Netflix has become a treasure trove for any Sci-Fi lover: Along hundreds of old movies in their catalog they’ve also released films and series exclusive to their streaming service, which are among the most thought-provoking and original TV entertainment of this last decade –take a look at Greg’s review of Annihilation, starring Natalie Portman.
Altered Carbon is one of those series worth your binge-watching time. Set in a dystopic future in which humanity has attained the transhumanist holy grail of immortality, this noir crime story plays homage to several classic cyberpunk influences —Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell, Neuromancer, etc. But as a Fortean student, Altered Carbon’s decadent megacities and psychedelic simulacra also reminds me of something more… quaint: A little chicken farm near Eagle River, Wisconsin.
Your sleeve’s eyes don’t need replacing, you read that sentence correctly. Netflix’s Altered Carbon seems to offer an interesting connection to the famous Joe Simonton’s close encounter case of 1961, in which he was given three plain-looking ‘pancakes’ by three entities onboard a silvery saucer shaped object. Aside from their exotic craft and their peculiar uniforms (black two-piece suits complete with a ‘steampunk’ knit helmet) there was nothing particularly alien about these individuals –their black hair and dark skin made them “ressemble Italians,” according to Simonton’s testimony to the authorities and officers of Project Blue Book.
Their interactions with the lonely farmer were not that out of the ordinary either –or rather, it was extraordinary in the sense that it didn’t follow the ‘usual’ close encounter script, because instead of warnings about impending nuclear Armageddon or a pro-bono medical checkup (complete with a prostate examination) one of them produced a jug apparently made of the same chrome-like metal as the rest of the saucer, and without saying a word made gestures to Simonton indicating they wanted him to fill it with water. This he diligently did, and once he retrieved the container to the UFOnaut this gave him a chance to peer inside their mysterious craft. Its interior was black, “like wrought iron,” and next to some instrument panels he noticed one of the ‘men’ was apparently “frying food on a flameless grill of some sort.” In a kind of quid-pro-quo neighborly gesture, it was now Simonton’s turn to signal his Mediterranean-looking guests that he was interested in what they were cooking. As payment for his kind services, one of the occupants handed him three of these thin wafers, which were approximately 3 inches in diameter and perforated with small holes all over their surface.
After the exchange was consummated one of the ‘Italians’ closed the hatch, and the saucer –which had remained hovering close to the ground this whole time– quickly ascended and headed to the south, “causing a blast of air that bowed some nearby pine trees.” Once alone Simonton proceeded to take a bite out of one of them ‘space snacks’, only to discover that the saucermen’s evident knowledge in aeronautics and antigravity was inversely proportional to their mastery of the culinary arts –the darn things tasted like cardboard!
The rest, so they say, is UFOlogical history: Both the police authorities and the Air Force personnel who researched the case never doubted the witness’s integrity, despite any ‘strong’ corroborating elements in support of the story. Blue Book had no choice but to ascribe a ‘psychological’ explanation to the case, claiming the lonely farmer had suffered some sort of daydream hallucination. The UFO civilian groups didn’t want to touch the case with a ten-foot pole either for fear of ridicule –it took them a long time to accept reports of flying saucers landing, with their occupants being seen performing seemingly exploratory tasks of collecting soil samples and local vegetation. But ‘spacemen’ cooking their food inside their interplanetary craft, instead of ingesting the ‘meal-in-a-pill’ tablets Sci-Fi stories kept referencing as the food of the Future? Well that didn’t make any sense at all, did it??
The only tangible evidence in Simonton’s favor –the pancakes– also proved to be inconclusive as well: The results obtained by the Food and Drug Laboratory of the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare, at the behest of the Air Force, showed the cakes were composed of hydrogenated fat, starch, buckwheat hulls, soya bean hulls and wheat bran. In other words, they were made out of ordinary, terrestrial ingredients. Case closed for Blue Book!
On Passport to Magonia —available through Daily Grail Publishing— Jacques Vallee used the Eagle River case to illustrate the many parallels between modern UFO accounts, and the ancient folklore surrounding fairies and other mythical creatures. Take for example the many examples of the fey folk giving humans buckwheat cakes, or how the analysis of Simonton’s pancakes failed to detect any salt on them, in concordance with Walter Evans-Wentz’s classical study The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries:
“[The Gentry] never taste anything salt, but eat fresh meat and drink pure water.”
Over the years I myself have given a lot of thought to the Simonton case. I love both its high strangeness along with its ambiguity. But maybe what I love the most about it, is its indirect implications with regards to these atrocious ‘Italian’ chefs: The fact they were at the farm requesting water already hints to either their carelessness as expeditionaries (“Guido, we’re out of a-water again?? Mamma mia!“) or that they simply don’t care about packing every single item they will need when they go out to investigate the fascinating lifestyle of chicken farmers in Wisconsin –maybe saucermen like to travel light… perhaps even literally, as we’ll proceed to explain in a moment…
So, if they don’t carry their own water, maybe they also don’t carry their own flour either. That would nicely explain why Blue Book failed to find any exotic substances in the pancakes. I sometimes like to fantasize about the same dark-haired UFOnauts bothering another remote farmer a week prior to Simonton’s sighting, asking for other items in their shopping list.
And why stop there? Let’s be true Forteans and continue to speculate: If UFO entities don’t bring food or water from their place of origin… perhaps they don’t even carry their own bodies with them.
Which brings us back to Altered Carbon. In this Sci-Fi universe set hundreds –if not THOUSANDS– of years in the future, humanity has spread into the stars. But they didn’t do so by discovering faster-than-light travel or traversable wormholes, instead they use the same technology which allows them to stay young forever by way of downloading their consciousness into a new body –a ‘sleeve’ in the series’s parlance– so jumping from world to world is simply a matter of transmitting your personality into a recepting sleeve already prepared and waiting for you in that other planet.
One of the things fundamentalist skeptics love to point out when attempting to debunk UFOs, is the improbability that extraterrestrial visitors would look so much like us. And the fact of the matter is they are right! Forget for an instant the arguments in support or against a bipedal humanoid structure as being ideal for a sentient species with the potential to construct a technologically-advanced civilization; also let’s bypass how improbable it would be for alien visitors to be able to breathe in our atmosphere –true, in the good ole days there were a few encounters with humanoids wearing cumbersome breathing apparatuses, but those kind of sightings seem to be a thing of the past. There still remains one little snag potential visitors would need to overcome when coming to Earth and mingle with Wisconsin farmers: Gravity.
Another one of Netflix’s series —The Expanse— factors in the problem of gravity into their storyline quite effectively: In this other sci-fi story –only a few hundred years from our era– mankind is starting to spread into the outer reaches of the Solar System, hence people who are born in the asteroid belt are incapable of enduring Earth’s higher gravity without any type of biomedical support –in the image below, a belter is being tortured on Earth simply by submitting him to ‘normal’ (by our standards) 1g, which is more than what his brittle bones and enlarged heart can endure.
The Expanse’s future scenario is just a water drop in evolutionary terms, yet it already shows how our species will inevitably branch out once we start colonizing new planets.
Indeed, traveling to other worlds would be far easier, quicker –and less riskier!– if you could just ‘transfer’ yourself to an appropriate ‘avatar’ which is already suited to the environmental conditions of the place you intend to visit. This speculation should appeal to both the nuts-and-bolters crowd as well as the high-strangeness anti-materialists in the UFO community: Either you imagine the aliens sent a sort of Von Neumann probe capable not only of self-replication, but also of ‘3d-printing’ all the objects and equipment you require out of the available ‘raw materials’ present in our planet –including DNA– or you think of transdimensional demiurges who ‘manifest’ themselves by converting energy into matter and viceversa, just like the current investigation on UFO ejecta materials Jacques Vallee’s conducting seems to suggest –perhaps this was the reason why so many ancient deities demanded blood sacrifices? as a way to ‘restock’ their building supplies?– so whatever floats your boat, fellow Fortean!
Obviously I’m hardly the first who’s ever come up with such an idea. Richard Dolan briefly touched upon coinciding thoughts on his book UFOs for the 21st Century Mind. Whitley Strieber also used this ‘mind-transfer’ scenario in his novel The Grays –which, despite being a fictional story, it is supposedly based on actual close encounters with non-human entities. Even Hollywood has utilized similar concepts in UFO-related films like the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still –which I happen to like, unlike most UFO and Sci-Fi enthusiasts– where Klaatu’s human appearance is the result of him inhabiting a body grown out of the cells of an early XXth century mountain climber, and in Prot’s tachyon-traveling methods as shown in the movie K-Pax –which I happen to like even more, political correctness be damned!
And yet I’m well aware I’m falling in the inescapable fallacy of interpreting the UFO phenomenon by way of contemporary culture. But that’s quite all right, because not only it goes to show the UFO discourse is painfully stuck in outdated visions of 1950’s science fiction that need urgent revision, but that as we move forward and witness science fiction suddenly turn into science fact, we humans remain capable of envisioning ever more interesting imaginary realms in which to place both our brightest fantasies, as well as our darkest nightmares.
And I suspect the UFO phenomenon will always be there, in some form or other, daring us to dream bigger… and weirder.