. Only after Palmer begins the process of codifying the myth of the UFO as alien space transport do we see that reports of flying saucers begin to coalesce around the idea of alien spaceships. In other words, Arnold’s sighting certainly encouraged imitators, as almost any popular news story does, but the form taken by those imitations and how the media began to understand them wasn’t just a spontaneous product of the zeitgeist—which, at any rate, had 112 years of newspaper claims of aliens to work with—but instead a specific development from the unique and deliberate alchemy of the pulp fiction world and its stew of science fiction and Theosophical speculation.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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