Friday, May 17, 2013

Alien Cupcakes, Gorillas, and why Magicians Beat Whistleblowers by Clare Toohey

This is quite the interesting post from Clare... I think I've learned more about her personality reading her story "That's a Sweet Invasion, Craig" and preparing this blog post than I have ever learned during our face-to-face conversations at Bouchercon. Believe it or not, I don't think I'd mind bowing down to a "telepathic cupcake as our imperial leader."  Especially if said cupcake leader didn't place a ban on eating cupcakes in general. 

Alien Cupcakes, Gorillas, and why Magicians Beat Whistleblowers wh
y Magicians Beat 

My story for the Feeding Kate anthology was called “That’s a Sweet Invasion, Craig” and features a telepathic alien cupcake appearing here as an advance scout for his persecuted people, or cakes, whatever. Since the fiction collection was to benefit Sabrina’s ability to nosh her favorite goodies, including a cupcake was pretty obvious, but once I got the extraterrestrial notion combined with it in my head, I couldn’t shake loose.

I admit to enjoying lore of the strange and unexplained, and so does my character Gracie, a misanthropic young oddball to whom appears the frosted E.T. In one part of the story, she recaps the “UFO flap” over the skies of Washington D.C. during late July of 1952. That’s real-live history, and thousands of witnesses, FAA radar returns, citizen and Coast Guard sightings up and down the eastern seaboard, and journalistic coverage exist. Here’s a Wikipedia page with background info and more about the official decision to “debunk” in order to calm public anxiety.) 

It shouldn’t be personally threatening or damaging to admit things exist we can’t explain, should it? Science is a process by which we can expand and refine our understanding. We, not to mention the world and universe, are filled with as-yet inexplicable wonders, like yawning as one example. (Did you just yawn reading that? Do you know why?) But this circumstance only makes for open issues, not insults to reason and civilization.

So what about the particular subject of difficult-to-categorize aerial oddities gets people so roiled, so ready to pigeonhole questioners as members of the Tinfoil Hat Brigade, local order #WTF? Well, on this bit, I do have a theory. In the following popular video, viewers are asked to count the number of basketball passes made by one team’s players. While doing that, about half of the viewers will miss seeing something important, and the psychologist who designed the attention-grabbing experiment explains why: 

If we have a limited amount of processing power to decode the world around us into comprehensible pieces, it matters what you’re mentally up for at any given time. If I’m running late to a nerve-wracking appointment, hearing about traffic snarls ahead, then realizing I just forgot something and calculating whether I have time to retrieve it, I won’t see the Invisible Gorilla. Not even if he’s handing out free ice cream. Extraneous things that try to siphon my attention—even a wave hello from a dear friend I didn’t expect to see—are more liable to earn scowls than smiles unless I can force myself from one mental groove and into another.

Now, consider that there are several well-established think tanks concerned with developing public guidelines for what they call extraterrestrial “Post Detection Policy.” 

I’m not arguing that these organizations assume extraterrestrials exist. In fact, they assert there’s no empirical evidence for that conclusion at all. What I am asserting is that there are deep-pocketed people who’ve spent considerable effort to figure out how to handle what would be the Big Daddy of Suddenly Visible Gorilla problems, should it ever occur.

Other people speculate that whatever may be perceived in UFO encounters (and there are many types and classes), it’s existed side-by-side with humans for millennia. They base this notion on ancient myth and representations, from cave art to Renaissance paintings, and the way those dovetail with modern reports of incidents. We didn’t used to know about microorganisms. Just seeing them via microscopy didn’t make them any more inherently dangerous, but new awareness did make some people extremely nervous, even to the point of risking the development of superbugs through overuse of antibiotics and antibacterials. And maybe the way the modern media typically handle stories—that is, with BIG, SCARY OMGs—has something to do with that. I’m not on the side of the Presumed Gorilla Hiders, if such exist, but I can see where the manner of introduction matters.

When you buy a ticket to a spectacular magic show, you’re hoping to be fooled in a dazzling and entertaining way. In fact, you’d feel angry and ripped off if they didn’t succeed in deceiving you. But part of the fun of being fooled is your certainty that is isn’t really supernatural at all. Today’s best magicians know a lot about psychology, physiology, neurology, and the way people are both hard-wired and culturally acclimated to respond, so they’re experts in hiding the gorilla. And when you settle into your seat to enjoy their fictions (or, dare I suggest, even ones on the page), you’re inviting the Invisible Gorilla trick to happen to you. And that welcoming attitude of delight may make all the difference.

When unanticipated situations or truths pop into people’s conscious awareness, perhaps even things that were always present but disregarded or minimized, words come up like “horror” and “nightmare” and “trauma.” Think about the confirmation of an awful family secret everyone suspected. The unpleasantness is frequently compounded with utter “shock” that such an unexpected, and therefore unwelcome, thing could have disrupted the predictable rhythms of life. It’s always just an ordinary day until it isn’t.

I think vampires may have the right idea about needing to be invited in. Look how popular the bloodsucking murderers have become in the cultural consciousness while cattle mutilations and crop circles remain, despite a lot more forensic evidence of their existence, relegated to wackadoos on the fringe. I say forget about trying to push any topic people don’t ask to hear. If they’re not primed, any revelation is pointless and may even be counterproductive.

As Eleanor Roosevelt said: “The reason that fiction is more interesting than any other form of literature, to those who really like to study people, is that in fiction the author can really tell the truth without humiliating himself.” Want to expose something uncomfortable, even awful, and have people thank you, as opposed to pulling out the pitchforks? Tell them first it’s all a lie then make them buy a ticket.

UFO images from

BIO: Despite Clare Toohey’s background in art and music, she gives store-bought greeting cards and plays the ukulele poorly. As a writer, she aspires to genre hack-dom, and as a fan, she appreciates the trashy and inventive. She’s the site editor and manager of, Tweeting @clare2e and blogging more foolishness at P.S. Go Red Sox!

Feeding Kate: A Crime Fiction Anthology is available from Amazon. All proceeds from Feeding Kate benefit the Lupus Foundation of America.


Sabrina E. Ogden said...

This post is sooooo awesome. I want to sit you down with my father in law to discuss the moon landing. Something tells me that you two would get along quite well. Thanks for being my guest, Clare... and for being such an awesome friend. We are friends, right? *winks*

Clare2e said...

We are pals, never doubt it : )

(But you've got me worried, because most people think of fathers-in-law as a decidely loopy species apart.)

I don't believe every theory of anything, but I do think the calm, even stagnant, pool of consensus isn't nearly as exciting as the muddy fringes, and isn't ever the font of the next disruptive technology or development.

Social Media, they said? Heresy! Media belongs to established, um, mediators, not rabble.

Sabrina E. Ogden said...

I just meant he could go on for hours about conspiracy theories and make it entertaining... it was meant as a compliment. I swear it.