Area 51

Here's a picture of Ray Goudey, "the dashing, daring, Lockheed test pilot" who "flew the U-2 spy plane's legendary 'Ship One' at Area 51, starting in 1955". In the photo he's preparing for a flight whilst reading More Adventures in Time and Space (1955), a science fiction anthology edited by Raymond J. Healy and J. Francis McComas. The book is the 'sequel' to Adventures in Time and Space, (1946) a massive 900+ page book of "non-fiction stories of the future world of atomic power, rockets etc". The first volume contained stories by Robert A. Heinlein, Alfred Bester and Issac Asimov whilst in the second, Goudey would have encountered all these and more. 

I came across this image when researching a short article for Monolith on the recent declassification of information relating to Area 51. It appears in the documentary Area 51: I Was There which has links to Annie Jacobsen's book Area 51: An Uncensored History of America's Top Secret Military Base (2011). Goudey plays a key role in both and the image as well as the above description appears on Jacobson's website.  

This photograph pretty much crystallizes the nature of my interest in ufology, conspiracy theory and the grey room that is the history and culture of the post-1945 period. I'm not a UFO investigator, Ufologist or for that matter a UFO debunker. Instead, I'm interested in ufology as a cultural discourse that assumes a particular form at a particular time. More specifically, I'm interested in the way in which ufology intersects and establishes a generative feedback loop with such parallel spheres as popular culture, cinema and science fiction. In this respect, whilst I work with texts by Morris K. Jessup, Charles Berlitz and John Keel, I find the methodologies and analysis of Philip K. Dick, Craig Baldwin and Ken Hollings to be a more productive approach to the topic. 

This is the interstitial and intertextual territory I was trying to map in the Invisible Horizons talk at Nottingham. Using the title of Vincent Gaddis’ 1965 book Invisible Horizons: Strange Mysteries of the Sea I was interested in how he described himself as a “freelance writer who specializes in exploring the borderlands where fact emerges from myth and legend”. Arguing that Atlantis represents a "triangle formed out of the extreme edges of folklore, oceanography and archaeology" I suggested that it occupies an inverse borderland to that which Gaddis posits, a borderland where fact becomes myth and legend. 

Goudey’s photograph is one such borderland. It neatly presents the sedimentary overlap that forms the imaginative economy of the UFO phenomenon: aviation, science fiction paperbacks and recontextualized photography. It also works as a signpost marking out the complex of narratives and interlocking reference points that constellate around the idea of Area 51.

Case in point is Jacobsen’s book. It was initially praised for the detail of its research but a wave of negative criticism greeted a number of its later ‘revelations’. The source of the most vociferous criticism was the claim of an unnamed informant that Area 51 played host to the remains of the 1947 Roswell crash. This is not in and of itself extraordinary. What is odd is the twist Jacobsen reports as part of the ‘real’ stories that make up the book.  Here’s how Earl Swift of Popular Mechanics tells it:

"The bottom line of the traditional Roswell story is that the purported extraterrestrial UFO wreckage was taken to Area 51 and subsequently became the object of a massive government coverup. Relying on the testimony of a single unnamed source, Jacobsen's book repeats the claim that some sort of UFO crashed at Roswell. But in her telling, the craft wasn't of alien origin. Instead, it was a saucer built by the Soviets using technology they'd obtained from German engineers at the end of World War II. And there's more. According to her unnamed source, the craft was manned by human teenagers who had been medically altered to look like aliens, with giant heads and eyes like wraparound Oakleys. 

Who would do such a thing to children? Why, notorious Nazi death camp doctor Josef Mengele, Jacobsen writes, quoting her source quoting another source or sources, also unnamed. Seems that Mengele was working for Soviet boss Josef Stalin, who needed the mutants for a special project: scaring the daylights out of America with a fake alien visitation. Yes, it was all a hoax; the most lavish prank in history."

Swift goes onto interrogate this story by trying to locate Jacobsen's source. What's more interesting to me is the peripheral criticisms he offers. He argues that this well-worn vision of small grey aliens is an anachronistic appropriation of imagery from Close Encounters, somewhat at odds with the popular Wellsian vision of extra-terrestrials that would have been in circulation in 1947 (thanks in no small part to to Orson Welles' 1938 War of the Worlds) Similarly, he also raises the example of James Blish's short story 'Tomb Tapper', from the July 1956 edition of Astounding Science Fiction In Blish's story a flying saucer crash lands and is suspected to be of Soviet origin. When the craft is opened it is found to have been piloted by a female child. 

These references do more than merely debunk Jacobsen's text. Whatever the level of truth value she attaches to her source, the criticisms point to the intermingling of cultural artifacts and historical accounts. More precisely Area 51 reiterates how the the archetype of the UFO is a hybrid of imaginary, symbolic and 'objective' evidence that has the effect of producing a retro-chronal phantasy. Contemporaneous references to and representations of the UFO phenomenon underscore the foundation of the myth by being re-projected as points of origin. This is not a revisionist perspective so much as an attempt to delineate the synchronous loop that has revolved at each stage of UFO history. Astounding Science Fiction, we might remind ourselves, was the main source for the material that made up More Adventures in Time and Space.   

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