UFOs and Lawsuits

Hello. Before I begin, I have to issue a government health warning. Many years ago I was at a tiny convention called Silicon, on a panel where one of the funniest people in SF fandom [Leroy Kettle] was prattling away at thirty-three and a third quips per minute while I sat next to him doing my famous impression of a large block of wood. Then everybody politely stopped giggling as a grim Presence made itself felt at the back of the room, like the ghost of Banquo but more depressing. In deep and dismal tones this apparition said, "I am totally disgusted. This is supposed to be a science fiction convention. You've been talking for half an hour and you haven't even mentioned science fiction." Then he went away to compose his letter to the Advertising Standards Authority.

I imagine this guy as being a real scream in other areas of life, stalking up to people who are having fun and saying accusing things like, "This is supposed to be a golf club party, why is nobody practising approach shots?"

Well, the warning is that if Banquo's ghost is here today he might as well drift out now, as my own token mention of serious science fiction has just happened. Never shake thy gory locks at me. Instead I thought I'd say a bit about totally different matters, like crime and UFOs and science fiction conventions. There will also, it says in my notes, be spontaneous digressions.

[Let me re-insert a couple of Unicon-specific paragraphs dropped from the ConFiction rewrite ...]

Here at Uniconze I've already heard serious criticism about there being five guests, all liable to give long talks without warning and eat heavily into your quality time spent in the bar. In fact, to keep down expenses, four of these guests are even sharing one room. It's quite a squeeze, but we have cosmic minds. Lionel Fanthorpe, being the most prolific of us, is getting the bed to be prolific in. Ian Watson's politics make him a natural to be the red under the bed. As the representative of science fiction's New Wave, Barry Bayley is dossing down in the bath; and although I'm not yet quite sure where I fit in, the committee has rather flatteringly said that my own sleeping arrangements are being specially sponsored by their publishers, the Trouser Press.

To reduce the strain on your attention, we have a plan for a timeshared guest speech, making up the traditional hour by having each of us talk for twelve minutes. But I may over-run a bit.

By the way, I'm always amazed by these people who can stand up – let me finish, I haven't spent that long in the bar yet – who can stand up and give a speech without notes for forty minutes. I remember boggling when mild-mannered Brian Stableford did this without even diving into a telephone box and putting on tights. What was doubly boggling was that his subject was the life and philosophy of that famous Cambridge fan Ludwig Wittgenstein... yet nobody actually walked out. Somehow Brian made this seem vibrantly relevant to science fiction, I think by convincing the audience that Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus was much easier to understand and had a lot more laughs than the average issue of Interzone.

This was at Cymrucon years ago in Cardiff, held in a hotel apparently designed in a bad moment by H.P. Lovecraft's interior decorator. Strange eldritch vibrations filled the haunted corridors, thanks largely to the main-line station next door: you could lie awake in terror as your bed slowly poltergeisted down a sloping floor and eventually collided in slow motion with the wardrobe, like the Incredible Hulk. The whole place was a labyrinth of insane angles and flimsy partitions. One toilet door opening on a public corridor had to be held shut with your foot, but if you pushed too hard the whole front fell off, revealing not only you but whoever was using the other three cubicles in the row. It was a wonderful way to make new friends. The most sinister bedroom had no light switch; if you banged on the wall, the people next door were supposed to take this as a signal and turn your light off. We all agreed at the end of Cymrucon that this had been the right sort of hotel... the sort where the management are too embarrassed by their surroundings to get heavy about closing the bar before, roughly, breakfast time.

Even more architecturally weird was the famous locked-room puzzle which you might have heard about, presented by the guest of honour at Wincon a couple of years ago – Patrick Tilley. For weeks afterwards, distraught committee members were stumbling round bars babbling of how their guest had vanished before giving a speech, leaving the keys inside his locked room with a note explaining that he'd gurgled messily into a naked singularity or something. There's nothing more disturbing than breaking down a door to find the message THIS ROOM WAS COMPLETELY FILLED WITH GUEST OF HONOUR WHEN DESPATCHED, BUT CONTENTS MAY HAVE SETTLED DURING TRANSIT. I understand that the committee nervously rang his next of kin to explain that Mr Tilley's superstrings had come unravelled, and were told, "Oh, he does this all the time." I must learn the trick myself.

The locked-room puzzle brings me, by a natural transition of almost unbelievable clumsiness, to the promised discussion of Crime.

One of the most fascinatingly useless books in my collection is Locked Room Murders by Robert Adey (published by Ferret Fantasy in 1979). This consists of a long numbered list of 1,280 books and stories about "impossible" crimes, with an appendix giving all the solutions. Some of these terse plot giveaways make pretty boggling reading, and often induce a powerful urge never ever to read the book. Here's a selection of my favourites. These are the solutions only. What the problems were... is going to be your problem.

26. [The gold was] siphoned off through a dummy electric wire conduit.

64. Victim, while in bath, was tricked into handling a copper spider through which an electric current was passed.

That reminds me that one of Colin Watson's books had an even nastier trick with an electrified beetle attached to a wall. The wall was made of porcelain and formed the back of a gents' public lavatory. According to Watson, there is an almost irresistible psychological urge to aim for any foreign body such as the fake beetle... whereupon, fzzzzzzt! Something similar happened without any need for a beetle at the first Seacon in 1975, where the De Vere Hotel's new nylon carpets charged everyone up to millions of volts and did fearful things to the virility of male fans who failed to earth themselves before visiting the loo. But let's back to the list....

68. After killing, the murderer stepped into an incinerator and incinerated himself.

70. The body, still "alive" but in a state of suspended animation, was hidden in a false laboratory bench.

75. The killer, a midget, was still in the room hidden in a leather hatbox when the dor was broken down.

91. The deaths were engineered by a person dressed as a werewolf....

100. The killer bought and left a block of frozen nitro-glycerin which exploded as the fishmonger attempted to break it with his hammer.

131. The killer entered the house disguised as an elephant, and escaped down a secret tunnel which he later nailed shut....

132. Victim accidentally threw a live cartridge into a live electric light socket. The metal base of the cartridge melted and it was fired as though from a revolver.

139. The mask had been smuggled out in the pouch of a stuffed kangaroo....

146. A ventilator above the corpse was removed leaving a small hole through which an armadillo, rolled into a ball, was lowered. It proceeded to deface the dead man.

147. Murderers got past guard to victim by impersonating a horse.

366. The killer, an African pygmy, was hidden in a coal basket when the entrance was forced.

369. The victims were strangled by a hybrid creeper.

519. The victim was killed by the lid of the old Victorian Bath in which he was sitting, which fell on him when he picked up a rigged loofah.

534. The jewels had been stolen by a trained white rat whose hideaway was a footstool with a false compartment.

540. Webs spun across the magnifying lens of a telescope by a pet Venusian spider caused brain damage to the victim when he looked through it....

542. The bus was hidden under a stairway with a secret opening.

574. The house was built around the corpse.

628. Victim strangled himself while under the influence of poisoned cigarettes.

634. Dagger was made from a plastic ashtray which after it had been used reverted on application of hot water (in a teapot) to its original shape.

683. The deceased had drunk whiskey containing a radioactive isotope before he entered the locked rom. The whiskey had been considered harmless because the murderer had already partaken of it, but he had taken care to immunize himself before drinking.

706. The victim was being poisoned by a faulty central heating system and, in rising with desperate suddenness to escape it, struck his head on the painted base of a chandelier.

I heard about another version of this cunning trick in which the insidious gas filled the victim with such insane strength that, starting flat on his back, he leapt ten feet out of bed and impaled himself on a spike in the ceiling. Scotland Yard, I am reliably informed, was baffled.

787. The murderer wore a tartan kilt and blended in with the scenery.

855. A line was looped under the victim's armpits and was attached at the other end to a captive shark. When the shark was released it raced off and dragged the victim overboard.

861. Victim is dehydrated, stuffed through the cell bars and then, once back inside, rehydrated.

889. The platinum dust was taken out in honey consumed by bees owned by the thief.

890. The murderer drank the water in which he drowned his victim.

954. The victim, who had the peculiar habit of eating grapes from the wallpaper design, was poisoned by someone who knew of the habit and put cyanide on [them].

972. The stabbing was done by an already present diabolical floating machine which afterwards burnt itself out.

977. The poison had been administered by a red ant enticed by a scent on an envelope delivered to the victim.

And finally....

1099. A heart attack was deliberately caused by a figure who stood outside the locked French windows in a hideous green mask.

The person in the hideous green mask was obviously pretending to be one of the dreadful things associated with the modern UFO revival. I know I'd probably have a heart attack if I looked out of my French windows and saw Whitley Strieber. Which brings me, by a transition even more contrived and unconvincing than the last one, to goings-on in the wonderful world of UFOs, plagiarism and lawsuits. Part of what follows will be in the next or next-but-one issue of Interzone, so if you have a subscription you can sneak off to the bar now.


No, that was just a figure of speech, come back....

For authors, close encounters of the third kind usually go like this:

"...And in the studio now we have a real live sci-fi author! Yes, folks, he's come zooming down from space in his flying saucer, har har, to give us all the latest galactic news about little green men, har har, and to plug his new book of sci-fi high jinks called, lemme see, called 1984! So tell me George, you must be into UFOs, what did you think of, um, Uri Geller?"

Which probably sounds familiar, though I can't really do the accent. Repeated doses of this kind of thing, administered by the skilled disc jockeys of many a local radio station, have left the average SF author with a tendency to snarl dismissively at the mere mention of UFO research. Though SF and UFOs are about equally played for laughs by the less respectable media, we somehow fail to feel a kinship.

And of course we don't notice the finer distinctions apparent to those on the inside. Just as we ourselves can sometimes detect a certain subtle dividing line between, say, Gene Wolfe and L.Ron Hubbard, so UFOlogy embraces a spectrum of thought from the scientifically intriguing to the totally dippy. And just at the moment, its internal struggles make the usual cosmos-busting feuds of SF fans and authors seem a bit trivial.

I wandered backwards into the UFO scene more than a decade ago, with a spoof book carrying another of my famous snappy titles: An Account of a Meeting with Denizens of Another World, 1871 (1979). This contained a fictional narrative about a Victorian "close encounter", with a long and learned commentary by that little-known UFO expert Dave Langford. My favourite touch was that the commentary was frequently very sceptical about the story. It was great fun, for me at least, and I laughed all the way to the remainder shelf. By the mid-80s, despite being plagiarized in a couple of gosh-wow UFO books and mercilessly exposed in Private Eye magazine, the book was forgotten. Almost.

(The bit I wish I could forget is the correspondence in Private Eye, by the end of which Paul Barnett – the editor who commissioned An Account in the first place – had proved to his own satisfaction that not only was the UFO fictional but so was Dave Langford. This helped blunt the force of his accusation that I'd offered 50p to be allowed to put my hand on the sensuous knee of the lovely Eve Devereux, a lady chiefly notorious for being one of Paul's pseudonyms.)

This is where I'd better be careful with my words. I keep hearing the terrible, vulture-like flapping of lawyers. It hadn't occurred to me that when he sent up Whitley Strieber back in Interzone 25, good old Tom Disch might actually have been risking a lawsuit. Yet he did sort of dwell on the remarkable coincidence that Strieber had been looking into a book called Science and the UFOs by Jenny Randles and Peter Warrington, which describes a "classic" UFO experience... and then, mere hours later, he was supposed to have had the strangely similar experience which was so profitably immortalized in his Communion. Badly drawn aliens with enormous eyes and faces made of putty removed his underpants and thrust their video cameras where no man had gone before. Or something like that.

Jenny Randles, who's a professional UFO author and researcher, made the mistake of joking about this suggestive sequence of events when speaking on the radio. Having been sent a tape of the programme by his UFOlogical colleague Stanton Friedman, Strieber immediately threatened a libel action. Randles lacked the funds to resist and had to grovel in public. Nobody messes with Whitley Strieber.

It was, by coincidence, Jenny Randles who first noticed something familiar about certain pages of Strieber's new aliens-are-among-us novel Majestic, which is billed as fiction, but a fiction closely based on coff coff quote true incident unquote. The news reached me through the grapevine: two pages of this heavily hyped epic are a detailed rehash – a condensation rather in the Readers Digest style – of the central narrative in my own UFO spoof, complete with names and dates. Not wishing to be unfair, I suppose this might have just have been a remarkable case of synchronicity, or telepathy, but because I'm a small-minded bastard I complained to Strieber's publishers anyway.

I must say that, although I lack huge riches for lawsuits against anyone who irritates me, I would rather have enjoyed a grovelling public apology from that great man Whitley Strieber. Instead, I merely got a lofty assurance from his American publishers that – by lifting the story not directly from my book but from a gosh-wow compilation which had ripped it off without permission from me – Strieber behaved entirely properly despite not getting permission from anybody.

(As I understand this precedent, you can therefore steal a plot from, say, Joe Haldeman with absolute safety – so long as you don't read the book and just get the details from a friend.)

Furthermore, the editors at Putnam said in reply to a slightly malicious request, Whitley and they were not going to grant permission for me to quote the version of my story which appears without my permission in Majestic. (I suppose I could ask if they'd let me paraphrase it....) As for an apology, or maybe even $50 worth of permission fee, forget it: to offer either of these dreadfully expensive things would be to admit liability, and of course we can't have that. I can only hope for a credit on the next edition's copyright page. [This duly materialized, at least in Britain.]

The UFO world is complicated. Only after all this, and after writing about my exciting spiritual relationship with Majestic, did I learn that I might have been walking on awfully thin ice... when Jenny Randles explained to me the perils of so much as hinting that Strieber could ever have been influenced by any other book whatever. She also let slip that she was again being sued, this time in earnest, by Strieber's aforementioned pal Stanton Friedman.

I did a bit of research into this, and shortly afterwards began to chew the carpet in rage.

It seems that the major division in UFOlogy today is between what you might call the European and American schools of thought... except that last time I called them that, someone accused me of gratuitous anti-American slurs. In fact the Euro-viewpoint has many American supporters and vice versa. Neither continent has a monopoly on loonies... just in case you hadn't guessed.

Randles and the Europeans say they rather prefer a psychological approach to the famous experiences of close encounters and UFO "abductions" – not so much to explain them away as in the hope that like other anomalous mental states (things like lucid dreaming or "out of the body" experiences or listening to Harry Harrison) they could offer insights into how human brains work. Despite my profound lack of interest in UFOs, this sounds fairly sensible to me.

By the way, Jenny Randles told me to read this really great novel which was the most brilliant ever written using UFO theory. "Not Majestic?" I said nervously. "No," she said, "Miracle Visitors by Ian Watson." Bloody hell, I remember thinking.

The other school of UFO thought, I regret to say, prefers grittily physical abductions by physical aliens piloting physical UFOs, and has a tendency to foam at the mouth and babble about global conspiracy theories based on shoddy documentation. This goes back to the old story (which actually forms the plot of Majestic) about the 1947 "crashed flying saucer" in New Mexico. Secret committees are supposed to have presided over autopsies on little green bodies and conducted experiments on aliens' fondness for strawberry ice cream. Every US administration since the 1940s is supposed to have continued the cover-up of this earth-shattering news, just as they so successfully hid Watergate. And so on.

This wild stuff is mostly based on a lot of quote "leaked" unquote documents dealing with the secret committee, known as the "MJ-12" or "Majestic-12" papers: that's where Strieber's novel title comes from. In the extraterrestrial school of UFOlogy (let's not call it the loony viewpoint, someone might be listening), these occupy the holy position which in another place is given over to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. They are heavily disputed for a variety of reasons – one, for example, has a Presidential signature detectably photocopied from a genuine and publicly accessible autograph.

(All this provides a thick veneer of daftness over the apparently established fact that something did crash in the New Mexico desert in 1947, and excludes discussion of the boring possibility of, say, some early and secret US research into German rocket technology... or even, most unlikely of all, the radar trial balloon which the evil US Air Force said it was all along.)

I think my prejudices are showing. The MJ-12 material seems made to order for the kind of two-faced newspaper story which feeds on Colossal Sensation and simultaneously, self-protectively, makes fun of the subject matter. It's also ideal fodder for the loonies. Visiting the USA in 1987, Jenny Randles saw all these boggling dossiers, like the one about how the US government had done a deal with the alien hordes, agreeing a formal quota for the number of people to be abducted by UFOs in each following year. She didn't say whether you could nominate favourite authors for the privilege.

All this hasn't exactly helped the less barmy researchers here or there, who thanks to these ripples from the MJ-12 frenzy have found the credibility of their subject at an all-time low... no matter how unsensational their own theories happen to be.

Their problem is sort of reminiscent of that nightmare scene with a reporter at an SF convention. "Science fiction," one says earnestly, "can be a literature of ideas and extrapolation; an unparalleled medium for social satire; a fertile compost for the stuff of myth. You mustn't assume that we're all...." Whereupon someone in an ill-fitting Darth Vader costume stampedes past, shouting "Kill! Kill!" while projecting a murderous barrage from his bubble gun, and the reporter most certainly does assume that we are all.

So much for the UFOlogical background. The debate between what I've been loosely calling British and American UFOlogy came to a head in Manchester last October, when Stanton Friedman, US scientist and apostle of the MJ-12 faith, was scheduled to hold a revivalist meeting about crashed saucers and all this alleged evidence for forty-odd years of extraterrestrial intervention. It seems that this was uncritically reported in the Manchester Evening News and that Jenny Randles, who lives in the area, irately told the paper about the harm she reckoned had been done to serious UFOlogy by – well, by all the above. This turned out to be a mistake.

By the time the newspaper had finished with them, Randles's comments on US excesses were paraphrased so that they could just about be taken, by someone willing enough to be offended, as personal attacks on Friedman and his mates. For example, a comment about the authenticity of the MJ-12 papers became, in the reporter's creative hands: "A meeting featuring an American expert on the subject of 'crashed UFOs' was condemned today as 'about as factual as a Steven Spielberg movie'." Is it libellous to call a meeting fictional? "ConFiction is total fiction!" ...I hear no lawsuits.

Friedman and the organizer of the Manchester meeting issued writs on the basis of the newspaper story... even though Jenny Randles had complained straight away to the paper about being misrepresented. It is pretty evident where the litigants' wrath is focused: the reporter wasn't sued, the newspaper was asked for a few hundred, and Jenny Randles for damages in five figures.

Friedman reputedly asserts that his international scientific reputation has been injured by this small article in a local newspaper – though he didn't mind being prestigiously splashed, some weeks later, all over that pillar of the intellectual press, the Sunday Sport. (For Americans I should say that this is like your National Enquirer with slightly less hard news or good taste.) To my jaundiced gaze, Friedman's attitude doesn't look all that scientific.

Well, I'm a lapsed scientist myself. In a small way I once took part in scientific debates, saying "Oi, I dispute this claim" and thereby implying that the other chap had mucked up experimental procedures, had misinterpreted results, or was simply fibbing. Now I see that this normal give-and-take of scientific dispute can (given sufficient bloody-mindedness) lead straight to a libel suit for impugning others' professional competence or integrity. Of course science would grind to a halt if every such case went to the courts, but what's a little inconvenience like that by comparison with the awesome reputation of Stanton Friedman?

"This," certain of his supporters have been reported as gloating, "will be the Scopes trial of UFOlogy." My own understanding of the 1925 Scopes trial was that those who used the law in hope of silencing their opponents – who in that case were teachers of Darwinian evolution – ended up looking very silly.

Wearing my other hat as an SF writer, I too have spoken to the Press and subsequently woken up in the middle of the night screaming. It's incredibly dismaying to think that anyone can be sued for large sums on the basis of remarks seen through the cloudy distorting lens of British provincial journalism.

"Interzone," I imagine myself letting slip to a reporter in a relaxed and incautious moment, "is a fiction magazine and it's published monthly." In due course the story appears: "Hard-hitting crusader David Langford lashed out today and blasted the claimed monthly schedule of sci-fi mag Interzone as 'pure fiction'." I write hastily to editor David Pringle, saying I'm extremely sorry about what appeared and that it wasn't at all what I'd said. "Ha ha," he retorts as his solicitors prepare the writ for defamation, "you have apologized! That's an admission of liability!" And the expensive court hearings begin. (Something very like this actually happened at the beginning of the Randles case.)

Which leads to a neat Catch-22 situation. I probably couldn't fight such an action without public support to help pay legal costs which are liable to reach five figures all by themselves; but my lawyers would tell me very sternly that I wasn't to go public while the case was on. Thus, although I'm virtually certain that Randles doesn't dispute the story I've put together above, she isn't allowed to discuss it with me....

Like various writer colleagues, I'm pretty bloody angry at a situation which a lot of us see as using the courts to suppress debate in what are claimed to be scientific issues. At Easter 1990, Paul Barnett (better known to remainder connoisseurs as "John Grant", or to porno addicts as Eve Devereux) – Paul and I started a fund to help contest it – or at least to cushion the disaster when, as is all too likely in the escalating poker-game of British libel law, the good guys can no longer afford to fight on. Our fund, in homage to the legendary libel defence funds of Private Eye magazine, is called "MJ-Balls".

Although this appeal has only been going a little while, SF and literary notables too numerous to mention have sent contributions and expressions of support; the most generous help has come from ordinary SF fans. As Eliot Rosewater used to say, I love you sons of bitches. Any further support would be much appreciated... stop me any time you see me and ask for a flier with a list of astonishing goodies for sale. End of plug.

Meanwhile, I've heard from another British specialist in outspoken comment about the fringes of science, whose name I can't tell you for the moment but who has received an initial stroppy letter from the solicitors of someone whose reputation for total integrity has been damaged by his remarks... someone called Uri Geller. Here we go again.

Well, from all this I've learnt the value of being quick on the draw with a lawsuit. My message for ConFiction members is that, even if I seem to be flat on my back under a table in the bar all this weekend, you should beware of such a commonplace, mundane, sceptical interpretation. I have a strong premonition that, pausing only to enter an alien state of consciousness, I will shortly have vivid and traumatic memories of being abducted by a gigantic convention mothership glowing with special effects. Terrible indignities, like being forced to watch programme items, will have been visited on me by dwarf committee members with enormous eyes and faces made of putty. My book about these horrific experiences will be a sure-fire bestseller.

And to anyone who rudely says, "This is a load of rubbish, you were in the bar all the time," I will reply in the honeyed tones of sweet reasonableness: "How do you fancy a million-pound libel action, sunshine?"

Mind how you go.

Thanks for listening.