85. Ian Watson Miracle Visitors
1977 A serious look at UFO culture, with a red Thunderbird that flies to the Moon and Back. More serious than it sounds.
It didn't take too much googling to find out that Watson is, in fact, kind of a big deal in British Sci-Fi. I blame my ignorance on the blind spot I have towards Brit Sci-Fi, in general--something I'm currently trying to make up for by, well, reading stuff like Ian Watson's Miracle Visitors.
I tend to find UFO stories scary out of all proportion. For me, Little Grey Men-style UFOs, as a concept, are more frightening to me than Stephen King-style malevolent entities, Lovecraftian creepy-crawlies, or Hannibal Lecter-type serial killers. It's almost impossible for me to read more than a few pages of a UFO story without looking up to make sure there's not a little ovoid-headed, almond-eyed creature floating outside my window and staring at me. And so even though Miracle Visitors isn't meant to be a horror novel, I kinda/sorta experienced it as one.
However, I suppose the book would be better classified as "Metaphysical Sci-Fi": its real concerns are the nature of reality and of our consciousness of reality. It reads a lot like one of Philip K. Dick's "religious" books, although it's more coherent, probably because Watson, unlike the probably psychotic PKD, is able to maintain some objectivity towards the metaphysical model the novel proposes. It's also reminiscent of some of Robert Anton Wilson's books, sans gonzo grandstanding.
I have to admit that I probably would've been much more excited about the book if I had read it back when I was in college, but, since then, I've lost the taste for New Agey-expansion-of-consciousness-type stories. That said, Miracle Visitors is a pretty solid example of the genre: its ideas are interesting and clearly presented--although not, at this point in time, all that exciting or groundbreaking--and, more importantly, the story itself is quite good. The first two-thirds are filled with genuinely frightening moments, and, overall, the book is very well constructed (which is more than you can say about a lot of novels by Philip K. Dick and his heirs).
For me, the book raises an interesting problem: when it was first published, in 1978, I'm sure that its ideas did seem exciting and original. Now, they seem not so much dated as over familiar. On the one hand, this should be a problem that faces almost every "groundbreaking" sci-fi novel. However, I think this gets at what separates the merely good sci-fi novels, like Miracle Visitors, from the truly great ones: the great sci-fi novels make the ideas they're presenting seem exciting and groundbreaking, even if, in fact, they've been outpaced by history or become just another sci-fi cliche.
Take Theodore Sturgeon's 1953 novel More Than Human: not only has its take on evolution and mutation been superceded by actual scientific research, but its central idea--the conflict between superhuman mutants and regular humans--has become more than over familiar. Yet, while reading Sturgeon's story, none of that matters. He makes it all seem exciting and groundbreaking and fascinating. But I'm not really sure how he does it or why More Than Human still works in a way that Miracle Visitors doesn't. My guess is that Sturgeon does a better job of weaving his ideas into the story, so that our enjoyment of the story drives our excitement of the ideas, and vice versa. Perhaps part of the problem with Miracle Visitors is that it has too many sections which read like lectures and are less a compliment to the rest of the story than they are a commentary on it.
Nonetheless, I'd still recommend Miracle Visitors to people who like UFO books and fans of metaphysically-inclined sci-fi/genre writers like Philip K. Dick and Grant Morrison. And I'll probably end up trying out another one of Watson's books, soon enough.