Will U Kindly F O?

SF authors often find themselves promoting their novels on ghastly local radio shows in between bursts of ghastlier music. After opening the book at random and asking what the writer meant by some difficult sentence like 'First published in Great Britain in 1999,' the radio host always pops the dreaded question: 'You write sci-fi, so you believe in UFO abductions and Alien Greys, right?' Death is too good for him.

It's a constantly astonishing to the media that sf professionals tend to be sceptical of UFO stories (while silently envying Whitley Strieber for the money he's made out of them). Frank Herbert once said very carefully at a Dune movie press conference, 'I do believe in UFOs – Unidentified Flying Objects. Please don't hear that as anything else.' Before reaching 'Please' he was almost trampled to death by reporters racing for the door scribbling, 'I Have Seen The Saucer People, Says Dune Man.'

Which somehow reminds me of Terry Pratchett's anecdote of being a journalist and 'patiently investigating the claims of some apparently perfectly normal people who had, once you worked out the details of the glowing hemisphere that they had seen, watched the sun set.'

SF authors Isaac Asimov, John Brunner and Arthur C. Clarke all stomped repeatedly and enthusiastically on pseudoscientific and ufological myths. John Sladek wrote a whole nonfiction book called The New Apocrypha, exposing junk science and daft occult beliefs so vigorously that the Scientologists sued. Carl Sagan – who wrote sf as well as pop-science, remember – expressed similar sentiments in his plea for common sense, The Demon-Haunted World.

Unfortunately, you don't become a fringe-science bestseller by writing old-fashioned stuff like common sense. SF writers are frequently tempted to invent 'nonfiction' marvels to make themselves rich. For example, George Hay, Colin Wilson, myself and others 'reconstructed' the Necronomicon, that evil grimoire which appears again and again in H.P. Lovecraft's horror fiction. This was more a joke than a make-money-fast scheme, but lots of people took it very seriously and issued warnings that performing the Necronomicon's fake rituals could get you eaten by invisible monsters in public (like the supposed author, the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred). I still get Necronomicon royalties after 20-odd years.

John Sladek gave this book a stinking review and correctly called my bits 'rubbish', but he too was lured by all the money the gullible public seemed ready to pay for nut books. So he invented a new sign of the zodiac, Arachne the Spider, and under the impenetrable pseudonym James Vogh he published a hoax book called Arachne Rising (also known as The Thirteenth Zodiac) that explained in relentless detail how this completely revolutionized astrology. Since Sladek made the mistake of using plausibly logical reasoning, astrologers weren't much interested.

My own wicked UFO story was called An Account of a Meeting with Denizens of Another World, 1871. Its centrepiece was a longish description of a close encounter with alien technology in Victorian Buckinghamshire, written in old-fashioned prose by (supposedly) one of my wife's authentic ancestors, William Robert Loosley. As 'editor' of this vital document, I provided a surrounding essay that explained the amazing alien scientific truths which old William Robert hadn't quite understood ... but I cunningly pretended to be sceptical about it all.

This led to letters from True Believers who denounced me for not believing more whole-heartedly in my own spoof. One of them insisted that I must be on the CIA payroll, bribed by huge wads of dollars to cover up the Truth Which Is Out There. If only ...

Ever since publishing An Account I've been a good boy and admitted it's fiction whenever someone asks. (Journalists usually didn't ask.) This didn't stop it being listed as an amazing true incident in uncritical UFO potboilers like The World's Great UFO Mysteries and The World's Strangest Mysteries, both by Nigel Blundell and Roger Boar. With strange irony it turned out that Whitley Strieber – the world's most famous UFO pundit – actually does his research in this kind of quick-buck compilation. He duly recycled my whole story, my story which was mine, in two pages of his lucrative (though not for me) 1989 novel about the Roswell nonsense, Majestic.

I never managed to extract a permission fee for my contribution to this bestseller. Instead, for some reason, Mr Strieber got very cross with me. There's probably a moral there somewhere, and I wish I knew what it was.

David Langford confesses to stealing this column's title from John Sladek.