Life, they say, is what happens when you’ve made other plans. I’d intended, in this week’s post, to continue my discussion of Carl Allen a.k.a. Carlos Allende, and his epistolary activities. But I had a terrific experience this past weekend, and I don’t think I’m ready to talk about anything until I’ve talked about it.
To wit: I drove up to Roanoke, Virginia, to attend this year’s MystiCon, which began at 3:00 last Friday afternoon and ended exactly 48 hours later.
A “con,” in case you didn’t know, is what science-fiction buffs call a convention, and is likely to involve lots and lots of panels on S-F-relevant topics, plus movies and art displays, gaming and parties, and a whole bunch of people running around in costume. I’d been invited to be a guest at the 2012 MystiCon back in 2011, shortly after Journal of a UFO Investigator first came out. I was delighted to accept. But, though I’d been at a couple of cons prior to MystiCon, each con is different. I wasn’t at all sure what to expect from this one.
And, to tell the truth, the world of S-F has not always been hospitable to UFOlogists. Or even to people like me, who aren’t exactly UFOlogists but who insist on treating UFOs, and the meaning they have for those who believe in them (and for those who don’t), with sympathy and respect. The great eminences of the genre often treated UFO belief with massive contempt.
Early in the 1960s, Isaac Asimov appeared in the pages of Science Digest declaring, not only that he didn’t believe in UFOs, but that anyone who did was a crackpot. A short story by Arthur C. Clarke—I can’t remember the title—before describing the actual arrival of space aliens to Earth, had to open with an irrelevant swipe at “all the flying saucer nonsense.” Lester del Rey, asked for his opinion about UFO believers and suchlike “irrationalists,” replied that he wished for them to “open their own minds and accept the world, or—and this I prefer—let them close their minds in death, and improve the world.” (Quoted in Long John Nebel, The Way Out World, Lancer Books 1962, p. 220.)
Hoo boy. When you’ve got this kind of death wish for people, they’ve clearly triggered something big inside you. What comes out isn’t apt to be pretty.
At a con back in 2010, when I was handing out advance flyers for Journal of a UFO Investigator, a young man hooted at me that he had 3000 S-F books on his shelves—or maybe it was 5000—“and not a single book on UFOs!” (To which my friend Sam Montgomery-Blinn, publisher of the excellent Durham S-F magazine Bull Spec, wittily retorted, “Well, don’t you think it’s time you get one?” But the young fellow was in no mood for humor.)
So how would a guy whose field is religious studies, who writes a sympathetic novel about a teen UFOlogist, be received at MystiCon?
Answer: with an open-hearted welcome, and with the company of dozens of first-rate, challenging and questing minds, eager to learn and teach. In those 48 hours at MystiCon, they taught me a lot. I’m still digesting it.
One of the first people I met, a few hours after checking into the Holiday Inn where the conference was held, was Richard C. Cook. A stocky, kind-faced man with a close-cropped beard and a passionate voice, in his mid-60s like myself, Richard was an engineer at NASA at the time of the Challenger disaster of 1986. It was, I learn, an avoidable disaster. Richard was among those at NASA who sent memos urging that the launch be postponed, that it just wasn’t safe. Their protests were ignored. Richard tells the story in his absorbing, appalling book Challenger Revealed: An Insider’s Account of How the Reagan Administration Caused the Greatest Tragedy of the Space Age (Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2006).
He’s also a UFO researcher; and here we had common ground as well as what might have been ground for conflict. A man of science, Richard sees UFOs as a physical reality. How would he respond, I wondered, to someone for whom they’re essentially a religious issue? With the same open mind, it turned out—as we sat for two hours over coffee on Sunday—as the others I met at MystiCon.
I sat on two panels with Richard. Ironically, he wasn’t able to be present at the panel on UFOs, held at 1:00 on Saturday. Superbly moderated by Tally Johnson, the panel included me (of course), author and editor Gray Rinehart (an outspoken UFO skeptic), and retired journalist Paul Dellinger, co-author of Don’t Look Up: The Real Story Behind the Virginia UFO Sightings. We might have fought; we didn’t. Instead, under Tally’s guidance, we and the audience worked together toward truth and understanding. It was artist Anita Allen, speaking from the audience, who pointed out the relevance to the UFO problem of Julian Jaynes’ 1976 book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. I haven’t read Jaynes’ book. But it’s now high on my to-read list.
So much to describe … a wonderful talk by John L. French, author and crime scene supervisor with the Baltimore police, on what crime scene investigation really is … a panel that I shared with John and Richard, Saturday afternoon, dealing with the far edges of scientific thought … a panel that I moderated Sunday morning, on which authors Zachary Steele and Steven H. Wilson reflected on religion and spirituality in science-fiction. A panel in which Zachary observed that S-F cultivates and promotes the mythological sense of the universe that gives religion so much of its energy; yet S-F also undermines or tears down the fences and thou-shalt-nots within which orthodox religion tries to confine that energy.
A remarkable woman in the audience, Alaina Damewood—she’s a Unitarian Universalist like me, she told me, and plans to study for the UU ministry—contributed so many provocative insights to that panel, I thought it a pity she wasn’t sitting behind the table with Steven and Zachary and me.
And a special bonus for me: a chance to reconnect with a good old friend, author Allen Wold, who mentored me in what panels at a con are like and how to go about moderating them. Much as, twelve years ago, he helped initiate a soon-to-retire religion professor and fledgling novelist into the weird and wild world of fiction writing.
Does this sound like a series of plugs for some extraordinary people, whom the intellectually and spiritually curious ought to get to know—and, if you already know them, ought to know better? Well, it is. Thank you, MystiCon, for bringing us all together.