BOOK REVIEW / Very spacial relationships: Dark White by Jim Schnabel Hamish Hamilton pounds 16.99

ALIENS come in flying saucers, flying pancakes, flying sheets and, according to a St Louis alcoholic in 1897, a large red dragon with six eyes. They have green skin or lobster-style claws. They come from outer space to dig up soil samples with little pooper-scoopers. They come from outer space to abduct former UN Secretary-General Perez de Cuellar (they brought him back). They come from outer space to read books about UFOs and sneer at mistakes in the text.

Encountering spacemen has always been socially unacceptable. As far back as 800 AD, four miserable people who claimed to have fallen from ships that sailed in the clouds were dragged before the Bishop of Lyons to be stoned. Today the penalty for unrepentant ufologists is the Oprah Winfrey show.

But still a substantial number of Americans believes not only that alien abductions occur but that they themselves have been taken aboard silver craft where extraterrestrial scientists tinkered with their private parts. Jim Schnabel shows that something unexplained certainly happened to these unfortunate 'abductees'. It could be that they are genuinely on nodding terms with fully accredited aliens. It could be that spontaneous electromagnetic fields trigger off visions of spaceships in their back gardens. Or it could be that they are suggestible personalities with a wobbly line between fact and fantasy.

The methods of some UFO researchers may create what they are looking for, like dubious therapists who create the False Memory Syndrome of childhood rapes. Fiction, too, has a well-known habit of being recycled as actual experience: when a television sci-fi drama featured an alien which 'spoke' out of wrap-around eyes, an abductee reported 'memories' of the same thing within a few days.

Or maybe those rays were the rear lights of the interplanetary commuters who took one Buck Nelson to Venus, where he met a St Bernard. On his return he tried to sell a clump of hair he had pulled from its coat but found no takers, presumably because cruelty to animals was involved. Coincidentally, another abductee was kidnapped by creatures which communicated by barking.

We may be certain that barking is the right word to describe all these people, but Jim Schnabel is too charitable to dismiss them thus as he guides us through the wonderful worlds of the UFO experts, whose intrigues sometimes rival Star Wars battles. It is all like a FOAF, the event that happened to a friend of a friend - except now the friend lives in downtown Alpha Centauri.

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