A week in books
Boyd Tonkin is Senior Writer and a columnist at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Literary Editor at The Independent, and before that Social Policy Editor and then Books Editor at the New Statesman magazine. He has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes and has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize. In 2001, he re-founded the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for literature in translation, and serves on its judging panel every year.
Saturday 31 May 1997
Is there a sane way to write about such drivel? Jim Schnabel did just that in a fine book on the "alien abduction" cult, Dark White. That made the actual lives of "abductees" sound as weird as any almond-eyed, big- headed "Grey" who might whisk you up into a spacecraft. None of the flagships yet sighted from the new invasion come up to Schnabel's standards. Some, indeed, have spun way out of orbit. In Alien Agenda (HarperCollins, pounds 16.99), the aptly named Jim Marrs ploughs through every crackpot tale of ET contact with the reckless zeal of a man who knows that his readers have also lost both clutch and compass. I especially liked the theory that crop circles convey messages from spacemen in "a four-thousand-old Norse language called Tifinag". And what do they say? Nul points.
Nick Pope is an MoD official who also speculates that "the extraterrestrials are attempting to civilise us" by abductions. The cover of The Uninvited (Simon & Schuster, pounds 15.99) labels him "the government's UFO expert". From his keen bedside manner, I suspect that Whitehall saw him as a harmless social worker who could keep the fruitcakes out of the generals' in-tray. Like many true believers, Pope thinks the uncanny likeness between many publicised UFO reports acts as corroboration. Even Inspector Clouseau would twig that it means just the opposite.
With Tim Shawcross's The Roswell File (Bloomsbury, pounds 16.99), we cross from honest fantasy to a wilier approach. Shawcross directed the C4 film Incident at Roswell, with its alleged footage of an alien "autopsy". Here he piles up interview and archive transcripts, while taking care to step back from assenting to any UFO hypothesis. You might even call him a pander to unreason.
Yet Shawcross airs one notion that truly chills the blood. Not far from Roswell, in 1947, Nazi rocket ace Wernher von Braun - who was abducted by US forces - worked on the improvements to his V2 that underlay the later Apollo moonshots. He could have used animals, or even children, in his secret experiments. A hush-hush prototype could have crashed nearby, with small bodies on board. Faced with the all-too-human von Braun, I'd much rather believe in the Greys.
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