Lure of the edge

Brenda Denzler. The Lure of the Edge: Scientific Passions, Religious Beliefs and Pursuit of UFOs. University of California Press, 2001.

This is the first academic treatment of ufology by someone who has clearly taken the time and effort to get to grips with the its huge literature, or at least the not inconsiderable portion of it to be found in the personal library of George Fawcett. Brenda Denzler is a Ph D in religious studies, so her study concentrates to some degree on the religious motifs and implications of UFO belief system. This is also perhaps the first academic to look at something much closer to mainstream ufology that the contactee groups usually studied, though her study base on the UFO lecture circuit has perhaps inclined her to examine the abductee wing of ufology in greatest detail.

Her aim is not to study UFOs, the question as to what UFOs ‘really’ are she leaves to the scientists and historians of the far future. Her study is of the people involved in ufology, and the beliefs surrounding it. The first two chapters present a brief history of ufology and tales of alien encounters. This is generally reasonable, the second chapter being better than the first, though her confusion between New Guinea and New Zealand in the Gill case might just be the worst howler in UFO literature!

However it is her studies of the role UFO stories as ‘evidences of the supernatural’ that she scores, tracing the developments back and forth. She follows the debates in ufology as to whether the subject is to be some kind of science, bound at least loosely be some kind of scientific discipline, or an essentially religious quest. She tracks the various interpretations of the ‘others’, arguments which when abstracted from fancy wording, boil down to whether they are angels or demons. Looking at this argument we can see just how few ufologists really have sought to portray the subject in scientific terms. Of course this may be an accident of place and time, ufology in Europe or in pre-Hopkins America were very different things.

An appendix looks at the social background of ufologists which draws attention to the marked absence of African American ufologists and abductees (one African American conference attendee argued that blacks have so many problems already that the don’t need any more from aliens, which may be hinting at the truth. If you have real problems you don’t need to make any up). She also notes the very male-dominated nature of the UFO leadership and investigator teams, yet the majority of the abductees are women. (Implicit in her figures, though she does not comment on this, is that the percentage of women abductees is increasing over time, abduction is becoming a female experience).

This is an important and useful book, but at the end I felt rather let down, Denzler comes up with no overarching conclusion, no great insight. Nor does she really manage to place the changes in ufology in a historical and cultural context. There are times when she gets near, noting the religious impulses behind the space race, that somewhere behind it was the journey to the stars as part of the continuation of America’s manifest destiny to spread to gospel to the waste places. But often the accounts become a chronicle. Her evenhandedness will, I fear please few, already a CSICOPian fundamentalist in New Scientist has damned this book, becauce she did not head every page with ‘Ufology is shit’. Some ufologists will accuse her of downplaying the ‘multi witness CE2s', and straight, scientific radar visuals. She will learn that you can’t please anyone in this game.

So perhaps a seven out of ten rather than an eight, and a second, longer book asked for. A word of advice, to get the best out of this book, you must read the footnotes and not skip them.

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