What to Do While Waiting for Intelligent Life - by Umberto Tosi

"If they're everywhere, then where are they?" Enrico Fermi probably didn't intended to coin an iconic paradox with his 1950 wisecrack, but it haunts us well into the space age despite astronomical projections and scifi tropes from Star Trek through the X-Files. The "Pope of Physics" and A-bomb enabler remains as famous for it as for his building of the world's first nuclear reactor under a Chicago football stadium in 1942.  
Seek and ye shall find. Sure enough earthly UFO sightings are as plentiful lately as during the mid-century "flying saucer" heyday. Back then the US government kept track of sightings under its widely contested "Project Blue Book," terminated in the '90s. 
No solid evidence of alien visitors was ever found, according to Blue Book's records. But discoveries of earth-like exoplanets that could support the evolution of life have abounded exponentially in recent years thanks to the power of today's earth and space telescopes. 
To date, more than 5,000 exoplanets have been "confirmed" by NASA. This is out of billions of planetary systems in our Milky Way galaxy alone. For now it's impossible to prove if any of these exoplanets support life - much less intelligent life. But the quest continues, avidly featured on TV and Internet news. There's no direct linkage, but people being people seem to be seeing (or at least reporting) more anomalous objects in the sky. The sensational media coverage of the Chinese spy balloon over the US last January inflated America's saucer-itis.
Regardless of causes, the plethora of sightings has spurred NASA and the US military to get back into the business of checking UFO reports publicly, albeit, gingerly. 
Government agents typically don't mix well with UFO people, but there have been too many sightings from far and wide to ignore. A recent Navy paper reported  more than 400 "suspicious" unidentified sightings. (Soberly, although not credibly to many folks) the Pentagon deemed none of them as potential threats. Moreover, it reported no evidence of extraterrestrial visits.) Still, many of  continuing sighting have been reported by highly credible sources, eg, US Navy and commercial pilots.
  Daughter  Alicia w/granddaughter Fiona, C. 1998
Simply irresistible: still, nothing stirs the popular imagination like the prospect of alien visitations combined with social-media-exacerbated suspicions of government cover-up. The mix has led predictably to recent US Congressional hearings. One space agency witness testified that its investigators habitually downplay "UAP" sightings seriously. Looking like a flying saucer booster could be a professional career-ender. 
UFO enthusiasts, social and news media aren't deterred by official reassurances. Alien visitors make better copy. Aliens are a staple sci-fi novels, comics, games, films and video franchise, whose authors have had no trouble waving Fermi's Paradox away. It's bread and butter for them. Space fiction provides us plenty plausible reasons for the dearth of alien-life discoveries and visits. 

 "Live long and prosper, my Vulcan friend."
Star Trek's Prime Directive, for example, forbids Federation member contacts with a planet's sentient being until they discover Warp Drive. Call it the (Anton, not Ensign Pavel) Chekhov's space maxim. If we see a space alien in the first act, human protagonists must encounter them in the second. My daughter Alicia (now, a long-time English teacher ) and I know our extraterrestrials, but we never lets the reality stand in the way of good space opera.  
Exoaliens fascinate nearly all of us earthlings. How diminished would our literature and culture be without space aliens? Walter Tevis' Man Who Fell to Earth, Robert A. Heinlein's Hroshiis, and Arthur C. Clarke's Overlords are page-turners extraordinaire! Dr. Who would be a bore without those relentless Daleks.
 Enrico Fermi, godfather of The Bomb, c1943
The fictional list of memorable aliens - like the real prospects of extraterrestrial beings -  is endless. They come in every imaginable form - sentient insects, smart viruses and talking dinosaurs. Our Captains Kirks live to encounter alien races. Many have already visited earth, mostly undetected. Some came to spy, others to help - eg, the Vulcans, still others as heroes like Superman, some for greed like the Farengi, others to assimilate us like the Borg. 
Although I've dabbled in magic realism, I haven't published any science fiction, unless you count Ophelia's alternative history. But creating a scifi novel is high on my bucket list. Aliens already have landed on my writing desk. Most recently as as ambiguous apparitions in my Phantom Eye, Hollywood noir detective series. And no wonder. I set my mysteries in 1950s-60s Los Angeles, where I spent my youth, and where they movie-makikng staples and where amateur UFO sightings are relatively common in the city's spooky surrounding deserts. 
The Brown Derby, Wilshire, LA, 1926
It's easy for Los Angelenos to believe in extraterrestrial visitors. L.A. is a sprawling city of eerie visions - of smoggy. palm-lined flatness flanked by mountains snowcapped in winter and on fire in summer. The Pacific Ocean stretches forth like the city's unconscious, largely ignored. Resident and tourists crowd the freeways of this made-up megopolis of architectural oddities, dazzling murals, of structures that resemble doughnuts, hot dogs, giant shoes, igloos, fairy castles, Egyptian temples and stacks of vinyl records. Deja vu lurks behind movie backdrops everywhere, from the Hollywood Sign, to the familiar deco City Hall to the deja vu Santa Monica Pier with its photogenic carousel. 

One could be in a Western or bitten by a rattlesnake out in the city's surrounding, chaperral-covered hills. On Mars or Vulcan out in the high and low deserts.

Giant Rock, Mojave Desert, Landers, CA
I came my closest encounter with space visitors came 50 years ago on a drive through the Mojave Desert, about two hours south-east of L.A. I was dating a mystical midwife named Helen at the time. She pointed to a spot in my roadmap about halfway to Death Valley. "Let's go see Big Rock," she said. It was a real place. "It's supposed to be where UFOs have landed." It was spring and the desert flower were blooming in their ephemeral magnificence.

It took us a good hour to get there from Palm Springs where we had been staying that weekend. To get there, we had to drive off the main highway onto a gravel road amid craggy, arid hills and Joshua-Tree-bristling ravines.

(Ironically, to our south was a Sonoran Desert setting where Steven Spielberg filmed a saucer-landing sequence of his space-visitor blockbuster Close Encounters of the Third Kind in 1977.)

A bullet-riddled sign read: "Giant Rock" (not "Big Rock") adjacent to a desert airstrip a few miles from the crossroads desert town of Landis. The title is apt, even in proportion to its massive nearby formations.This gigantic boulder stands more than seven stories high, covering 5,800 square feet. Geologists say it is the the largest free-standing rock in the world. It looks to have been dropped onto the desert floor by some gargantuan ill-tempered alien.

The "Integratron" south of Giant Rock
A pale, taciturn attendant charged us a small fee to look around. We climbed down a dim, stone stairway into a cavernous space. 
The commodious subterranean chamber was lined with UFO-related exhibits, and photos of conferences, attendees, many flown to the little airport on charter flights, many who recounted seeing UFOs and having been "contacted" by saucer aliens. There were no photos of such extraterrestrials themselves, other than images hand-drawn by "contactees." 
I realize now that we had seen the last of Giant Rock's days as a UFO cult destination. A long slow decline with the death of its most noted promoter, George Van Tassel in 1978. Online reports by visitors now describe it as dangerously deteriorated. The chamber was been sealed off long ago. The rock remains a gigantic natural formation for geologists to study, but weathering and/or seismic activity split a chunk off it ten years ago. Graffiti litter its sides. The access road has been nearly obliterated by sand, beer cans and broken glass.
Unless humans or space aliens intervene, Giant Rock will return to nature and eventually, to dust. I only recently learned more about the bizarre history of the place. The subterranean chamber had been blasted in the 1930s under the rock's base by a shady prospector named Frank Critzer.

The prospector had trouble with local authorities, who reportedly suspected him of being a Nazi spy after the outbreak of World War 2. Whatever the veracity of their suspicions, Critzer blew himself up with dynamite inside the chamber one blistering day in July, 1942 as authorities closed in. 

Van Tassel poster from the Giant Rock glory days
George van Tassel, a Midwestern business associate, took over the premises reportedly intent on developing it as a tourist attraction. One night, Van Tassel, at work on the site, claimed to have been whooshed into an alien spaceship while he slept outdoors near the rock. 
He claimed that friendly extraterrestrial being introduced him to phenomenally advanced technology. They set up two-way communications protocols that allowed him to channel them at any time back on Earth. Among other things, Van Tassel claimed that they instructed him on building a domed structure that could saturate users with rejuvenating energy and allow them to time travel.
Van Tassel actually did build what he dubbed "The Integratron" in 1959, three miles south of Giant Rock with plans "transmitted from the Planet Venus." It stands today. He funded the constructions with donations, including - he said - a grant from billionaire Howard Hughes. He asserted further that he built it on a planetary magnetic nexus. It is made entirely of wood and other non-magnetic materials in order not to interfere carrier rays, Van Tassel told reporters at the time. 
Helen and I got to look inside briefly after seeing the rock. The attendant - who knows, maybe an alien himself - seemed to move about it reverentially. It looked like the interior of a big ski lodge to me.
"If aliens did arrive here, they would take one look at us and leave quietly in disgust," I remember commenting, or something like it, tired, sweaty on the long drive back to L.A. 
"Aren't we the cynic," she responded. "How can you deny what so many people have witnessed? There has to be something to it all."
"Hysteria," I said, "or cheap thrills. People will believe anything in order to belong to a club - or a congregation," I added. 
"You're no fun," Helen said and went silent. I could tell I wasn't going to be in her club long. 
I took a job in San Francisco not long after that. I filed Helen and my Giant Rock memories away, nearly lost until my Hollywood detective Frank Ritz came across the super-boulder in pursuit of a client's secrets recently. 

Phyllis Page, Frank's off-and-on friend, rival and sometimes lover tells him:  "The aliens are among us, but not out there." She pointed upwards. "In here." She poked her chest. They're inside of us. They are our better and worse angels. And they always show up at bad times." 

The rest of the story, if there is one, sits way out in the Mojave Desert like the monster stone. Stay tuned.

My inamorata, the artist Eleanor Spiess-Ferris, offered an insight as she and I kicked UFOs around the other night. "We need space aliens," she observed. "That's why we're so fascinated with them. Myth or reality, they put us in touch with the Great Beyond. They come as the heavenly rescuers of our dreams or destroyers from our nightmares."


Umberto Tosi's novels include his highly praised, Frank Ritz, Hollywood noir detective mysteries The Phantom Eye, and Oddly Dead. plus his story collection, Sometimes Ridiculous, plus book the historial epic Ophelia Rising, High Treason, Sports Psyching and Our Own Kind. His short stories have appeared in Catamaran Literary Reader and Chicago Quarterly Review where he is a contributing editor. His essays and articles have been published widely in print and online. He has been an Authors Electric contributor for seven years.


Enjoy Umberto Tosi's Hollywood noir detective series, including The Phantom Eye  and Oddly Dead,
and the forthcoming Death and the Droid.
 "Tosi writes with tremendous style and a pitch perfect ear for everything that makes the classic noir detective story irresistible. Philip Marlowe and Lew Archer, make room for Frank Ritz!" - Elizabeth McKenzie, best-selling author of The Portable Veblen, The Dog of the North, and managing editor of Chicago Quarterly Review.


Susan Price said…
I enjoyed reading this, Umberto -- thanks! I especially loved the description of eerie, alien-haunted Los Angeles. I'd never 'seen' the city like that before.
The Alien Abduction tales are fascinating. Centuries ago, people were abducted by Elves and taken into a strange, twilit land where different rules applied. Today, they're abducted by aliens and taken into a space-ship or to Venus. As your inamorata says, we obviously need this story.
Aliciasammons said…
"We need aliens." Yes,we need our muses in all their various guises. Wonderful musings about the flights and fancies born from the very heart of our creative genius and perennial longings. So we'll written-- a delightful read!
Umberto Tosi said…
Thank you Susan and Alicia! I'm happy that my story abducted you briefly, in such good ways.

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