Friday, July 21, 2017

Another Silly Season-Part One

Seventy years ago this summer, the flying saucer phenomenon, a potent myth for the postwar era in America, began. For years after Kenneth Arnold's first sighting in June 1947, flying saucers were everywhere in our culture. They were a perennial favorite among newspaper reporters, magazine writers, book authors, and vast numbers of Americans who read their work. Some wrote and read only for fun, others with great interest and avidity. Some took it so seriously that it affected their psychological and physical health and threatened or ended their personal relationships. Flying saucers and their presumed occupants began showing up in movies, too, and on television, in comic books, as toys, and of course in science fiction stories, where the whole phenomenon had begun. There were new magazine titles, actually new categories of magazine titles. Some, like Fate, were devoted generally to Forteana. Others, like Flying Saucers, were focused specifically on this new phenomenon. (Both were originally under the editorship of Raymond A. Palmer of Amazing Tales and Shaver Mystery fame.) Flying saucers and the mythology of the flying saucer era are still with us, but nothing like they were then. There will never again be flaps like there were in 1950, 1952, 1956-57, 1966-1967, or 1973. Today, flying saucers and the mythology of flying saucers are mostly just holdovers from a previous and long-departed culture. In point of fact, nearly every element of the phenomenon was in place in the first half decade or so after that first summer of the flying saucer era, 1947.

There was a problem, though. In those early years, in report after report and page after page of eyewitness accounts, there was a frustrating and often depressing sameness. Someone on the ground or in an airplane saw an inexplicable light or object in the sky. The sighting lasted for a few seconds or a few minutes. The light or object made maneuvers or traveled at speeds impossible for any earthly craft to attain. Then the light or object winked out or zoomed away. Writers and journalists in the budding field of ufology dutifully chronicled these accounts in their work, devoting pages and pages--whole chapters, whole sections, whole books--to them in fullest detail. When was the UFO seen? Where? By whom? For how long? How many, what direction, what altitude, what size, what color, what shape? Full accounts, yet still empty. All of it ultimately seemed to amount to nothing and to mean nothing. There was no significance. There was nothing to take from it. Nothing to infer. Nothing to understand. Nothing to gain. Nothing that might expand our knowledge of ourselves, the earth, or the universe. Individual sightings were without any climax or resolution. The same thing could have been said about the whole flying saucer phenomenon. People interested in the phenomenon spent years waiting for some great climactic event or grand revelation as to its meaning and significance. They waited for it all to come together into a whole that might be clearly seen and understood. In the meantime, they made every kind of speculation and supposition based on the flimsiest of evidence, or no evidence at all, or evidence that was fabricated or simply woven from the most fervid, if not pathological, of imaginations. Some, like Major Donald E. Keyhoe, who devoted his life after 1950 to the flying saucer mystery, died still waiting.

What was needed in all of this was some excitement. Enough of the fact-heavy and ultimately empty and unimaginative accounts of sightings of unexplained aerial phenomena. Enough of the waiting. What we needed were encounters with real aliens from space. That excitement came early in the flying saucer era, certainly by the end of the summer of 1952. By then, the first flying saucer books had been published and the first flying saucer movies had appeared on the silver screen. In the five years previous, science fiction authors (and artists) had been busy, too, making the most of ideas that had seemingly passed from their very own genres into hard reality. Few science fiction stories treated the question of the flying saucer phenomenon better than did "The Silly Season" by C.M. Kornbluth, originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in the fall of 1950. Kornbluth's story, with a large dose of very good humor, made sense of the whole seemingly senseless thing. The randomness, the inexplicability, the vast array of strange and seemingly arbitrary objects seen. All of those meaningless sightings suddenly meant something. Unfortunately, meaning and understanding came too late for Kornbluth's people of earth. But it wasn't too late for us. In some ways the flying saucer era was still getting started. In the early 1950s, the flying saucer occupants began showing their very alien faces.

Kornbluth's title, "The Silly Season," refers to a journalistic convention, an observation made by reporters across cultures, that summertime, being a slow time for news, tends towards the telling of silly stories. The sightings and supposed crash downs of 1947 fit neatly into the silly season of June through September. Though the sightings continued and though new parts were added to the mythology of flying saucers in the five years following that first summer, the events of 1952 went towards filling out the whole thing. There wasn't much that was new after that, certainly nothing new after the early-1970s.

Again, as in the events of 1947, some of what happened in 1952 is visible only in retrospect. Some of it was made retroactive by writers at later dates. But it was a full year, one of the most remarkable of the flying saucer era. I'll write more about it in part two of this series. By the way, "The Silly Season" was reprinted in hardback for the first time in 1952, in Tomorrow, the Starspublished by Doubleday and edited (ostensibly) by Robert A. Heinlein. By the way, too, Keyhoe and Heinlein contributed to Weird Tales, and though Kornbluth did not, his widow did, in 1973, the year in which flying saucers may very well have had their last gasp, if they hadn't already died five years before.

To be continued . . .

Text copyright 2017 Terence E. Hanley

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