I've heard it said that no book has an effect on us comparable to the ones we read before the age of 16.
The most powerful influence on my adolescent imagination was Marine Major Donald E. Keyhoe's "The Flying Saucers Are Real," which I read and reread in the mid-1950s until the paperback disintegrated.
Major Keyhoe's advice, in the words of a sci-fi movie of the period, was to keep watching the skies. Aliens were scouting Earth, he said, and might land at any time to make their demands known. Astronomers, pilots and radar operators, as well as many citizens, had seen alien craft in our skies, Major Keyhoe claimed, but these UFO reports were being suppressed by the Air Force.
Major Keyhoe seemed to have ample documentation for his charges of a cover-up. He was the first conspiracy theorist I had encountered, and he had me hooked.
I kept watching the skies and the news, but nothing happened to confirm his predictions. Skeptics began to persuade me that what people reported as UFOs usually did turn out to be Venus or Jupiter, a weather balloon, a meteorite or just a hoax. As I grew older I became more interested in the question of why the rumors of interstellar spacecraft had such persuasive power over rational people like Major Keyhoe and myself.
The classic text on this subject is by the great psychologist C.G. Jung, written in 1958. Jung asserts that UFOs are not cosmic but psychic disturbances and that reports of their existence coincide with periods of social and economic trouble.
In the years after World War II, a time of Cold War frictions and a nuclear weapons race, one could expect people to believe in alien invaders. These trans-human creatures might help us construct a new world order, or they might dominate or annihilate us as punishment for our iniquities. Either way, they would resolve the unbearable tensions of modern history and deliver mankind from its fear of an uncertain future.
My interest in UFOs faded after the 1950s; then, in the late 1970s, I was reminded of my former fascination by "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." The media's interest, too, had revived; in addition to reports on "sightings," there were sensationalist interviews with "contactees." Tabloid journals exploited interracial fantasies with lurid reports of abductions and sexual relations between aliens and Earthlings.
Now we are again experiencing an upsurge of interest in UFOs, at a time when the Cold War has ended and, indeed, the "end of history" has been proclaimed as a consolation for the survivors of the nuclear terror.
Nobody would say that our troubles are over, but the paranoia of the 1950s and the sundering turmoil of the 1960s are far behind us. Why, now, do we need extraterrestrials to invade our imaginations?
One answer seems especially pertinent as we near the end of the millennium. UFOs appeal to our desire for an "endtime," a closure of history like those prophesied in our religious literature.
For many people, the end of the Cold War signals the beginning of some hopeful new cycle, and UFOs are the annunciation of that apocalyptic beginning. Because aliens are smarter than Americans, they will be our saviors, the big fixers of our broken society.
Or perhaps UFOs are symbols of our resistance to our leaders' soothing promises of a new beginning. UFOs are manifestations of the certainty that some catastrophe (ecological? political?) is coming to disrupt our lives. Here, too, we can allegorize the aliens as any racial, religious, class or national enemy we choose.
In a real sense, Major Keyhoe was right: An unidentifiable threat hovers over America, and our leaders won't admit it. UFOs are recognizable as authentic expressions of a profound civil and psychic disturbance. As in the pulps of our childhood, they bring us news of a coming war of the worlds, and once again it's the Others vs. ourselves. The neuroses of the 1950s are back. Keep watching the skies.
Laurence Goldstein is a professor of English at the University of Michigan and the author of "The Flying Machine and Modern Literature." He wrote this commentary for the Los Angeles Times.