Review: Making Contact

Making Contact: Preparing for the New Realities of Extraterrestrial Existence by Alan Steinfeld

My rating: 1 of 5 stars


I was provided an advanced copy of Making Contact, apparently because of my interest in the much better UFOs: Generals, Pilots and Government Officials Go on the Record by Leslie Kean. Making Contact is a book for true believers only, those already caught up in the mythology of conspiracy theories, alien abductions, and interdimensional communication. Only the especially credulous, already well-versed in the layers of contradictory alien contact lore, could truly enjoy this book. As such, this is a case where the book is just a bad fit for me.

But I unfortunately have to discourage anyone else from reading. We live in an age in which misinformation spreads rapidly and easily, and this book represents exactly the sort of dangerous misinformation we should be avoiding. People without strong critical thinking skills might be persuaded, for instance, by the chapter in this book written by social scientists misexplaining and misapplying complex hard science fields like quantum physics to justify disjointed narratives of alien/UFO superpowers.

I’d also suggest that this book is the sort of thing that undermines any real interest in engaging seriously with the phenomenon of unidentified flying objects. I’m sure there’s an explanation for those 5% of sightings that can’t be explained currently even with sufficient data about the sighting, and that explanation may not be very interesting but it would still be worthwhile to know. I’d love to see serious research into that phenomenon. But why would any serious scientist want to touch the subject if the people shouting most loudly about it also insist that the mere existence of UFOs indicates interstellar or interdimensional beings visiting us not-so-surreptitiously on Earth? What legitimate researcher would bother to think there’s anything there if they’re always hearing about the phenomenon in the context of stories about alien abductions, mystical energy fields, telepathic contactees, and elaborate but entirely unsupported conspiracy theories?

Furthermore, the book feels a bit rushed, perhaps because of the need to put something out in advance of the release to the public of the DOD report on UFOs that should be made available by the end of June. Of course, since this book’s publication, it’s become pretty clear that the report, as per usual, cannot definitively state what the phenomenon is. That’s to be expected and not reflective of a conspiracy but just the reality that it’s hard to verify every case of something strange seen in the sky after the fact. But of course, the essays included in the book seem to believe that this is all part of a rolling buildup to full Disclosure, the almost Rapture-level event anticipated in the far-out ufology community in which the government will come clean and reveal the full depths of contact with extraterrestrials, complete with revelations about its sordid history of involvement with benevolent and malevolent ETs and their remarkable technologies.

It’s a shame, too, because not all of the essays are bad. Nick Pope’s essay, while increasingly speculative toward the end, is actually a very level take on the UFO phenomenon and rather clearly and logically explains why it’s very unlikely that there’s any big government conspiracy at all. A transcript of a talk by the late psychiatrist and alien abduction researcher John Mack offered a nuanced accounting of his work and speculation about what it could mean–and while it’s certainly not a convincing argument for legitimate alien abduction occurrences, it’s an interesting reminder that these experiences are very real to the people reporting them. Finally, the book excerpt by famous abductee/writer Whitley Strieber and the fascinatingly fragmented and abstract essay by abductee/performer Henrietta Weekes were interesting insights into the perspectives of those actually reporting an “alien abduction” experience. I think it’s notable that the essays I’ve cited downplay the significance of the actual UFO phenomenon and put more weight into subjective experience related to a separate phenomenon, that of the reported alien abduction, experiences that seem very real to the alleged abductees. However, I think it would be far more interesting to read about the experience as a psychosocial phenomenon, rather than as further support for those desperately looking for proof of alien contact, no matter how incompatible the various sources of evidence.

I’d suggest looking for writings by Pope, Mack, Strieber, or Weekes outside of this anthology, where they can be engaged with (even if not accepted/believed) on their own terms.

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Finally, if you’re interested in reading something worthwhile on the history of investigation into the UFO phenomenon, I’d strongly recommend the April 30th essay “How the Pentagon Started Taking U.F.O.s Seriously” by Gideon Lewis-Kraus on The New Yorker.

Review: Prey (2017)

Having now finished the main story with one of several endings for Prey, I can say that this was a great game experience. However, despite the opportunity for many additional runs through its story, to explore different powers or to pursue completionist ambitions or to make different moral choices, I do not think I will be back to the game any time soon, if ever. Once was enough, and it was a great treat.

One of the main reasons that I would not be interested in a replay is that the game forces you to replay a lot already, in the sense that you are constantly backtracking and re-exploring areas you’ve been to before. At many points in the game, levels you’ve cleared are restocked with enemies, too, which I suppose helps to alleviate the grind of wandering across a barren area just to try a previously locked door with a new keycard or ability, but it does start to feel a little tedious at times.

This complaint is really my only major one with the game. I loved the setting, the story, and many of the characters. Above all else, I definitely loved the action-RPG-lite FPS gameplay. I loved experimenting with different abilities, upgrading special powers as the situation warranted and scarce Neuromods allowed. I found I preferred human, rather than alien/ESP powers, with a focus on stealth, hacking and engineering my way around problems, always prepared to shoot my way out of a situation at the end. Limited resources meant that I couldn’t ever depend on going in guns blazing, and many later-game enemies would have clobbered me if I’d relied on that approach. In fact, the final third of the game changed the type of enemy primarily faced, moving from the psychokinetic, shape-shifting Typhon alien types to largely robotic opponents with high-powered lasers, requiring a tweak to how I devoted my resources. Some might find the constant scavenging and need to formulate new tools out of scraps at special stations to be tedious, but it kept the tension high throughout the game and made me reflective about how to use my resources–there were many times where I had few mineral resources and had to make a close call between generating extra 9mm bullets, some shells for my shotgun, or a medkit.

Most of the game time is spent navigating large but enclosed, multi-story levels that represent sections of a colossal space station. Every level has a different environmental story to tell, as the station gradually expanded from a Soviet operation to a joint US-Soviet research facility to a chief technological base for an extravagantly wealthy private company. There are stark research labs and elaborate crew quarters with bold pop art. There’s a bridge with computer stations and displays you’d expect to see in a NASA mission control room. Whiteboards and posters and notes and letters and books and children’s art fill out the corners of the station, as is the nature of these sorts of games, I suppose. I rather enjoyed accessing more and more of the diverse environments and uncovering secrets, especially related to the events that led to the release of the Typhon and the demise of so many of the crew of Talos I. Coupled with fantastic level design and set dressing, the sound design and score kept me in the moment, maintaining a sense of tension and dread even when I became more powerful and wasn’t so concerned about a sudden Mimic jump scare.

The above details should sound familiar, for they are definitely in the vein of a particular type of game, the System Shock-alike. Given that I happen to love these sorts of games, like BioShock and Deus Ex, it should come as no surprise that this scratched an itch for me. But it also clearly pulled from classic sci-fi movies like Alien/Aliens (the parasitic nature and unstoppable drive of the alien force and the retro-futuristic design) and Total Recall (the questions regarding what is real versus simulated and the permanence/plasticity of identity when remembered life experiences are removed from the equation or otherwise altered), as well as from the niche interests of paranormal enthusiasts with subjects like ESP and covered-up astronaut contact with alien life. All the more reason for me to like it.

The plot operates on a familiar framework but offers a lot more than what the basic narrative might at first suggest. (It should be noted that it is not connected to the original Prey in any way except for name, although I never played the older title, so it made no difference to me.) A silent, amnesiac protagonist has to fight off killer aliens while exploring the confines of their environment. In this case, the game opens with protagonist Morgan Yu finding out that their current existence is nothing more than a repeated simulation, and Morgan enters into freedom just as the outside world goes to hell. They’re onboard a nearly derelict space station, in the immediate aftermath of an infestation of alien creatures with a complex ecology and life cycle, collectively known as the Typhon. The basic Typhon is a Mimic (pulled straight from D&D), an inky black, dog-sized starfish of a creature that can easily morph into any other shape its size or smaller. Mimics, like xenomorph face-huggers, want nothing more than to shove an appendage down the throat of the nearest human to replicate–but rather than releasing a rapidly gestating embryo like the classic sci-fi predator, they steal away life force (and, we later learn, consciousness) to metabolize enough matter and energy to split into fully-formed quadruplets. (This idea of recycling, reusing, metabolizing, and transforming is a major theme in the game.) There are many other types of Typhons, including the myriad forms of Phantoms, which are birthed from the corpses of humans killed by other means. Much of the game involves attempting to stop the spread of the infestation, which in turn involves learning quite a bit more about the history of the space station, its inhabitants, and the Typhon that had been contained within it.

The complexity of the space station and the Typhon, and the alternative history of the larger world, make for a very interesting background narrative that kept my attention throughout. However, the actual beats of the story are fairly conventional. You start off very under-powered, and even the little Mimics, who will eventually become at best a nuisance, are terrifying threats. The horror of the initial events of the story gives way to mystery regarding the alien threat, and that transition in tone comes with an increase in powers. You meet more and more powerful enemies over the game, but you gain in power at a roughly equivalent rate. You explore sections of the space station and unlock secrets. You (optionally) help other survivors and decide whether to blow the station up to completely wipe out the infestation, incapacitate all the Typhon so that the research can start again, or simply bail out whenever in an escape pod. The end stages of the game send in a “rescue” team actually meant to wipe everyone out, an overused plot point in action games and movies.

The game remained challenging, but never unfair. I played on Normal difficulty without any of the optional game modes like limited oxygen or the accumulation of trauma, so I imagine the higher levels of difficulty could be especially brutal. Either way, the game allows for saving at any point, and so I saved early and often. This encouraged experimentation in exploration and combat, since I knew I could quickly load back to a save moments before if something went south.

Your silent protagonist, Morgan Yu (who can be male or female, the first choice you make), is a brilliant engineer and scientist, but they start out with irreversible amnesia, and a variety of prerecorded videos and AIs and contemporary human compatriots all attempt to persuade Morgan about who he or she really is. The silence of this protagonist feels more a deliberate choice than a matter of convenience; you are Yu (yeah, the name emphasizes that, huh?), and you are defining who that is, from a blank slate. The silence means that intention is always through player expression; as the game goes on, there are moments where it is clear that the people around Morgan struggle to understand who he was and who he is now. The unknowable nature of intention behind action is an underlying theme as much as is the nature of identity or consciousness.

The side stories of perished and surviving crew were often more intriguing than the game’s primary objectives. I became quite fond of characters like Dr. Dayo Igwe, the brilliant neuroscientist with the tragic past who is ostracized by his colleagues because of his parapsychological interests; Chief Sarah Elazar, the tough-as-nails security director and war veteran with a strong ethical core and protective spirit; Mikhaila Ilyushin, the head engineer who hid her degenerative condition to get a top spot on Talos I to try to uncover the truth about her father; or Danielle Sho, the IT administrator who put aside her past rivalry with Morgan to aide them in ending the Typhon threat, even as she waited out her own death. That last character arc is rather problematic, honestly. I really liked Sho a lot, and learning about her tensions with Morgan and her romantic relationship with researcher and tabletop game master Abigail Foy was one of the most engaging backstories I explored. I was rooting for Sho and Foy, so [BIG SPOILERS] I was incredibly frustrated to discover that Foy had been killed, not by Typhon, but by a deranged serial killer, and Sho was doomed to die, stuck outside of the station and out of oxygen, helping Yu in her final moments and asking them to avenge Foy’s death. I mean, yeah, I hunted down that psychotic killer–even if you didn’t uncover or care about Sho and Foy’s relationship, he tries to kill you and taunts you through the remainder of the game–but I could have done without yet another example of burying your gays. (On that subject, I recognize that a lot of people die or are already dead in the game, and it has a wide range of people from various backgrounds, but to so conspicuously have a lesbian relationship documented in the backstory and to have it so that you can only witness their tragic deaths, when you can help most other survivors make it out, seems like a clear enough example of the trope).

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Smaller character moments mattered too. I liked learning about the crew members engaged in assassin games with their manufactured foam dart crossbows, and when I discovered one crew member from that gang was still alive, I went out of my way to ensure her survival. I was deeply saddened to find one after another of the tabletop gaming group (playing a board game that is a clear, goofy reference to Arkane Studios’ original release, Arx Fatalis) were dead. There was a lot of tragedy. There was some levity. There were a lot of uncovered intimate and banal moments that made everyone seem so real. It was never unexpected but often disheartening to discover a deceased crew member you’d come to know through their digital correspondence and leftover artifacts from life. It was so gratifying to be able to help someone make it to safety.

I mentioned the tabletop game, but there are a lot of cute little references tucked away in Prey. While not an allusion to a specific source (as far as I can tell), one of my favorite texts were the excerpts from the abysmally bad Starbender books, which are clear parodies of mid-twentieth-century pulp space opera stories. Little things like this made the game feel more grounded, even as they further cemented the developer team’s love for the genre in which they were working.

There’s one last thing I want to discuss: the ending. The game came out in 2017, and enough time has passed that anyone who’s retained some interest in it but hasn’t yet played it has probably had the ending spoiled. I had by the time I got around to the game. I don’t think it changed how I played it. On the one hand, it made me better appreciate some elements of the game, but on the other hand, I sort of regretted coming into the surprise twist with prior knowledge. That said, if you haven’t played and want to come to the game fresh, I’d encourage you to stop reading this now.

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Prey offers two separate endings to the game, each with multiple outcomes. The first ending concerns how you resolve the Typhon infestation on the station: fleeing from it (which apparently ends the game early, if you follow the escape pod route), destroying it, or disabling it to continue the research. I went the route of destroying the station and all the Typhon aboard it; I found the research to be unethical, especially regarding its human test subjects, many of whom were political prisoners, and I wanted to ensure that the Typhon couldn’t get to Earth. Even picking the destruction option has some branching paths. Do you just let everyone die? Do you find a way to get the survivors off the station? Do you make it off yourself, and how? I was glad to join my fellow survivors on the shuttle back to Earth, the explosion of Talos I erupting in our wake. Morgan finally speaks in the present, not just in a recording, ominously remarking, “I keep having this dream.” Then the credits rolled.

And after the credits, Morgan awakens in a containment chamber, monitored by his brother Alex and four Operators, the robotic assistants prevalent throughout the game. It turns out that “Morgan” is in fact a Typhon–apparently a Phantom, infused with elements of Morgan’s genetic code and consciousness. This Morgan-Phantom was in a simulation, a reconstruction of the final hours of Talos I. The Operators possess the personalities of Igwe, Alazar, Ilyushin, and Sho. They pass judgment on the choices you made in the game. In my ending, they noted the empathy Morgan had displayed, coupled with an apparently retributive drive. As I’d passed their test, Morgan’s brother offers the Phantom an option: now that this Morgan understands and empathizes with humans, they can work together to stop the Typhon, which have now spread over much of the Earth. The final choice: kill them all or join with them. I joined, and the Phantom extended its hand in cooperation, somehow adjusting its shadowy appearance to take on a human look.

I really liked the two endings, and I liked that both were affected by player choice throughout the game and at the end. I liked the reveal about the true nature of Morgan. It emphasized the inherent limits of a video game in its ability to simulate reality. It explained the occasional weird glitch. It clarified how suddenly certain plot-relevant items would appear on a desk after I’d taken a particular step. It put in context the bizarre and brief dream sequences that interjected key moments of the game. It twisted expectations; the whole time, you thought you were defining who Morgan really was, when in reality you were never Morgan at all. And so Morgan breaks free from one simulation only to find that they were in another all along.

This final, post-credits ending also offers many intriguing questions. What actually happened on Talos I? Presumably the Typhon invasion of Earth started with the breach depicted in the game. What went wrong? Did Morgan fail to activate the nullwave device or to blow up the station? Did Typhon get aboard the shuttle? Perhaps some of the Typhon made it out on another shuttle? (There was a side quest where a shuttle, out of contact with Talos I, was approaching Earth, having departed only 30 minutes before everyone became aware of the outbreak and before they knew how to scan for Mimics; I blew it up, but maybe the “real” Morgan didn’t.) Did Morgan stay aboard the station? Did they evacuate? Is Morgan alive now, or did they die? Did anyone other than Alex survive? I can know for certain that at least part of the simulation did not match reality (and also highlighted how it was a simulation). I saved Alex, locking him unconscious in his safe room. He appeared later on the bridge of the station, intent on stopping me from blowing it up, and was killed by January, the Operator who had been pushing me to destroy the station. I blew up January in retribution and commenced the reactor overload. But at the very least, Alex must never have been on the bridge. Morgan must have killed January earlier. Or perhaps Morgan helped Alex to use the nullwave device, and there was a later infestation outbreak. Or perhaps everything happened more or less as I played it, but Alex was never on the bridge. He must have gotten off somehow, perhaps in his executive escape pod. What happened to Igwe, Alazar, Ilyushin, and Sho? If things happened as depicted, then at the very least Sho is dead. There was no way to save her, regardless of player choice. Their Operators at the end seemed somewhat surprised that I found a way to save everyone, so maybe that’s not the most likely outcome for the real Morgan. Did Igwe, Alazar, and Ilyushin perish as well? An Operator can be programmed with the voice and personality of a real person, and at that point, that person certainly wouldn’t need to be alive. Perhaps, though, some or all of them are alive, using Operators so that Alex alone was risking himself in the presence of the Phantom. Of course, while these are questions that are very interesting to me, the use of the Operators also meant that the same assets could be used in this final scene, regardless of whether Morgan saved the others. Still, it’s a fun way to challenge the idea that there is or even can be a single, concrete version of events. All pathways are possible, and none may be real even within the game world.

I don’t know if you can have an effective sequel to a game that offers so many endings and such an open-ended interpretation of the final state of the world. I guess The Elder Scrolls continues to rise to that challenge, but normally by offering games in different parts of the world and sometimes with convoluted explanations for how every ending did and did not happen simultaneously, a level of mysticism appropriate for a fantasy setting but not for a more grounded sci-fi story. I think I’d be disappointed if a sequel boxed in a “canon” interpretation. But I could see other games set within the lore of this game, perhaps set during a past or contemporary outbreak, or perhaps set on an overrun Earth, following a member of a resistance group. I suppose that Arkane Studios did explore a contemporary adventure within this setting in its rogue-like Prey: Mooncrash DLC. Maybe I’ll give that a try, but I’m not typically a big fan of rogue-likes; then again, the inherent uncertainty of the reality of events, as reinforced by the basic story structure of the expansion and the nature of the game type, is intriguing and fits well with the themes of the base game. Regardless, I want more because I had such a blast with this game, its setting, story, characters, and themes. What a great experience–I’d highly recommend it, if you can tolerate a game that starts with an initial survival horror vibe.

Final thought: I really, really enjoy an endgame stats summary. Thanks for that, Arkane Studios. And, you know, for everything else about this game.

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Review: The 37th Parallel

UPDATE: Chuck Zukowski appears to have responded to my post. You can see the comment at the bottom of this post. If it’s really him, he is really quite angry at my characterization of him. He also rightly points out that I do not have a science background (hopefully that’s clear to any regular readers). I’m not going to change my review. I’m also going to leave the comment up; it’s more ranting than argument, but I do feel the guy deserves the space to defend himself. I would prefer that people who put themselves in the public eye just avoid seeking out commentary from random people on the Internet, but I can’t dictate what people do with their free time.

The biggest takeaway from the comment, for me, is that the individual claiming to be Chuck says that Ben Mezrich mischaracterized him. He says that his wife didn’t have two jobs, for instance. If I were Chuck, I’d be furious with Ben for characterizing myself in such a horrible way. I suppose if you read this review now, keep in mind that the depiction of Chuck is far more a fictionalized character than an accurate portrayal. To the extent that this is true, Mezrich has published pseudo-fiction as nonfiction. That goes further than just making up dialogue or using a composite character. It feels a little like character assassination…

The 37th Parallel: The Secret Truth Behind America's UFO HighwayThe 37th Parallel: The Secret Truth Behind America’s UFO Highway by Ben Mezrich

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I’d never read anything by Ben Mezrich before. I’d heard of his works, though, if only because of the occasional Hollywood adaptation. I’d seen The Social Network. It was interesting to see that he’d written a book on the paranormal, which I found squirreled away in a corner of my local library a while back. Either this book or the concept of concentrated geographic regions of paranormal activity across America had been discussed in the so-bad-it’s-good “documentary” Hellier, so there was the faintest ring of recognition in the back of my mind when I did come across it. I figured, why not? I’ve read plenty of books and stories and watched plenty of shows with a paranormal bent, so I felt confident that at best, this could be a thoughtful examination of strange phenomenon or perhaps just a quirky character piece, while at worst, it would be some entertaining fluff to occupy some of my down time.

Sadly, for the most part, The 37th Parallel failed to even be entertaining.

There are many reasons why I did not enjoy this read. Some are related to style and narrative, but some are related to its underlying subjects. Frankly, there was quite a bit of overlap between these factors. My central complaint is that the book follows a thoroughly unlikeable and uncompelling outsider who is convinced that he is a crusading hero for the truth–and it never really makes much of an effort to challenge or contradict his beliefs about himself or his investigations. I had never heard of Chuck Zukowski before, but it is clear that the central figure of this narrative is eager for publicity. By way of example: in the book, he finds a little bit of metal at the alleged Roswell crash site, orders some analysis that produces data that would allow for a more conventional explanation, and pushes for a press release and special event to celebrate his findings; he calls out a local news team to interview him about a cattle mutilation case he’s investigating; and when he comes up with his “UFO highway” hypothesis, central to the book but barely present in it, his sister asks, knowing him, “What do you want to do with this? Put out a press release?” A quick Google search shows that he maintains a website; he’s active on Twitter under a handle based off his site name; he turns up for radio and news interviews; and his IMDb page indicates that he’s slowly carved a bit of the paranormal TV racket out for himself, most recently with his own show, Alien Highway. To return focus to his portrayal just within the book’s narrative, Chuck is a gun-nut paranoid obsessive who forces his family to relocate from California to Colorado so he can go from a full-time job in microchips to a part-time freelance position closer to some of the more interesting paranormal activity he’s gotten reports about. He follows a quest for glory to become a Reserve Sheriff’s Deputy, but his need for publicity ultimately puts him in opposition with his department, and he’s fired from that volunteer role. Once out of the volunteer job, he makes no effort to go back to full-time work, instead focusing more on his hobby of hunting UFOs and investigating cattle mutilations. In the meantime, his wife has to hold down two jobs just to cover the bills. He overspends on bullshit technology for his investigations, because just about every middle-aged white male paranormal investigator conflates lots of gadgets with doing science. While he still had a decent income, he would try to bribe his wife with appliance upgrades and kitchen remodeling to get her over the frustration of his overspending (in other words, he spent even more on “woman stuff” to try to pacify his wife over spending too much). He seems anxious about his wife not understanding his UFO obsession, and he gets frustrated when she doesn’t believe the same nonsense he does, but she’s shown as nothing less than supportive, giving him all this free time to travel across the country and letting him blow through their money even while she’s working double and raising their kids. A highlight of his reckless, selfish behavior is when he reflects on two incidences in which his wife “exploded on him”: one time after maxing out a credit cart on equipment “the same afternoon she’d tried to make a payment on their youngest son’s braces” and another time when he spent $300 on scalpels the morning after their washing machine broke down. If there is a true hero, it’s Tammy, his long-suffering wife, whose main character flaw appears to be an enabler tendency and an unwillingness to demand that he make any sort of sacrifice for his family or even seriously consider the possibility of psychiatric care even as he spirals into paranoid thinking including the belief that he is perpetually tailed by government agents in black SUVs.

There was nothing charming to me about Chuck. He seemed like a bad dad and a bad husband, too obsessed with what he wanted to see to even register how his actions impacted those around him. Maybe that’s an unfair read, but there’s nothing he did for his family (at least in the book) that was truly selfless. Sure, he bought an RV and took them on family trips a lot when the kids were younger–so he could drive to places known for paranormal activity. He even scheduled participation in a volunteer archaeological dig with his wife for his wedding anniversary so that he could learn more about how to conduct physical investigations at field sites.

Chuck also broadcasts a lot of tired, racist beliefs about Native Americans. He believed the Anasazi were in communication with aliens. He reads Indian “sacred and historic” sites as somehow fundamentally connected to the paranormal phenomenon he tracks. For that matter, he does not seem to register that indigenous peoples have been repeatedly displaced. And in the tradition of the classic, “I’m not racist, I have a/an [insert race here] friend,” he even has a “part Native American” friend who drifts in and out of the story for Chuck to use as a tracker, sidekick, and key to get onto indigenous lands.

Mezrich tries to keep us in Chuck’s perspective, only occasionally taking a trip to track someone else’s (typically sympathetic or allied) viewpoint. I suppose he was trying hard to frame Chuck as heroic, or perhaps he just couldn’t think of a better way to humanize him. But his depiction of Chuck is someone with 90% grandiose thinking and 10% halfhearted humility. His acknowledgments only complicate the subject further, as he remarks, “Chuck is certainly one of a kind, and it was impossible not to be inspired by his enthusiasm about what he views as a quest for the ultimate truth, regardless of the consequences” (emphasis added). I’m not sure how to read that aside, other than as an admission by Mezrich that Chuck’s delusional worldview is flawed and lacking in self-awareness. There is nowhere in the text itself that felt like an attempt to be tongue-in-cheek or to seriously engage with Chuck’s thinking.

There are problems outside of Chuck. Another issue for me was the style. The dialogue manufactured to fill in most scenes, to present something closer to a novel than a more removed non-fiction narrative, reads as cliche and stilted. Characters talk like they’re in a bland action movie, rather than like real people. Most of the characters, in fact, are not given the opportunity to be presented as the fully rounded humans they must be in reality, with the bare-bones writing directing most of the energy to Chuck’s delusional thinking and his cattle mutilation investigations. We’re constantly bombarded with exposition, like when Chuck “explains” Roswell to his wife, and actual dramatic tensions are typically skipped over. Yet anyone with even a passing interest in the paranormal is unlikely to uncover any new “facts” here, just the same lukewarm, regurgitated tales with even the most wildly speculative accounts presented as genuine possibilities. On top of all this, Mezrich makes the baffling decision to hop around in time, which had me shuffling between chapters to see whether events were happening before or after what I was currently reading; it didn’t build to anything, and a standard timeline would have only brought clarity, so it’s a truly puzzling choice.

A final failing of the book is its failure to wrestle with the nature of the investigations here. Chuck wants to be viewed as engaging in science, and Mezrich never challenges this. It’s a common failing of paranormal narratives; the story only works if you suspend your disbelief, so better not point out the shortcomings in that story. Chiefly, Chuck thinks it’s science to go to cattle mutilation sites days or weeks later, interview the ranch owners, take samples from the corpses, and record observations about the sites. He eventually finds a veterinary school that will autopsy the corpses, resulting only in a continued refrain that the cause of death cannot be explained. Chuck apparently has no interest in actually investigating what “normal” animal deaths are like. Despite there being fields of study into decomposition, Chuck remains focused only on those cases that are called in. Yes, they present interesting mysteries, but you’re never going to get an answer if you keep poking at the things that can’t be explained with the tools you have. His investigations could provide interesting data points in aggregate, but he’s looking for proof of a particular worldview rather than trying to understand what’s happening. Unknowns are, to him, proof of his beliefs, rather than gaps in the path to better understanding. His apparent lack of interest in seriously examining how animals die and how they decay means that he can’t seriously rule out other results. He’s spent years doing this and has never found anything conclusive, but he thinks the big breakthrough will be through continuing to focus only on the unexplained. In other words, he’s trying to be an expert without bothering with the basics. He’s not trained as a scientist, and he seems to view forensic investigations for a police case as interchangeable with the scientific method.

Chuck’s fixation on the outlier cases of animal deaths foreshadows his “UFO highway” hypothesis. You see, he gradually filled a map of the US with pins showing where paranormal events occurred. One night, he took down all the pins and restored only pins that correlated with “his recent [investigations of] mutilations,” “his own UFO investigations,” and MUFON files sent to him by his sister where the “events . . . could be corroborated by multiple witnesses, or that had enough circumstantial evidence for him to consider them verified.” Using a highly subjective process reliant upon his own experience and judgment, he produced a band of cases that were concentrated between the 36th and 38th parallel. It’s sort of an interesting coincidence, but when you start with the factors he used, it’s not weird that there would be some sort of geographically contained result. He even claims that the “only big hitter that’s missing” is his sacred Roswell, but attempts to explain this by saying that if the flying saucer that crashed had come from Kenneth Arnold’s Mount Rainier sighting, it would have to pass the band to get to Roswell. He does not seem to register that Mount Rainier, too, is outside of his predetermined band, and so the grandfather of UFO sightings would be excluded as well. And he outright ignores the many, many, many UFO sightings throughout the US and, for that matter, the world that don’t fit within this geographic band. Combating anecdotes with anecdotes is counterproductive, but I could point to famous UFO cases like the 1967 Malmstrom Air Force Base incident or the 1950 Mariana UFO video or the 1980 Rendlesham Forest incident, not to mention the numerous sighting reports from throughout the nation going into organizations like MUFON, or the sightings that have given rise to serious investigations by other countries that don’t even lie across this latitude (e.g., Brazil, Canada, France, and the UK). In other words, even without careful scrutiny, this hypothesis just flies in the face of reason, demanding that we give greater weight to reports verified by one man operating in one region of the country.

With the suggestion of his sister, Chuck then added pins of military bases and those “American Indian sites, both sacred and historic,” that happened to fall within this geographic band–a completely irrelevant data point, and highly selective since he’s not adding all the bases and indigenous communities or archaeological sites outside of that band. They ended up with a lot of pins on a narrow band of a map after this highly guided approach, arriving at a predetermined outcome. His sister even concedes, “Some of this has got to be coincidence. Some of it is probably related to the reporting mechanisms. Where we’re situated is informing the kind of reports we see, and the ones we can verify.” Yet still, these faithful believers choose to accept the findings because the map looks significant somehow. It’s a small matter to them that they can’t determine how or why it’s significant.

It does seem that some in the paranormal community have latched onto this. I’m not surprised. True believers engage in so much magical thinking and confirmation bias that anything vaguely interesting or curious gets grafted on to support the colossal, rickety structure of belief that has grown to define their worldviews. But it is nonetheless frustrating to see, and Mezrich, who appears to otherwise be a “mainstream” author writing about “serious” nonfiction subjects, should not have presented such a belief set without seriously engaging with and challenging it. Yes, perhaps it was obvious to Mezrich that these ideas should not be taken seriously, and perhaps he should be able to trust a reader to engage critically with a work. But all too often, that will not happen. His use of heavy redaction on the last page, to suggest that Chuck finally found some truly otherworldly occurrence that confirmed his beliefs, is an especially awful example of how he put flimsy beliefs ahead of rigorous thinking. I’m disappointed all around.

More on UFOs

In my review of Leslie Kean’s UFOs, I mentioned that she relied heavily on a Belgian UFO wave photograph, which at the time was credible, though the photographer had since come out to say that it was a hoax. Fox News had a story in 2011 that reviewed the book, mentioned the hoax, and let Kean respond. Her reply, which I’m including below, was smart and reasoned, like the book:

It’s a disturbing development, and it shows how hard it is to authenticate a photograph. At the time the book was put together, everyone was relying on what we knew from the labs. As a reporter I’m going to take that information seriously, and [Major General] De Brouwer [(who investigated the phenomenon at the time)] certainly took it very seriously and now the guy comes out [confessing the hoax], so we’re stuck with a serious problem that’s still being investigated.

She went on to note that the hoax “doesn’t discount all the sightings that took place.”

I’m increasingly of the opinion that photographs will always only muddy the waters. In season 2, episode 1, of the ghost skeptic podcast The Spooktator, the speakers discuss how many skeptics demand photographic or video evidence of sightings, and yet no amount of photographic or video evidence would be convincing to everyone because basically anything could be a hoax after all (you can listen for yourself at around the 24:30 mark; I’d recommend the podcast as a whole because the speakers are quite clever, the subject matter is interesting, and the show is often quite funny). The point is not to say that we should blindly trust claims from eyewitnesses (eyewitness testimony is, after all, notoriously unreliable). Rather, perhaps we should just give up on the idea of using photographs as the most persuasive evidence when examining the subject of UFOs (or anything else that would normally be deemed paranormal or extraordinary). They are just a part of the larger body of evidence, which I think was Kean’s point. And for the most part, she didn’t emphasize photo evidence in the book itself, so she’s been fairly consistent on that point.

I suspect that even fixating on single case studies can be problematic because so much effort can be put into “explaining away” each element of a particular case (regardless of whether those explanations actually hold much water) that larger parallels across multiple sightings might be lost in the shuffle. Ufologists might be prone to losing sight of the trees for the forest, whereas skeptics lose sight of the forest for the trees. It’s partially a problem of the genre; True Believers try to sell such fantastic claims that so much of skeptical attention is spent responding to the obvious bullshit rather than the underlying 5% of sightings left unexplained on review by investigators. We’re still re-litigating the Roswell incident, after all.

Framing the Narrative

Ufology is so dominated by competing narratives, with adherents claiming access to a singular Truth. True Believers buy into it all–the government and/or an associated military-industrial complex is covering up the existence of extraterrestrial visitors to Earth and has taken advantage of alien technology. Skeptics, or debunkers really, believe that all UFOs can absolutely be explained by current technological or natural explanations; even those 5% of cases could be explained if we just cherry pick the facts enough and discount elements of the cases after the fact. Yes, there are some who really just want to answer the question of the 5%, but it does seem like the conversation is dominated by loony statements from True Believers and responses to those loony statements by skeptics. Yet there’s a growing number of variant theories resting somewhere in between.

My favorite proposal, for a while, was that the unexplained UFO cases largely represent secret military aircraft, and that a good deal of the extraterrestrial hypothesis theorizing and any supporting evidence (such that exists) are spurred on by deliberate military disinformation. This was most forcefully argued in the excellent documentary Mirage Men and its accompanying book by Mark Pilkington. For a while after reading and watching these twin productions, I felt thoroughly convinced that this accounted for the uenxplainable. But in retrospect, I recognize that I was in full-on “debunker” mode, looking for any easy and conventional explanation that could be inserted to explain away a mystery. It can’t be aliens, I reasoned, as though “unexplainable” automatically equaled “alien,” so perhaps anything truly unexplainable is just really high-tech military aircraft. Well, of course, secret aircraft are the answer in some cases, but not all. Plus, the US government would have had to have these advanced aircraft, which in some cases still exceed known aircraft capabilities especially in speed and maneuverability, since at least the late 1940’s. And for me to accept military disinformation as the main culprit, I had to willfully neglect facts I already knew–chiefly, US Air Force PR efforts to dismiss the UFO phenomenon with Project Blue Book, or the CIA’s Robertson Panel and encouragement to debunk the UFO phenomenon as well. Seriously, the CIA’s own website discusses the CIA’s involvement in the UFO phenomenon and notes that there had historically been a “continued emphasis on UFO reporting [that] might threaten ‘the orderly functioning’ of the government by clogging the channels of communication with irrelevant reports and by inducing ‘hysterical mass behavior’ harmful to constituted authority.”

I want to stress that I’m not discounting the existence of disinformation, whether through formal or informal channels. It is just obviously not a sprawling government conspiracy, and it does not account for all cases of UFO belief or all UFO sightings.

Interestingly, the CIA notes (in the same document I linked to earlier) that over half of all UFO reports in the late 1950s and the 1960s were accounted for by manned reconnaissance flights. So on the one hand, a disinformation campaign pointing to UFOs where there were none would have been useful to military intelligence agents attempting to keep the reconnaissance flight programs secret. On the other hand, I think it’s safe to say that if this explanation was actually accounted for, then we are still left with the final 5% that is not explained by conventional technology, natural explanations, or even secret aircraft programs.

The “manned reconnaissance flights” were related to U-2 and OXCART projects. The history of these programs is recounted by Annie Jacobsen in Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base. Jacobsen’s book is mostly well-researched and deals with fascinating secret history. But she stretches too far, spinning another sort of disinformation explanation for another element of ufology. She argues, based on one anonymous source, that the Roswell crash was actually a Soviet-operated, Nazi-designed flying saucer craft that contained genetically augmented human children as part of a high-level Soviet disinformation campaign. This story seems to me at least as outlandish as any story about aliens out there. But it checks a lot of boxes: it provides a “down-to-earth,” alternative explanation for (one particular) UFO; it offers bones to both True Believers and skeptics, weaving together narratives so that it’s potentially palatable to both; it leans heavily into military cover-ups and disinformation, tempting anyone who is inclined to distrust the government; and it seems to provide a real example for why the CIA would have been concerned about the Soviets faking a UFO invasion, beyond the merely speculative. Nonetheless, it just sounds like nonsense to me, and it’s a claim that lacks adequate support.

Kean discusses disinformation and potential conspiracy in her book, but it’s one chapter, and she stresses that at best any speculation as to an existing conspiracy is nothing more than speculation. She does not try to convince anyone that there is a government conspiracy to cover up anything, and she points out that if such a conspiracy exists, it likely involves a tiny group within the government that has excluded leadership from the loop. She favors the idea of a conspiracy of ignorance: the simplest and most rational explanation is not some broad cover-up, but a distinctly human effort by all involved to simply ignore an issue that cannot be explained. Efforts have been made to conventionally explain the phenomenon without success. The UFOs have not exhibited hostile intent, do not appear to be aircraft of foreign nations, and could not be stopped by our military anyway. Better to just ignore the issue than to admit that there is some rare phenomenon that is completely beyond our control or understanding (so far).

I think that Kean’s right about this. But I also think there’s room for Mirage Men‘s disinformation campaigns. If the UFO phenomenon exists, it could be advantageous to some to use it as a cover. It hardly makes it official government policy, or even something endorsed by leadership at any level. Just as there are many views out there about what UFOs are, there are likely many different approaches at the individual level by people within government and the military. No matter how much we try to smooth away any individuality into a wall of military procedure and governmental bureaucracy, we are still left with individual agents capable of holding radically different beliefs and making different decisions in sensitive situations.

Parallel Discussions

Much like Mirage Men was both a book and a documentary film, I think it’s hard to fully appreciate UFOs without also viewing I Know What I Saw, a 2009 documentary directed by James Fox. Kean references this film and other documentaries; she is listed as a producer of the film; and she actually appears in the film itself, investigating along with Fox. I Know What I Saw includes the conference that Kean mentions, in which several of the writers in UFOmet and presented talks about their experiences. It was interesting to actually see these men share their stories, and not just read it. The documentary also offered photos and video clips that, while hardly convincing evidence of anything, were not contained within the book (further evidence, I think, that Kean recognized the problems with photographic evidence and tried to avoid using that as primary support). I Know What I Saw also interviewed many regular citizens who had witnessed mass sightings. And it also included an interview with former astronaut Gordon Cooper–perhaps the wildest story I’ve heard from someone who seems so credible.

I think that I Know What I Saw tended to be even more credulous than UFOs (especially with its reliance on so many civilian accounts), but it’s definitely an overlapping endeavor with the book. The book reinforces the movie, and the movie reinforces the book. I would recommend reviewing both close to simultaneously (and skeptically, and critically, but willing to get past the ridiculous UFO TV distribution introduction).

What Should be Studied?

To the extent that ufology is a real field, it still seems way too broad, and it’s too easy to make anyone an expert. Even efforts to study reincarnation, near-death experiences, ghosts, and ESP have actual experts in parapsychology research groups! (Just one example would be the Division of Perceptual Studies at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, among many others.) There are certainly intelligent people involved in ufology, including a handful of scientists, but most professional attention has been dismissive. Consequently, a good deal of UFO researchers are just everyday people who decided that this was an area that they could be experts in.

Ufology gets too caught up in lore. Crazy lore, with sweeping government conspiracies and extensive alien abductions. For ufology to be credible, I think it needs to be studied by credible experts and limited to a study of UFOs (which, I think, is Kean’s argument). It needs to dispense with the lore and drop the True Believer aliens-are-among-us crap. And it should not be concerned with alien abduction stories (I’m not familiar with alien abduction stories that, even if accepted as genuine accounts by the experiencers, couldn’t be adequately explained by things like sleep paralysis or false memories and hypnotic suggestion or a mental illness, and–correct me if I’m wrong–there’s no associated physical evidence out there to suggest it’s not just in the mind). What I suspect is that even something like alien abduction could probably benefit from skeptical, expert investigation by medical researchers to help determine what is actually causing these alleged events; our understanding of something like sleep paralysis or the cause of false memories still seems to be developing, and it is possible that some alien abduction cases could be explained by a yet-unknown mental condition. But combining alien abduction stories with the UFO phenomenon, and further suggesting that alien abduction stories represent literal interaction with aliens (or even somehow provide any useful data at all outside of a neurological perspective), is just harmful toward taking the subject of UFOs in any way seriously.

While I had some qualms with Kean’s book, I do appreciate how she provided a succinct argument that reopened my eyes to an honest appraisal of an unexplained phenomenon. In a way, this is frustrating, though: I see the problem, I’d like to see research efforts address it, but I am not an expert in any useful area, and any involvement on my own would likely just get in the way. So it is a problem, like most problems in the world, that I am not in a position to help solve. I hope that many “ufologists” can eventually take the hint and get out of the space, and that legitimate experts with valuable qualifications can actually start paying attention.

I want to believe that ufology can become a legitimate field.


Top image allegedly of a UFO in the Belgian wave of sightings, from Wikipedia.