The Risk of Fiction

Eric Macedo, current fellow in the scientific sphere of practice, has been afraid of UFOs since childhood. Working on intersections between anthropology and philosophy, he shares thoughts on the UFO phenomenon and how it could be reappraised through a decolonial lens. »Maybe,« he writes, »the intelligent beings behind UFOs are not so much like ›us‹ in regard to colonialism and extermination.«

Eric Macedo — Jul 27, 2021

An Unidentified Flying Object in a photo by the Costa Rican National Geographic Institute, taken at September 4, 1971. Photographer: Sergio Loaiza

»It is difficult, if not impossible, to form any correct idea of these objects, because they behave not like bodies but like weightless thoughts
– C. G. Jung


»I also think a lot about how it began, just a few years ago, when ships appeared in orbit and artifacts appeared in meadows. The government said next to nothing about them, while the tabloids said every possible thing.«
Ted Chiang, Story of Your Life

Something is changing regarding these strange phenomena. When Carl Gustav Jung wrote his essay on flying saucers, first published in 1958, he was worried about the damage it could cause to his reputation. Surprisingly or not, some pages after stating that he is not a believer in Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs), he refers to how the emergence of the astrological era of Aquarius might affect the contemporary collective psyche.1

Today we read in the esteemed pages of The New York Times,2 The Guardian,3 or The New Yorker,4 how United States senators are articulating Pentagon programs to reveal at least some of what is known about UFO phenomena.5 The Chilean government has an official agency to address the subject,6 and some national Air Forces, like the Brazilian one, have released a number of documents previously kept as secret files.7 The recent news articles left behind the mockery that would come around the theme until recently. I wonder how Jung would react to that, and to knowing that newspapers won’t talk about astrology in their politics sessions, at least not without some great dose of irony.

Fearing the unknown

The year was 1993, and I was eight years old. I was with my parents in the apartment of my grandmother in Urca, a neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro near the beautiful scenery and the polluted waters of Guanabara Bay. That evening, the sea’s low bubbling was masked by the television, around which people sat talking. My uncles drank beer. I was playing with my cousin, and my little brother was about to go to sleep, when a characteristic tune came from the TV: the weekly documentary on the most-watched channel in Brazil, Globo Repórter, was starting. I was already expecting it with some apprehension. I knew the episode was about UFOs and close encounters with extraterrestrial beings.

The next thing I remember, I was screaming at the top of my lungs. People tried to calm me down, but I was engulfed by fear. The images of abductions and bizarre experiments conducted by gray humanoid aliens, taken from the film Fire in the Sky released the same year, would haunt my dreams ever since. For a long time, I couldn’t look at the night sky. Even today, when I’m alone in dark spaces, I have an underlying fear of being abducted. And the opening theme music of Globo Repórter still gives me goosebumps.

»Maybe the intelligent beings behind UFOs are not so much like »us« in regard to colonialism and extermination. (…) We could take this as an opportunity to rethink our relation to technology and, most importantly, the presumption that modern humans are on the top of the scale of progress.«

One of the most remarkable features about UFOs is the arduous task of separating »hard facts« from the wild associations that the theme seems to invite. The reports present disturbing variations, and it is usually taken under the same umbrella things such as lights glimpsed in the nocturnal sky, unknown objects captured by radar equipment, strange events in nuclear weapons facilities, abductions, operations to cover up crashed alien aircraft (sometimes surrounded by mysterious humanoid corpses), interplanetary sex, telepathy, metamaterials … the list can be long. Even when you think you found a rational, factual path to get into this, it seems inevitable that you will soon fall into the realm of the fantastic.

If there is something we know about UFOs, or UAPs (Unidentified Aerial Phenomena, as they have recently been called), is that »we« don’t know much about them.8 Faced with a vast array of unknowns, our collective cognition seems to present us one thing to hold on to: it must have come from another world. The association between UFOs and extraterrestrial beings soaks our collective imaginary on the subject.

This is not restricted to science fiction. In the document known as the COMETA Report, a group of former high-ranking French officials – generals and scientists, including a former chairman of the Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales (CNES) – examined the evidence on UFOs in France and elsewhere and concluded that about five percent of sightings cannot be easily explained. This small percentage seems to be »completely unknown flying machines with exceptional performances that are guided by a natural or artificial intelligence.«9 They concluded that the most logical explanation for these sightings is »the extraterrestrial hypothesis.«10

Akademie Schloss Solitude - The Risk of Fiction

A film still from Andrei Tarkovsky’s »Solaris«

Fact and fiction

The recent official recognition of the reality of UFOs flips the role of the conspiracy theorist in a most unexpected way. It does not change the fact that many ufologists are also conspiracy theorists of sorts. But it renders possible that not every discussion on UFOs is automatically ranked in those trenches.

Take the 2004 event involving the crew of the USS Nimitz Carrier Strike Group, one of the largest warships in the world. Radar equipment detected an object moving strangely near the coast of Southern California: first appearing at 24,000 meters, it showed up after a few seconds close to the ocean’s surface. Two fighter planes were sent to investigate. The pilots and their copilots report seen an oval white object close to the ocean’s water, a twelve-meter Tic Tac moving erratically like a ping pong ball bouncing very fast. One of the pilots circled down to check it more closely. The object seemed to acknowledge this and mirrored his move, going upward. When right in front of him, it suddenly disappeared in a flash. Seconds after this, the radar detected what seems to be the same object almost 100 kilometers away. Two other fighters, now equipped with advanced infrared cameras, took off. They made an image of the object – one of the videos leaked from a Pentagon internal investigation to The New York Times in 2017.11

Here we have radar information, the testimony of four extremely well-trained officers on duty (two of them recently retold the story on camera on the classic televised news program 60 Minutes), and infrared images, whose authenticity is admitted by the Pentagon. Publicly, no one knows what the thing was. One of the best-known skeptics on the subject, a renowned UFO »debunker,« could only raise the hypothesis that the image displays a distant plane, or a bird. What would be the interest of the Pentagon in feeding this media spectacle? The skeptics would soon start speculating about the conspiracy that lies behind it.

Instead of considering UFOs through the lens of an opposition between fact and fiction, I propose we should rather blur this boundary. It would allow us to pose questions that go beyond the problem of belief that has always dominated the theme. Then we could be free to ask ourselves: what if we are really being visited by extraterrestrial beings? 

Since science fiction has explored a number of different scenarios of contact with extraterrestrials, we may take it as a starting point. The Belgian philosopher Isabelle Stengers sees in what she calls »experimental science fiction«12 a manifestation of what a truly experimental social science could look like. A thinker of how »hard sciences« build their knowledge practices, and their political implications, Stengers identifies a deep connection between a certain kind of contemporary sci-fi narratives and the mode of operation of theoretical-experimental sciences.

This experimental science fiction sets up thought experiments that have a component of risk, the risk typical of scientific experiments (reality would answer or not to the device built in the experiment). Science fiction, says Stengers, exposes some of the most important questions of its contemporary world to the »risk of fiction.« Each example of this kind of sci-fi draws specific settings that function as conditions for its own experiment. It generates situated knowledge; the truth affirmations that it allows are relative to the given experiment.

The questions exposed to the risk of fiction by the imagined aliens of sci-fi revolve around interspecific, interethnic, intercultural, gender-based, and other differences, as well as relations of predation, genocide, species extinction, slavery, and imperial colonialism. Fictional extraterrestrials evoke a myriad of different images: from multiple kinds of humanoids whose bodies differ from us in minimal aspects, such as colors and proportions, to strange microbes, mechanical beings, ghostly entities, weird plants, insects, mollusks, or even ducks and raccoons, and enigmatic geological formations, it seems like anything can be an alien in the mind of sci-fi creators. This openness is perhaps the only defining attribute of extraterrestriality. The alien being is any kind of Other; it is, by definition, the Other.


Marx’s concept of alienation (Entfremdung) – also translated as estrangement – sounds strange when read through a sci-fi filter. His manuscripts of 1844 bring a fourfold description of alienation: in capitalism, workers are alienated from their products, from productive activity, from fellow workers, and their species-being (Gattungswesen) as such. This last aspect seems to give a speculative touch to the concept. The concept of species-being is Marx’s version of what accounts for human exceptionality: while animals produce, says Marx, »only under the dominion of immediate physical need, (…) man produces even when he is free from physical need and only truly produces in freedom therefrom. An animal produces only itself, while man reproduces the whole of nature.«13 Humans consciously produce their own life, and the activities that make their life possible – and this is why humans are »species-beings« in Marx’s view. In capitalism, however, humans are estranged, alienated from their species-being. That specific thing that characterizes humanity as such is taken away from humans once they enter the system of relations that simultaneously alienate them from nature and their own free activity: »Estranged labor turns thus: (3) Man’s species being, both nature and his spiritual species property, into a being alien to him, into a means to his individual existence. It estranges man’s own body from him, as it does external nature and his spiritual essence, his human being.«14

Akademie Schloss Solitude - The Risk of Fiction

A film still from Steven Spielberg’s 1977 »Close Encounters of the Third Kind«

Extrapolating on Marx, we could say that in capitalism, we are all aliens – strangers in relation to the humanity that capitalism abducts from us. This difference between humanity as species-being and the subject in capitalism as an estranged being somehow resonates in the way that aliens are imagined in sci-fi. Aliens almost invariably presuppose a certain image of humanity to which they are alien.

It could be, to state an often-repeated idea, that the aliens invading Earth respond to a collective consciousness that threatens human individuality – this elicits the self-image of humans as individuals provided with free will. Or, in a more original motif, it could be that our extraterrestrial visitors developed nonlinear language and cognition, a simultaneous mode of consciousness, and that our incomprehension of them would only be (partially) overcome if we were to struggle against our all-too-human linear perception of time, our imprisonment by the frames of an inescapable past, an ephemeral present, and an unfathomable future. This »imprisonment« would yet also be what makes us free, for knowing the future creates a context in which freedom has no meaning.15

In Octavia Butler’s Lilith’s Brood, the aliens arriving on Earth are also the saviors of humanity, which has destroyed itself in atomic warfare. The Oankali cure and revive human survivors aboard their ship, but they also want to repopulate Earth, interbreeding with humans to create a new human/oankali species. Although in love with humanity, the Oankali point to a defect that they call the »Human Contradiction«: that humans would be doomed to self-destruction because they are simultaneously intelligent and hierarchical.

Butler does not picture this alien encounter through a good/bad binary – things are much more complicated than that. Even though she offers a bleak view of humanity, immersed in violence and paranoia, and incredibly averse to change, the alien nature of the Oankali is not simply a positive inversion of these features. The Oankali are not at all like the humans, but they are threatening in their particular way. Are human beings that cohabit with the aliens turning into Oankali? Is humanity actually being destroyed in this process of intermixture?

In this science fiction, alienation is not a unilateral creation of Otherness, but a twofold process that creates an always partial humanity and an always partial Other. Just like the activation of the concept by Marx lets us know more about the workings of capitalism, we can also tell stories about what makes humans human and Others Other by understanding this differentiation as a process of alienation.

Isn’t it what Marx does, after all? He portrays the workings of an economic system that is dependent on the creation of two different beings in a relation of alterity to each other. In this sci-fi world, we could say that Earth was invaded by the spectral natives of planet Capital, a colonial metropole of galactic reach. The Capitalians take control of human bodies and imprison human souls (a purple substance called species-being) in a huge glass jar orbiting the planet. Of course, they do that with the human-betraying collaboration of the ruling class, called »capitalists,« no less controlled by the extraterrestrials. Only worldwide revolution could break the cycle of domination, exorcising Capitalians from human bodies and making possible a reunification of the human species-being with its material counterpart.

What I am calling alienation here is exactly this kind of relation in which one of the terms related stands for »humanity,« and how the definition of what counts for humanity in this context is variable according to the relation. In sci-fi narratives, even if Terran humans are not present and we are facing, let’s say, a battle between alien species, these species are still imagined in reference to entities that populate Earth; entities from which they are created as estranged beings. And in the background of this creation, you will always have a certain image of humanity, more or less consciously projected by the thought experiment the author proposes: a humanity submitted to the risk of fiction. Authors and readers are, after all, members of the human species – as far as we know.

The WoW effect

UFOs and science fictional imaginations of extraterrestrial beings are a perfect match. This goes even beyond the sci-fi narratives that explicitly thematize UFOs, a prolific sub-genre that includes such classic pieces of pop culture as The X-Files or Close Encounters of the Third Kind. If the unexplicable phenomena associated with UFOs represent a vacuum in meaning, aliens are thus the imaginative mechanism used to fill in our knowledge gaps on the existence and characteristics of life in the cosmos beyond Earth.

Suppose that the contemporary moment regarding UFOs is the plot of a sci-fi alien movie. Which humanity would be elicited by these aliens? A tentative answer to this question may evoke what I would call the »War of the Worlds effect,« (the »WoW effect« for short). When H. G. Wells invented the theme of the alien invasion, his inspiration was the genocidal assault of Tasmania by the Europeans; he also had Darwinian evolution in mind. In War of the Worlds, we read about Martian »minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish.«16 In another passage, looking at the Martian technology, the narrator asks himself »how an ironclad or a steam engine would seem to an intelligent lower animal.«17

Wells’s book and others have being pointed out as examples of »fantasies of reversal« that picture nineteenth-century Europeans as victims of the same colonization process they were carrying out on other continents. Their portrayal as »national security« threats – apart from being a good excuse to justify more military spending – revive these fantasies in contemporary times. The logic is based on a structuring dichotomy between colonizer and colonized, in which the first is provided with a more advanced technology that allows for the colonial domination of the second. If we are the ones being visited by extraterrestrial entities, then the role of Columbus is being played by this still unrevealed Other. We lost the galactic Space Race by a wide margin.

According to the most accepted anthropological theories of Wells’s time, every human society on Earth might develop through the same steps of European civilization in due time; in fact, non-European peoples were examples of different stages of European history. Wells’s book is an example of how this logic can be applied to the whole cosmos: in every place of the universe where the right conditions are found, life would develop the same way – this would necessarily lead to the emergence, in proper time, of something close to humans. And like humans, those beings would be subjected to the same steps of socio-cultural development. In the case of Wells’s Martians, since Mars is – according to Kant’s nebular hypothesis – older than Earth, its inhabitants would have had more time to evolve, and, therefore, would be ahead of us in the technological scale. Mars would also be a dying planet, and this would be the cause of them regarding »this earth with envious eyes.«

In sociocultural anthropology, evolutionism has been overcome since the first decades of the twentieth century by different trends of relativism; or by a neo-evolutionism that tries to get rid of the most explicitly racist assumptions of old times. Yet social evolutionism remains a strong, structuring framework in a variety of modern contexts. In science fiction, it is also possible to identify a shift from Wells’s evolutionism to a more relativist approach to extraterrestrials. Many sci-fi writers would later try to imagine bodies and intelligences that are not at all similar to those of humans. This would lead to a certain crisis of the possibility of representing an alien body, what Fredric Jameson calls »the unknowability thesis« that characterizes the work of Stanislaw Lem, and of which the most well-known example is the incomprehensible ocean of Solaris.

In the case of UFOs, the WoW effect comprises a paradoxical mix of profound admiration for this marvelous, inscrutable technology of which we can only dream of, and the absolute fear of domination that it may represent. The humanity alienated by UFOs as they have been recently appearing in the media can be characterized as military-minded, hierarchically inferior, and panic-stricken. It may also be a humanity more prone to talk about uncomfortable subjects than it was a few decades ago. It is also a never-quite-modern humanity that waits for the final arrival of extraterrestrial intelligences as they would hope for a new messiah.18

Speculative cosmotechnics

Maybe the intelligent beings behind UFOs are not so much like »us« in regard to colonialism and extermination. The good news is that, if they were, we would probably already have been wiped out from the face of the Earth, or be working for our ET bosses. Apparently, we’re not. We could take this as an opportunity to rethink our relation to technology and, most importantly, the presumption that modern humans are on the top of the scale of progress.

Yuk Hui’s concept of cosmotechnics gains another dimension when looked at from this angle. If we can identify a multiplicity of concepts of technics among different cultural traditions – as in the case Hui makes of the different relation to technics implied by Chinese philosophy – then why would we assume that extraterrestrial beings would have the same relation to technology as »we« do? Hui calls cosmotechnics »the unification between the cosmic order and the moral order through technical activities.«19 Cosmotechnics are multiple; they diffract technology into a diversity of practices constrained by specific cosmologies. The concept makes technics and cosmology inseparable, resisting a tendency of technology to be considered a universal, homogeneous entity.

If UFOs are technical products, we should expect them to originate in relation to cosmotechnics completely different from the ones we know. Slowing down our assumptions about what UFOs »really« are must also involve a questioning of our current conceptions regarding technology, and its »moderncentric« bias. We should be careful in identifying how much of our views on this unknown technology results from a mirroring of modernity’s own cosmotechnical milieu.


When I was eight, I was not scared about being colonized by ETs – at least, not consciously. I would not have the conceptual repertoire to think in those terms, even if my own body is a fruit of the history of colonization in Brazil.

In his book, Jung interpreted the fear of UFOs seen in dreams as a manifestation of the fear of death, a substitution that does not convince me completely. The book is a long exploration of archetypes associated with visions and dreams involving UFOs. But in the last chapter, he recognizes that since visions are sometimes confirmed by radar images or photographic material, they cannot be completely reduced to psychic phenomena. He concludes with two options: either the psychic projections »throw back a radar echo,« or the observation of real objects »affords an opportunity for mythological projections.«20

I still don’t know where my fear came from, as much as what this factual residue of UFOs might be. What can I say? While I am writing this text, I would wake up almost every night to drink some water. I leave a bottle on the windowsill near the bed. The curtains are invariably closed, but you can see some light coming through. I always avoid looking upwards.

  1. Carl Gustav Jung: Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies. Princeton 1978.

  2. Ralph Blumenthal and Leslie Kean: »No Longer in Shadows, Pentagon’s U.F.O. Unit Will Make Some Findings Public,« in: The New York Times, June 23, 2021. (accessed June 9, 2021).

  3. Adam Gabbatt: »From hearsay to hard evidence: are UFOs about to go mainstream?,« in: The Guardian, May 29, 2021. (accessed June 9, 2021).

  4. Gideon Lewis-Kraus: »How the Pentagon Started Taking U.F.O.s Seriously,« in: The New Yorker, April 30, 2021. (accessed June 9, 2021).

  5. Reis Thebault: »Thanks to Trump-era covid relief bill, a UFO report may soon be public – and it’ll be big, ex-official says,« in: The Washington Post, March 23, 2021. (accessed June 9, 2021).

  6. See

  7. See

  8. It is difficult to define the »we« in this context. Maybe what I mean by »we« could be defined as the group-subject that »critically trust« scientific discourse and its standardized translations, and whose worlding is composed in conflicting association with shared assumptions and knowledge expressed in institutionalized forums of debate, including the media.

  9. See Leslie Kean: UFOs: Generals, Pilots, and Government Officials Go on the Record. New York 2010.

  10. Ibid.

  11. Helene Cooper, Ralph Blumenthal and Leslie Kean: »Glowing Auras and ›Black Money‹: The Pentagon’s Mysterious U.F.O. Program,« in: The New York Times, December 16, 2017. (accessed June 9, 2021).

  12. Isabelle Stengers: »Science-fiction et expérimentation,« in: Gilbert Hottois, Philosophie et Science-Fiction. Paris 2000.

  13. Karl Marx: The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. Buffalo 1988, pp. 77-78.

  14. Ibid.

  15. See Ted Chiang: Stories of Your Life and Others. New York 2002.

  16. H.G. Wells: War of The Worlds. London 1898.

  17. Ibid.

  18. An interesting approximation of UFOs and religion can be found in D. W. Pasulka: American Cosmic: UFOs, Religion, Techonology. Oxford 2019.

  19. Yuk Hui, »The Question Concerning Technology in China,« in: Cosmotechnics. Cambridge MA 2016, p. 19.

  20. See note 1.

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