When Jenny Met Joe

Jenny Randles
Magonia 68, September 1999
MUFON’s last conference of the millennium (as Walt Andrus introduced it) was staged in Washington in July. Appropriately it was a remarkable reflection of the AC/DC nature of modern ufology, where the subject has become so polarised that we now have two warring factions. This is not ufologists versus the sceptics, but fringe ufologists against the last bastions of rationality.

MUFON, for example, put on some lectures that can only be termed bizarre – for instance the saga of what was effectively an alien dating agency that can set up female abductees with male abductees even if they are already married. As one audience member/would be abductee said to me, beaming with joy when the lecturer announced a book on the theme – it will be a bestseller. And of course it will.

Contrast that with the remarkable about face by former Roswell defender Kevin Randle, whose current writings (including a new book devastatingly assessing abduction beliefs) seems so British he probably ought to emigrate. Some of the dispirited old guard in the US fought back too with rationality. Bruce Maccabee, for example, gave a splendid hard headed talk in which he patiently explained why a couple of photo cases were not really UFOs whilst uncovering an intriguing Phoenix, Arizona photo case that may conceivably be the first solid evidence of a time lapse.

So there were, in effect, two conferences going on at the same time. No prizes for guessing which one the majority of the audience crammed to see, or the media (what few of them showed up amidst evident apathy) chose to report. Those who said, serious, sober ufology go stand in the corner.

However, for the media, thronging audience and MUFON (who even gave Budd Hopkins second billing behind the new rising star) one man dominated the event. The reporters and delegates swarmed about him like flies on a cowpat. There was an enraptured, zealous look about the 400 or so who watched his undeniably slick presentation and his name was pretty well all anyone was talking about afterwards.

What first attracted ufology to the millionaire Joe Firmage?

Who was this man? He is Joe Firmage, a 28 year old computer whizz-kid who, outside the US, is a virtual unknown . Even in the US his prominence is very recent and until now largely based upon his ‘book’, published so far just on the Internet (but watch out for what must be the near inevitable mass market edition, TV specials and movie of the week). It has the immodest title ‘theword is truth’.

Frankly, I had no idea who this man was or what to expect of him. But most who attended had formed some opinion and, whether they be ordinary UFO enthusiasts or leaders of the community this quickly transformed into adulation. Why did this man get a standing ovation and achieve cult status so speedily? I saw a very similar thing with John Mack at the MIT symposium in l992. Then it was because Mack was perceived as a hero riding in to save the abductees. He had so much to lose, they told me. Yet he was willing to stand up and support them.

What a brave thing to do, I heard them croon. As a professor and Pulitzer prize winner many ufologists had other expectations of him. Mack would salvage their credibility and legitimise the field. As for his obvious great knowledge leading to anticipated breakthroughs – a little thought should have suggested what has proven to be true. Mack was up against all the same hurdles the rest of us face – confusing, conflicting evidence and virtual no solid proof for alien reality. Even a genius cannot be expected to do much with that.

There has been much the same sort of mood about Firmage. He has gone from zero to hero rapidly via the late 20th equivalent of the Hollywood film set – the Internet. His web company employs 2000 people and was worth three billion dollars. His own fortune makes the annual budget of most UFO groups look like a generous tip to the waiter after a good night out.

Yet, here's the rub. Firmage had chosen to leave all that behind. He quit his company (apparently to spare it embarrassment through his new found beliefs) and has announced that the reason is his assertion of the alien presence on earth. They have been here for millennia in fact. How does he know? Three key reasons, it seems – as in fact only those at the pre-symposium press conference really got to hear.

Reason one, the evidence of ufology has convinced him. He thanked the many great folk at the conference, as he put it, who had been ‘doing this job longer than I have been alive’ (audible groans all round). They had done a great job but too few were listening. Unspoken (but I could hear it in my head) was the undercurrent, that it was maybe time to move on.

Reason two is worryingly familiar. Nameless, faceless ‘sources’ he has been contacted by during his business success – implied to be bigwig military or government types that his career allowed him to mix with – had admitted to Joe the aliens were here and all the UFO stuff was true. Who were they? When they are ready to own up then they’ll say. Right now he cannot breach their confidence.

Reason three, was the one he seemed less keen to discuss. But it appears to boil down to a ‘conversation’ with an alien image that he saw over his bed one night as he lay half asleep/half awake mulling over problems. It is interesting that many ufologists would seek altered states of consciousness solutions for such a visionary episode, but it clearly has more meaning than that to Joe.

So he is now here in ufology, its new cult hero and public mouthpiece and, the mutterings behind the scenes at the conference hinted to me, he has already staged meetings with some of the leaders of ufology (translation, I assume, the ETH supporters at the helm of US ufology). With what result? This is something we were told we should not have too long to wait and see.

However, I was struck by a curious lack of foresight by those doing the hero worship. Firmage’s well presented lecture was an entertaining and clever blend of expertly delivered future technology, fringe science and neo-mysticism. UFOs per se hardly got a mention except as a stepping stone to new science. Instead he reflected on how because of them we now had to reassess our entire future – and he went through topics such as chemistry, physics, cosmology, etc showing how we will have new perceptions in a few decades time.

His interest is to create a kind of super think tank of high flying technocrats and specialist nerds (eg recruited from NASA) who can think laterally, take account of secret UFO data and strive to break the rules. He spoke about fantastic new propulsion systems and how he aimed to let everyone have their own UFO before too long. No doubt in any colour so long as its invisible to cameras.

Now this is fascinating, almost laudable and he has the money to at least give it a shot. But it isnt ufology. I cannot really see this new force he is creating inviting the chairman of the Piddletown UFO Society to its board meetings. Nor does the recording of the 7.45 Adamski spaceship from Zeta Reticulii seen passing over Clapham Common hold much interest to Firmage. Although few delegates were asking themselves this question, one perceptive reporter asked him at the press conference and Firmage’s answer should have sent a chill down the spine of the UFO leaders he has courted.

Will you fund UFO groups, he was asked? Well, said Joe, I don’t regard it as important to try to prove the existence or nature of UFOs. Its been done. I personally don’t need convincing. In other words, what he was really suggesting was (to loosely paraphrase and apologies for anything I misunderstood) – good work chaps, you’ve kept the UFO pot boiling whilst I grew up, made my zillions and discovered the science and technology potential of ufology. You can now take it easy because the day of the UFO spotter is over and the day of the UFO technocrat is here.

Some of this he did say, some he did not and is inference on my part. But the problem is that many ufologists may not realise that their hero is really speaking a different language and heading in a direction that for now is parallel to their own but fairly soon might not be. Once scientists he works with tire of the weirdos hanging on his coat tails and the madcap fun-filled world of UFO ideology that wants a bite of his cherry pie will it be a case of – them or us, Joe? And if so who will he choose?
Once Joe realises that much of ufology is a desert of tiny shoots with specks of hard evidence and good theory swamped by the endless sands of inanity will he really need to be attached?

Perhaps so. Maybe he has genuine affection and will support the folk who got him where he is. Possibly he will fund some good research and bankroll UFO projects. If so, good on him. But I do not really see that as his priority. The hunt has already started. I left Richard Hall looking glum that Joe had been a ‘no show’, as Richard put it, at a planned discussion about funding his giant casebook venture. Hall’s book (The UFO Evidence Part 2 – a sequel to his NICAP epic 36 years ago – that's even pre-Magonia and myself!) is worthy and should be released. Conventional publishers have (shamefully but unsurprisingly) forsaken it to print the sea of bilge that gets onto the bookshelves these days instead.

If Firmage has an eye for good PR he may see the value of funding this project, but to be honest I don’t perceive that as being his raison d’etre. I think he has a rather different agenda in mind. On the Internet, in a discussion posting, I likened the hero worship to turkeys voting for Christmas, which to a degree it is. If Firmage does what he wants to do ufology will stagnate. He’ll get his military chums to reveal all and there wont be any need for groups to fight government secrecy. Or he’ll prove his case by using back engineering to build amazing technology that could only have come from the stars. He’ll attract so much media attention that the UFO writers and leaders wont get as much of a look in and will have to retire or find another job. And if his technology think tank builds a UFO for your garage who the heck is going to care about the latest pink light seen over the local park as recorded by the neighbourhood spacewatch group?

Of course, chances are that not very much – if any – of this will happen as Firmage no doubt quite sincerely expects that it will. To him its all new. Many of us have been there, bought the T shirt and long since torn it up for use as a cheap duster. His sources will probably never tell all. His support for ufology may by necessity prove short term. His think tank could make a few interesting discoveries or small scale breakthroughs but will not change the world and might figure out it stands a better chance of real funding and being taken seriously if it doesn't saddle up to the silly sausages that believe reptile aliens are lurking in the woods waiting to kidnap nubile young women.
Or, of course, we may just have witnessed the beginning of the end of the old world and the start of the birth of a new one. Perhaps dear old Nostradamus was right about the seventh month of l999 and for ufologists a ‘great king of frightfulness has come down from the sky’ (or soon will do when Sky TV devote their inevitable one hour special to his ideas). But I doubt many of you will be breathless in anticipation of the old order fading forever. Which is not to say it will not be fun watching as the show unfolds.

Whats that I hear? Faint murmurs starting about how Joe Firmage is a government plant? Utter tosh, of course. But then don’t the UFO big wigs have to think of some reason why ‘The Unexplained World of Strange Things’ doesn’t call quite so often to set up that TV interview because you are ‘the worlds greatest UFO expert’ and why your latest book about ‘Alien Clones I have Met’ didn’t earn its £100,000 advance and your agent is now talking to some scientist who makes the tea in the Firmage think tank because he has seen the plans for the Mark One All American Flying Saucer.

What else can the reason be for your ousting from the limelight but some dastardly plot. It cannot possibly be because Joe Firmage is (for now) an interesting, new story and you are a tired old media has been. And even if so that realisation would never cloud your judgement enough to think nasty things about a serious rival just because of jealousy.

In ufology? Nah. Course not.