The First Science Fictional UFO Crash: Le Philosophe sans pretention

Ufology is full of stories of crashed alien spaceships. The best known is the Roswell UFO crash of 1947, in which the US air force under Hector Quintillana picked up the remains of a flying disc, complete with alien bodies, which came down on Mac Brazel’s ranch. The air force subsequently reversed their statement a day or so later, claiming that what had been recovered was merely a weather balloon, and released a photograph of Major Quintillana with something that certainly looked like the remains of one and not an alien spaceship. Many UFO investigators believe that a real alien spacecraft was recovered, though the late John Keel believed that it was probably a Mogul spy balloon used to gather information on Soviet nuclear tests. There are also stories that a secret autopsy was performed on the alien bodies. This was the basis for the notorious 1990s fake alien autopsy film released by Ray Santilli, and which in turn became the basis for the comedy Alien Autopsy starring Ant and Dec and Omid Djalili, amongst others. But long before the rise of the modern UFO phenomenon, earlier proto-Science Fiction writers were already penning tales of aliens travelling to Earth. One of these was Micromegalas, written by the French philosopher Voltaire. Another French writer, Louis Guillaume de La Follie wrote a similar tale about a scientist from Mercury who invents a spacecraft. This, however, is used by a colleague of the scientist to travel across space before finally crashing on Earth. I found this brief precis of the tale in Frederick I. Ordway’s and Randy Lieberman’s Blueprint for Space: Science Fiction to Science Fact (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press 1992). This is a collection of papers tracing the development of space travel from the ancient world, through the rise of Science Fiction, including the pulp magazines, space art to the development of the rocket and real space vehicles. The passage reads

Some of the characteristics of the modern science fiction novel appeared in a 1775 French workk by Louis Guillaume de La Follie, Le philosophe sans pretention. A strange tale unfolds of Mercurian who arrives on Earth and relates his adventures to one Nadir, an Oriental. It seems that on the planet Mercury an inventor named Scintilla had created a marvelous flying chariot powered by electricity. Amid scorn and ridicule, he proved that his invention would work in an amazing test flight witnessed by members of the Academy. This unleashes a series of events that leads to Mercury’s first spaceflight. Though doubting the practicality of the invention, a colleague named Ormisais nevertheless tries it out and, to his great surprise, the device functions after all. So he flies away to Earth in Scintilla’s electric chariot and, after a fairly standard trip, crash-lands on our world.

There’s also an illustration from the book of the flying chariot, and a caption giving its full title and its English translation: Le philosophe sans pretension ou l’homme rare – The Unpretentious Philosopher or the Unusual Man.

One of the aspects of the UFO phenomenon I find particularly intriguing is the way so much of its resembles Science Fiction and traditional fairy and other supernatural lore. I’m strongly inclined towards the psychosocial view of the phenomenon, which states that it’s an internal, psychological event which uses the imagery and narratives of the wider culture. Thus, while once encounters with the supernatural/ cosmic took the form of the fairies, angels or demons, as society has become more scientific and secular so the experience now has the imagery of aliens and spacecraft. However, John Keel believed that there was a real force outside of our perceptions behind both the fairy and UFO phenomena, which might be using them as a control system for us. See his UFOs: Operation Trojan Horse and Disneyland of the Gods.

Even if the book and its narrative have absolutely no connection to the development of the UFO phenomenon – I doubt outside of a few SF aficionados and literature experts many people have heard of the book, let alone the people who actually witness UFOs – it is a fascinating example of how surprisingly modern the writers of past centuries were in their speculations about space and the inhabitants of other worlds.

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6 Responses to “The First Science Fictional UFO Crash: Le Philosophe sans pretention”

  1. trev Says:

    The psychosocial view doesn’t explain multiple witness sightings, nor the UFOs captured on video and radar such as the ‘Tic-Tac’ UFOs seen by US Navy pilots and on film released by the Pentagon, subsequently investigated by Black Ops Pentagon insider Luis Elizondo. Interestingly though, Elizondo resigned from his pentagon job because a Rightwing conservative Christian Top Brass told him to cease his investigations because he was dealing with “a demonic presence”!

    • beastrabban Says:

      I think the psychosocial view is just one of a number of explanations that may each be true in certain circumstances. I think in some cases it may well be an internal event, though that also doesn’t rule out a genuine paranormal trigger. Jenny Randles said years ago that she thought it was caused by a real paranormal force using the imagery of science fiction.

  2. Brian Burden Says:

    You need to do some research on Roswell. Major Jesse Marcel was the officer first involved in the investigation. He insisted to his dying day that the wreckage was other-worldly and that the balloon story was a hastily concocted cover, and his son confirmed that his father showed him some metal foil which, when crumpled,immediately assumed its original smooth, creaseless state. I recommend Colonel Corso’s book The Day After Roswell. He was given the task of arranging for the back-engineering of various articles, including night-vision spectacles and transistors. He also viewed the bodies.

    • beastrabban Says:

      Thanks for the reminder – I’d forgotten about Jesse Marcel. I’m afraid I haven’t read Corso’s book, though I do remember the details about the supposed alien craft – how it was made of extremely light metal and contained alien hieroglyphs.

  3. Brian Burden Says:

    The two nineteenth century fathers of SF were Jules Verne and H.G.Wells. A century before the US moonshots, Verne’s space capsule is launched from Florida, orbits the moon, and splashes down in the Pacific. The capsule is fired from a huge gun – Verne gives us the precise amounts of explosive involved – It. is an expensive project, and is paid for by the Gun Club Of America. Wells, by contrast, gets his spaceship to the moon by means of a substance “opaque to gravity”, Both writers anticipate weightlessness in space, as do most of their successors – and all for the wrong reasons! Modern astronauts experience weightlessness because their spaceships are in a state of free fall. Verne imagines a location midway between Earth and Moon where the gravity pulls of the two orbs cancel each other out and his astronauts become weightless for a while; Wells’s astronauts become weightless because the material of which their sphere is made shields them from the pull of gravity. In the nineteen fifties, Frank Hampson, creator of Dan Dare, envisaged a “gravity belt” surrounding earth. Once free of that, the astronaut is weightless, until his ship enters the gravity belt of another heavenly body. It’s strange how all these writers knew intuitively that there is no gravity in outer space!

    • beastrabban Says:

      Verne and Wells are the best known 19th century pioneers of science fiction, but they weren’t alone. Blueprint for Space, the book I mentioned, also describes another earlier SF work written by another Frenchman in 1825. The has the space travellers use a spherical spacecraft covered in a gravity-resisting material almost exactly like the Cavourite spacecraft in Well’s The First Men in the Moon. Verne, apparently, got a bit sniffy about Wells’ book. Verne’s had been criticised because the g-force any travellers using such a space gun would have experienced would have been so great that it would have smeared them to a pulp. However, despite this problem, Verne was using known science. He was annoyed that while his work was thus based in fact, Wells had invented an entirely fictional substance to get his travellers into space.
      As for the real inventor of science fiction, the great British SF author Brian Aldiss has suggested that it’s Mary Shelley, because she based it on science as it was known in her time.

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