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Writing SF UFO Novels

As I mentioned in my post on “Starting Jim and the Flim,” I’m thinking of writing another SF novel that includes some UFO elements.

My blogger friend Mac Tonnies responded with a couple of links to posts relating to SF UFO novels. The first is a piece, “UFOs and Science Fiction” discussing the relative scarcity of UFOs in contemporary SF novels.

I do remember reading some SF UFO tales as a boy, that is, about fifty years ago, although at that time, the subtext of the stories was the American fear of Communism and Soviet attack. More recently, Ian Watson’s Miracle Visitors, John Shirley’s Silicon Embrace, and my own Saucer Wisdom are among the very few modern SF UFO novels.

In order to have something to discuss, I think we should distinguish between, on the one hand, SF UFO novels and, on the other hand, alien invasion novels along the lines of, say, Greg Bear or Larry Niven. I think, for instance, Neal Stephenson’s recent Anathem, is more of an alien invasion novel, although it’s close to being an SF UFO novel as well.

How to characterize the sought-for genre of the SF UFO novel? I’d say the essence of an SF UFO novel is point (a) below. Points (b) through (f) all follow from (a).

(a) The novel includes flying saucer alien encounters similar to those described in lowbrow tabloid newspapers, but is neither ignorantly credulous nor mockingly parodistic.
(b) The aliens use a fuzzy technology that might amount to psychic powers. The saucers, in other words, aren’t machines.
(c) The aliens are surreptitiously observing or infiltrating Earth rather than overtly invading—at least for now.
(d) We have some creepy human/alien sex acts.
(e) The aliens aren’t necessarily evil, they may be bringing enlightenment and transcendence.
(f) The aliens might be from somewhere other than a distant planet, that is, they might come from small size scales, from a parallel world, or might be made of some impalpable substance like dark matter.

Part of the game in writing an SF UFO novel is making up scientific reasons why the tabloid-level UFO phenomenon could in fact relate to something real—although certainly it’s fair to mention in mind that many of the people who encounter aliens are stoned or mentally ill.

Coming back to Mac Tonnies again, in his 2005 post, “Alien Visitation: A Global Quantum Event?” Mac discusses the notion that the aliens might in some sense require a human’s presence in order to manifest themselves.

Thus, the fact that there are never any unobserved UFOs could indicate not that the UFOs are human hallucinations, but rather that a human presence supplies a kind of bridge or beacon that allows the aliens to project some visible form into our reality. Note that you can use this move without having to get into the mysto steam of quantum mechanics which is, I feel, a vein that’s been somewhat overworked.

The tone and intention are also essential in distinguishing an SF UFO novel.

One the one hand, if the book is serious, exhortatory, or paranoid, then you’re not getting the SF part. You’re writing a kind of True Believer recruitment tract running a kind of scam, and those motives get in the way of novelistic art. This said, it should be possible to write a great SF UFO novel that does in fact have that intense, paranoid tone—in some ways Phil Dick’s exemplary Valis is this kind of book.

On the other hand, if the author goes for every joke in sight, you end up with something more like the Hitchhiker’s Guide novels by Douglas Adams. This kind of work has its own appeal and its own audience—but it’s not what I’m thinking about when I talk about my vision of an SF UFO novel. I want something a little heavier, a little deeper.

Not that an SF UFO novel has to be sober-sided and portentious. My personal inclination is to leaven my books with a certain amount of satire and dark humor—and John Shirley and Ian Watson do this too. For instance, the aliens in Shirley’s Silicon Embrace are heavy smokers. And the main character in my Saucer Wisdom really is a true-believing UFO nut—who just happens to be right.

The world really is stranger than we as yet understand. Tying our dreams of cosmic exploration to government-made machines is like expecting to ride a sailing ship or a hot air balloon to Mount Olympus. The door might be closer than you think. Rabid knows.

17 Responses to “Writing SF UFO Novels”

  1. Mac Tonnies Says:

    I like your “UFOpunk” classification system. BTW, an author I stupidly left out of my Futurismic essay is Ken MacLeod, who has a lot of fun with saucer mythology in his “Engines of Light” trilogy.

  2. Rudy Says:

    Thanks, Mac. I’ll have to look at the Ken MacLeod books.

    I’d rather not use the word UFOpunk, though. Cyberpunk, steampunk, and psipunk were enough. Time for a new suffix.

  3. MarcL Says:

    There is lots of good ufo stuff on this site:

    http://forgetomori.com/

  4. Mac Tonnies Says:

    In one MacLeod novel, Area 51 has been converted into a theme park.

    I have to agree with you about the “punk” thing. I just like saying it: “YOO-foe-punk.”

  5. Jon Says:

    I didn’t know there was going to be a discussion of Ken MacLeod, but “Learning The World” is about a society that detects UFO’s directed by humans. Fun Book.

  6. Daniel Brenton Says:

    Rudy —

    Enjoyed this exposition. Have toyed with the idea of the “Great American UFO Novel,” but I think Whitley beat me to it with Majestic.

    I must confess I don’t quite get what a seashell on a chain-link fence, a pirate, and a metal tower have to do with UFO SF. Are you telling us that we’ve already been taken over?

  7. Alex Says:

    Saucer Wisdom is one of your very best books. I can’t see anyone doing a better UFO novel than that. It’s packed with great ideas and the humor of the false document style novel is brilliant.

    UFOs do work well in comedy SF movie, such as Men In Black, Mars Attacks and Galaxy Quest.

    Maybe Saucer Wisdom could make a great movie?

  8. Rudy Says:

    Daniel, I never read Whitley Streiber’s Majestic, although I read part of Communion, before throwing it aside in disgust at the humorless, earnest, self-pitying tone, and his complete lack of irony or surpise at the butt-probe.

    I gather that Majestic novelizes the UFO conspiracy theories about government coverups. I dislike politics and the government, and I think it’s a false move to suppose that aliens would get involved in that boring aspect of human culture. Like, why not fashion, rock and roll, science, or the movies?

    To me, politics and ware are the least interesting things that humans do. Why would aliens have to “go through channels” in order to approach people? In my opinion, bringing in the military when talking about aliens shows a complete failure of the imagination.

    Re. your question about how the pictures fit with the text on my blog, I can give two answers.

    As a practical matter, I shoot photos nearly every day, and I Photoshop the best ones and format them to be 600 pixels wide to fit in the blog. I keep a list of the photos that are “on deck,” and when I write a blog entry, I stick in a photo every couple of paragraphs. This lets me show off my photos, and it breaks up the blog—it’s dull to see honking big blocks of text.

    As an artistic matter, I choose the order of the photos so that there is nearly always some reverberant connection between an image and the text nearby. I think of the images as subconscious commentary on the text, catching a taste of the irrelevant-but-spot-on images that pass through one’s mind as one reads something. In the case of this SF UFO post, I was in fact thinking of the images as being how the saucerians might think about what I’ve written.

    Oh, and that’s not just “a pirate,” that’s an action doll of Johnny Depp playing Captain Jack Sparrow! During my photo shoot, the doll was briefly animated by an alien mind and was walking around on its own. It made several lewd requests, which I declined.

  9. Daniel Brenton Says:

    Mr. Rucker said …

    I gather that Majestic novelizes the UFO conspiracy theories about government coverups. I dislike politics and the government, and I think it’s a false move to suppose that aliens would get involved in that boring aspect of human culture. Like, why not fashion, rock and roll, science, or the movies?

    Yes, it does talk about the “conspiracy of secrecy,” but it depicts aliens that are so far above being bothered by our politics that none of what you were suspecting in that regard comes into play. I would recommend that, should you plan to seriously go into writing the SF/UFO novel, that you read it, if for no other reason you know “what went before.”

    Sorry to hear about your pirate incident…

    No, of course I’m not familiar with your work. Why would you think I’d be blithering like this?

  10. joypeg Says:

    RR said:
    “As a practical matter, I shoot photos nearly every day, and I Photoshop the best ones and format them to be 600 pixels wide to fit in the blog. I keep a list of the photos that are “on deck,” and when I write a blog entry, I stick in a photo every couple of paragraphs. This lets me show off my photos, and it breaks up the blog—it’s dull to see honking big blocks of text.”

    Thank you for all the cool pics – I don’t know what it is about your blog, but I always come back to it because of the photos. The image that started it all, was of a bright yellow koi from Japan. It still makes me smile.

    Happy New Year

  11. Mac Tonnies Says:

    For more on aliens and parallel worlds, search my blog for Lam.

  12. Kelson Says:

    Instead of YouFoePunk, why not Saucer-Salient?

  13. Larry Holcombe Says:

    I have a published thriller, The Great River Disclosure, that uses the UFO/ET government cover-up to drive the plot. It’s pretty mainstream as it stays within the legitimate research of the noted ufologists. It’s available through Amazon.com or Barnesandnoble.com if interested.

  14. John Barnes Says:

    Proudly contributing to the goofiness, my 2004 novel GAUDEAMUS fits nearly all of your criteria; I’d add that the UFO story has a close cousin in folklore: the tall tale of encounters with seldom-seen people or beings; and a close cousin in the early history of the novel of the fantastic: the reported encounter (where the narrator didn’t see it him/herself but hears about it from another narrator s/he doesn’t necessarily trust, e.g. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, where the narrators go as much as 7 deep; A Princess of Mars; “For a Foggy Night.”)

    And yes, it’s time to stop attaching “punk” to everything in literature, before fiction itself is renamed stuffpunk.

    GAUDEAMUS is also suffering a very odd fate for which I so far have no explanation; after some years of being functionally out of print, there is possibly a paperback coming out on September 1 (according to Locus and Amazon) and yet nobody at Tor has returned phone calls and emails asking about it from either me or my agent. This would be perfectly consistent with the conspiracy in the book. Perhaps there are more narrators in the chain than we dream of.

  15. NG Says:

    That’s strange to hear, Mr. Barnes. I’v not yet read your books, but I’m gonna do so very soon. I see them a lot in stores.

    And Rudy Rucker, It’s disappointing to hear your take on Communion, as I found it fascinating. I recommend you read “The Grays” by the same author, as it is the best UFO/Alien abduction novel I’v ever read. It’s quite scary, to top it all off.

    I wonder if anyone will read this. It’s been like 3 years since anyone posted on this thread…..

  16. onesimus Says:

    Fear not NG. I read your comment – but will you be back to see that I did?

    When I first read Communion it scared me so much I couldn’t finish it. I later read through it and one or two of the sequels including Majestic. I enjoyed them at the time but doubt I would now, and I’d no longer find them scary.

  17. Steve H Says:

    I’ve never been sure what to make of Whitley Strieber’s books. His fiction and his “non-fiction” are pretty much the same, and he claims aliens pick him up and ride him around and butt-probe him every night but his wife says he just tosses and turns. If I ever claim to have met aliens, I’ll have one in handcuffs as proof. Until Strieber produces one of these little gray men, I’ll just go on assuming he’s mental.
    Seriously, contact with advanced life forms and they don’t give you ONE fact you didn’t know? No unified field theory or recipe for transuranics?


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