Captured by Aliens

Joel Achenbach. Captured by Aliens: The Search for Life and Truth in a Very Large Universe. Simon and Schuster, 1999.

OK, this is not a new book, but it’s one I’ve only just come across, and it’s one I can recommend to Magonia readers as giving as good an insight into the roots of both ufology, the space exploration movement and the SETI movement as anything I’ve seen. Achenbach is a journalist who was set the assignment of looking at various expressions of late 20th century America’s obsession with aliens and space travel. His linking of the 'scientific' quest with the wild new-age stuff sets this apart.

Centred around the personality and career of Carl Sagan, Achenbach looks at the search for extraterrestrials in both academic and popular culture. What he finds is that both are motivated as much by 'religious' concerns as anything from hard science. Both SETI astronomers sitting around their radio telescopes and housewives channelling in middle-American suburbs are searching for redemption from the far stars. Neither want contact with other guys as lost, alone and bewildered as us, they want contact with the 'Great Old Ones', the repositors of cosmic wisdom, who will give us the recipe for peace on earth, the secret of the universe - and for good measure - immortality, on the back of an envelope.

The ties between the élite and popular culture go much further than is often assumed, Carl Sagan himself often teetered on the brink of wild speculation, such as the ancient astronaut speculations in his co-authored Intelligent Life in the Universe. Then there is Henry Harris, the ufologist insider at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (presumably the guy who does all that photo analysis for them), who appears to take the tales of liar Lazar about element 115 at face value, and still others to whom New Age ideas are scarcely alien. Organizations like the Society for Scientific Exploration, once aimed at élite scientists, now find the need of cash driving to open their conferences to every crank going (the sort who just get booed off the stage at Fortfests).

In this field the teenagers who discover that they are aliens are a sort of light relief. Here they have something more to 'come out' on, in place of “hey mom I have to tell you I’m gay, my boyfriend is a Muslim and I'm converting" or "I’ve just crashed the Merc while high on cocaine", there is now "Hi mom I’m really a Pleidean and I’m leaving you for my real parents in a space ship".

As Achenbach constantly emphasizes, in this field there is no data, no aliens to examine and base theories on, nothing but speculation, whistling in the dark, and hoping for the best, or worst. He senses that what is missing from much of this speculation is any real engagement with the facts of evolution, and the long road it took to get here, with the many accidents and might have beens. Perhaps there are only bacteria out there, or the real aliens are just too alien to be any good. What he detects in the search for ETs at both scientific and folk levels is not a search for the truly alien, but for reflections of ourselves, aliens who are not only somehow human, but are obsessed by us and our problems.

But why should real aliens care about us, or even have anything relevant to say, their experiences and world views being so, well, alien? Imagine that after all the effort the CETI people establish communication with the Masters of Cosmic Wisdom, and back comes the longed for message: “Yes little friends we have found the means of ensuring peace on our world and putting and end to all conflict. Its so simple, all you have to do is mutually eat each others fourth regenerable dorsal protuberances, the ones which contain the back up memory proteins. You then absorb each others memories and points of view and live in peace and fellowship like we do.”

There are some bits of real cosmic wisdom buried in the notes. How about: “..having a Ph.D. doesn't make a person inherently more credible on the question of whether aliens are visiting the Earth, but simply makes it more embarrassing when the person believes something that is obviously not so.”

And when pompous Michael Swords puts down Kent Jeffrey for not being one of the less than half dozen world experts on Roswell, Achenbach makes the valid point “only people who are true believers would spend the time researching the issue with enough depth to become 'experts'. Anyone else would go on to something more worthwhile like napping". -- Peter Rogerson (Reviewed January 2003)

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