The Compleat Ufologist writes…
Three reissued books by astronomer, novelist, computer scientist, venture capitalist and ufologist Jacques Vallee show his life-long curiosity about UFOs and his distrust of the extraterrestrial hypothesis
Forbidden Science 1
A Passion for Discovery Jacques Vallee Anomalist Books 2017 Pb, 489pp, illus, notes, ind, $22.95, ISBN 97681938398766
Forbidden Science 2
California Hermetica Jacques Vallee Anomalist Books 2017 Pb, 547pp, illus, notes, ind, $22.95, ISBN 9781938398773
Forbidden Science 3
On the Trail of Hidden Truths Jacques Vallee Anomalist Books 2017 Pb, 513pp, illus, notes, ind, $22.95, ISBN 9781938398780
It’s something like a miracle – if not of the supernatural variety, of the kind that governs strength and determination – that these three volumes, newly reprinted in trade paperback from their original editions in 1992, 2008, and 2012, exist at all.
Each of these self-identified ‘Journals of Jacques Vallee’ covers a period of his life (1957–1969, 1970–1979, 1980– 1989 respectively). They don’t amount to a day-by-day chronicle, but close enough, and they don’t, I’m sure, only because even someone whose life has been as eventful as Vallee’s has quiet moments. Still, you’ll know a whole lot about his assorted lives – ufologist most famously to the
FT audience but also astronomer and novelist, followed by computer scientist and venture capitalist. He is candid about most things, from his assessment of colleagues (sometimes withering) to, yes, his sex life. His love of his wife Janine (deceased) and two children is a consistent and touching theme.
No single reader, short of a future biographer, will find everything here of uniform interest, and sometimes pages of material may go by of sufficiently modest hold on the attention that the less-engaged consumer may lose track of the action.
Even so, anyone who has more than a passing familiarity with this remarkable man will be grateful for the labours that went into these books, written, Vallee says, for friends and colleagues, not for a general audience. Reading them, you are likely to reflect that the last thing you would want to do at the end of an energy-draining day on the job is to sit down and record what happened to you since you woke up. One doesn’t know whether it’s discipline or self-absorption, or a combination of both – surely, a conviction that what one is doing matters – that fuels such enterprise (not just by Vallee but by everybody from Pepys to Boswell to Henry Adams and more). History is in their debt, and the history that concerns ufology will long honour what Vallee has done here, even aside from Passport to Magonia (1969) and his other influential, debatefuelling treatises on ufology.
“Although they contain passages that are personal and some that are painful,” Vallee writes in the introduction to the first volume, “they also provide a primary source about a crucial fact in the recent historical record: the appearance of new classes of phenomena that highlight the reality of the paranormal.” In his work he was fortunate to be close to two leading ufologist-intellectuals, Aimé Michel and J Allen Hynek, clearer thinkers than most who sought to engage with the UFO phenomenon, yet ultimately ended up, like nearly everybody else, confused by it and driven to conflicting – evolving, to put it another way – interpretations. What matters is that they kept thinking, kept opening themselves to new ideas and fresh evidence.
Born in Pontoise, France, in 1939, the young Vallee grew interested in UFOs during the celebrated autumn 1954 French wave. One Sunday in May 1955 he and his mother sighted a “gray, metallic disc with a clear bubble on top” hovering silently above a local church. Since 1947 such daylight discs have been at the core of ufology’s extraterrestrial hypothesis (ETH), of which Vallee has been a longtime, determined critic. Even if you didn’t know that, these three volumes would let you know as much, repeatedly. Single-handedly (well, with some assistance from the, er, less intellectually disciplined John Keel), he turned the ETH into a heresy within much of ufology, with mixed consequences, some fortuitous, some frankly nuts. I’ll give Vallee the credit for the former.
After a period at the Paris Observatory, Vallee transferred to Austin, Texas, to be employed at MacDonald Observatory, from there to move on to Chicago almost a year later, in November 1962. There, he developed computer programs for Northwestern University, whose astronomy department J Allen Hynek headed. Hynek was also Project Blue Book’s scientific consultant. With the occasional muted dissent, he parroted the US Air Force line, which may be summarised as “Nothing to see here, folks, move along.” Vallee spoke to Hynek’s doubts about what his sponsors were doing, or more precisely not doing, about UFO reports. Eventually, as most reading these words know, Hynek shook off his timidity and advocated UFO study until his death in 1986.
A good part of the joy of these books is the portrayal of Hynek, whom Vallee captures perfectly. Anyone who knew him – as I did, though Vallee far better – will recognise the very human, likable, sometimes bumbling man described here. Vallee continually expresses frustration with him (an occupational hazard of being around the man) but never gives up on him or ceases judging him lovable through it all. For all his limitations, Hynek is likely to end up a historic figure for his role as an accomplished astronomer who risked all to champion the UFO phenomenon in the face of opposition and ridicule from colleagues, prominently including the noxious celebrity and careerist Carl Sagan.
Vallee’s odyssey resists neat summary, which I won’t attempt. Suffice it to say he has lived in the Bay Area (San Francisco and suburbs) for many years while retaining strong French ties. He has written books focused on ufology and computer science as well as science fiction, and he has distinguished himself as an innovative, admired figure
“In 1955, Vallee and his mother spotted a ‘grey, metallic disc’ hovering over a local church”
in all of them. He may be the single most intelligent human being to direct his attention to the UFO question. He has also mingled with occultists and parapsychologists (not the same, except in ‘rationalist’ literature), while acknowledging that the former at least have nothing to tell us about UFOs.
It does not follow, it ought not to be necessary to observe, that he’s right about everything, just that he merits respectful attention. No one can, or would want to, dispute the proposition that he has changed serious thinking about the phenomenon. Reading these and others of his books, however, one wishes that he were friendlier and fairer to colleagues, all but a very few of whom (mostly personal friends) he treats as dunces. Not that there isn’t an unsettling number of dunces out there. As the author of a multivolume history of the UFO controversy, I believe I have read all of them. There have been occasions I feared for my sanity.
Still, in just about any human enterprise it’s the best, not the worst, that matters. In the course of time, if UFOs turn out to be what they appear (extraordinary anomalies, whether ET or otherwise, or maybe ET and otherwise), future scientists and scholars will heed the most lucid writing and research by ufologists; the rest won’t matter except as a footnote in social history. Having interacted with UFO people nearly all of my life, I can attest to the presence of some impressively astute individuals with a fully functioning critical intelligence. I may not always have agreed with them, but I have understood what they were thinking and what they were doing, and why.
It is no social crime to be wrong. It is, though, to be stupidly wrong, in other words, to hold fast to an initially promising or puzzling notion well past its sell-by date (e.g. crashed saucers, UFO-centric history). While his criticisms can fall sharply on target, at other times Vallee seems more offended by those who disagree with him than willing to hear them out. That frustration, which in the past led me to write several impatient critiques, returned to mind when I read his treatment of the Center for