Out There

Howard Blum. Out There: The Government's Secret Quest for Extraterrestrials. Simon & Shuster, 1990.

'Last orders, please!'

The sombre words rang out across the Railway Tavern, Mortlake. However the scramble to the bar went un-noticed in one corner, where jovial librarian John Rimmer put down his pint of Wadsworth's 6X, rummaged in his briefcase and finally produced a copy of Out There, which he slammed on the beer-stained table.

'Tell me what you make of this', he snapped.

The following evening Roger Sandell zapped the video of Your Cheatin' Heart and opened the book. As he did so it was clear within a few pages that Howard Blum was out to become the Donald Keyhoe of the nineties, telling his story in a narrative style combining ridiculous accumulations of journalistic detail with detective story type atmospherics as he confronts tight-lipped, ashen-faced government officials, and ends chapters with one sentence paragraphs calling out to be followed by staccato burst of dramatic music.

All of this will no doubt put many people off the book, as will the author's reliance on un-named sources, and the book's sensational subtitle. This is rather a pity, since Blum is a journalist who clearly does have sources in government (a previous book of his, Wanted: the Search for Nazis in America is partly responsible for the recent revival of interest in prosecution of ex-Nazis) and most of his story rings true in spite of subsequent official denials.

Basically he claims that since 1987 US Army Intelligence has been operating a secret study group on UFOs. This project was apparently set up as a result of an anomalous radar sighting by the US Space Command Center in 1986 (the Pentagon has since admitted this sighting but claims it has a mundane explanation) and an experiment with one of the Stanford Research Institute's remote viewing` subjects who apparently had a vision of an alien craft shadowing a Soviet submarine. The evidence for the powers of this particular remote viewer is that when given a particular map-reference he correctly described Gorbachov's dacha; a feat which seems less than conclusive since it has been the subject of several articles in the Western press and seems the type of location liable to be of predictable interest to an intelligence group.

Anyway, it seems that on this basis one Colonel Harold Phillips, who is described as having a longstanding interest in UFOs since the late forties when he saw a "dome shaped object big as a bus and bright as a Broadway marquee in the night sky' (a somewhat more Spielbergian object than most that were being reported at the time) managed to persuade his superiors to set up a study group. Blum is commendably non-paranoid on the secrecy of this group, noting that the participants were all aware that being identified by the press as 'Colonel ET' or similar would be unlikely to improve their chances of promotion. urthermore any publicity would probably lead to their being deluged by an avalanche of reports of little value. In interviews since the book's publication Blum has further suggested that in the highly competitive world of US military budgeting, a project such as this, which failed to come up with answers, would be a major embarrassment to its sponsors.

If Blum seems to be intent on rewriting Donald Keyhoe, those he chronicles seem to have been reinventing Project Bluebook. Rather than fieldwork, their starting point was apparently to commission a review of the history of the search for extraterrestrial life in the universe, in spite of the fact that this has been done many times before. Blum spends nearly a quarter of his book summarising this history back to the days of Percival Lowell.

The actual fieldwork carried out by the group seems to have been dominated by an awareness of their limited budget and centred on the need to come up with a 'good case' that would convince their superiors to cough up more money. Such a case would, apparently have consisted of a reasonably good aerial object sighting, but nothing too sensational (no occupants or similar) in a way that would put off their sponsors. All of this once again seems very reminiscent of Major Keyhoe's NICAP, which saw itself as a pressure-group to interest establishment figures in UFOs and persuade the US Government to issue a'UFOs are real' type of statement. To this end they too presented a carefully sanitised version of the record, shorn of its more bizarre aspects.

Looking around for such a case, the group considered Gulf Breeze, then in its early stages, but rejected it on the grounds that some of the sightings might relate to Air Force experimental planes being tested in the general area. In fact this could only account for a few of the marginal sightings, but in view of the later ramifications of Gulf Breeze it is unlikely the group came to regret having steered clear!)

In the end they hit on Elmwood, Wisconsin, a town where, apparently, the locals had been seeing UFOs for years on end. Frustratingly, Blum does not give much useful information on specific sightings, but there seem to be several rural areas in the USA where lights in the sky crop up year after year, and it is in cases like these that some type of 'earthlights' hypothesis seems most convincing.

At the time the study group started to take an interest in Elmwood, the local council had decided to erect a UFO centre visible from the air that, it was hoped, would persuade the aliens to land. Blum takes this seriously enough to spend about fifty pages narrating it in spite of the fact that, from his own account the project was quite manifestly an attempt to give the town a tourist attraction. However, this section of the book does give an idea of the status of the UFO as a contemporary myth and rumour, and presents a cast of characters straight from Twin Peaks, including a preacher convinced that ufonauts are demons, and an advocate of a plan to welcome the aliens by drawing on open ground a large representation of a naked couple having sex.

Having apparently failed to find anything of interest at Elmwood, the group went on to examine the MJ12 saga, and the final section of the book is devoted to this. Blum chronicles in detail the charge and counter-charge and elaborate pieces of textual criticism being flung back and forth between Phil Klass and Bill Moore, but carefully refrains from taking sides. However, elaborate textual criticism of the documents misses the basic point (apart from provoking some sceptics into unwise claims which believers have been able to rebut).

The central fact is that if the US Government had retrieved a crashed flying saucer in the 1940s, the history of the last forty years would have been very different. The US would not have neglected a proper space programme until the late 1950's only after being stung into action by Soviet space successes. Pursuing the Cold War would have taken second place to dealing with possible invasion from space, just as the US and the Soviet Union managed to sink their differences when faced with Nazi Germany. The examination of such a craft would have had scientific consequences that would have made themselves felt in many ways (the statement in the MJ12 papers that the craft's propulsion system had been destroyed in the crash is an obvious attempt to get round this problem)

The book ends on an unresolved note with the UFO Study Grcup still in existence. However if Bum's account of its proceedings so far is accurate it is hard to believe that it will contribute much in such future as it may have before its funding is cut off - if that has not already happened as a result of the USA's current budget problems. On the evidence, those who put up the money would have been better advised to spend a few dollars on Allan Hendry's The UFO Handbook which stands as a shining example of how to conduct enlightened field work on modest resources. The sort of insights that civilian researchers had long ago, such as Hendry's that identified flying object reports should be studied carefully to gain insights into the extent of the mind's capacity for misinterpretation, and Jenny Randles' that if one abandons the ETH the range of UFO phenomena cease to have any real connecting link, seem quite beyond those involved in the US Government's 'study.

Blum has done a successful journalistic job in uncovering a Government agency which is trying to solve a problem outside its usual area of competence by throwing money at it to little obvious effect, and this is of considerable relevance outside the ufology. However where he falls down is in trying to give a picture of the wider UFO field in the USA where, like the Study Group trying to impress its paymasters, he presents a very sanitised view, possibly unwilling to alienate readers. Thus the MJ12 story is told without reference to Len Stringfield's 'retrieval stories' of UFOs that keep crashing but only in the vicinity of US military bases, which sparked the whole business off. Nor does he touch on John Lear's allegations, and the way that the MJ12 story is intertwined by some of its followers with other, longer established themes for political paranoia such as assassinations, drug barons and 'treason in high places'. The whole abduction field which is taking up so much of the energies of some researchers also goes unchronicled.

Activities such as these have a desperate air to them which suggest that ufology is indeed dying. However the 1950's atmosphere of Blum's book and the activities it describes, along with the similar period air of recent Soviet reports, prompts the thought that it may possibly be beginning a new life cycle. -- Reviewed by Roger Sandell, from Magonia 38, January 1991.

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