Selling space-alien fiction as truth

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Authors and their publishers who push books labeled "nonfiction" about UFOs carrying aliens to earth -- where the aliens then sometimes implant foreign objects under the earthlings' skin and engage in a form of sexual intercourse -- ought to be publicly scolded. Instead, academics who should know better, book reviewers, retail booksellers and readers themselves allow the misleading "nonfiction" labeling to go unpunished. As a result, those publishers who know they are selling lies for profit (or else are employing editors deluded to the point of being psychologically unbalanced) remain in business with no apparent adverse consequences.

Two of the best-known alien abduction authors write for publishers who devote much of their nonfiction lists to responsibly researched and argued volumes -- St. Martin's Press and Crown / Random House. Dozens of additional author-publisher combinations are also complicit.

Amid all the trash are a few volumes about UFOs, alien abductions and related phenomena that actually say the emperors have no clothes. In a stack of books accumulating at The Sun over the past few years -- books that form the basis of this essay -- only one stands out like a diamond in a feedlot overrun with manure. More about this diamond later.

Probably the most visible offender among mainstream book publishers is St. Martin's Press, which profited from Whitley Strieber's Confirmation: The Hard Evidence of Aliens Among Us? (1998, 324 pages, $6.99).

At the time of its publication, I started to read Strieber's book with an open mind. The term "hard evidence" attracted me, and gave me hope that finally an author who said he had experienced an encounter with aliens would finally deliver proof that a skeptic (but not a cynic) like myself could accept.

Strieber failed the hard evidence test miserably. The eyewitness accounts, from himself and others, can easily be explained away based on theories far more likely than alien travel to Earth. As for the tangible objects found in the homes or on the persons of the inexplicably chosen earthlings: Those objects -- some shown in photographs -- obviously came from somewhere, but Strieber presents no evidence to make me conclude that aliens were the source.

It is one thing to state that other planets, other solar systems, might support what we on Earth call "human life." I have no trouble accepting that possibility. It would be hubris to think otherwise. It is quite another matter to state that those theorized human life forms have conquered unimaginable time, space, navigation and materials-science obstacles to arrive on and depart from Earth at will.

Confirmation is Strieber's 10th solo book (he has also collaborated with James Kunetka), six of them clearly labeled fiction. He and his publisher appear to have trouble finding the normally clear line between fiction and nonfiction.

St. Martin's is not merely a neutral purveyor of a controversial book, able to defend itself on noble First Amendment or other free-speech grounds. The hype written within the St. Martin's workplace for the cover of Confirmation is anything but neutral.

It says "Warning: After You Read This Book, You WILL Believe in Alien Life ... bestselling author and UFOlogist Whitley Strieber boldly explores the vast territory of alien encounters, uncovering the most conclusive evidence of all, PHYSICAL EVIDENCE that aliens may really be here. Marvel as Whitley Strieber tells his own compelling story -- and those of countless others -- while you discover shocking new close encounters, many involving groups of people; thousands of sightings worldwide, many captured on video; shocking evidence of five mysterious implants surgically removed from human bodies; and much, much more! The most compelling question in the universe has remained unanswered for centuries. Now, finally, there is CONFIRMATION."

Other than Strieber and St. Martin's, the most infuriating author-publisher combination among the books sampled is John E. Mack and Crown. The book is Passport to the Cosmos: Human Transformation and Alien Encounters (1999, 306 pages, $24).

Mack and Crown exploit his advanced degree (an M.D. with a specialty in psychiatry) by noting it in huge letters on the dust jacket. His faculty position at Harvard University Medical School is mentioned, unsurprisingly. One of his major credits is stated in a potentially misleading manner on the cover: "Pulitzer Prize-Winning Author of the Best-Selling Abduction." The book Abduction: Human Encounters With Aliens, which set the stage for Passport to the Cosmos, is indeed by Mack. But it has nothing to do with his Pulitzer Prize.

He won that in 1977 for a biography of T. E. Lawrence, also known as Lawrence of Arabia. The Lawrence biography is in no way connected to Mack's later fascination with alien encounters. Mack undoubtedly believes he is offering credible evidence in Passport to the Cosmos. To me, his book reads like more science fiction parading as nonfiction. Mack and I certainly have different ideas of what constitutes proof.

Mack feeds off Strieber. In fact, Mack opens Chapter 1 with an extended quotation from an interview he conducted with Strieber: "The power of the encounters [with aliens] comes from acknowledging your helplessness and keeping the whole matter in question, because the deeper the question goes, the more you attempt to come to some kind of resolution. If you keep asking [the alien beings] questions, they keep reforming the thing in such a way that the questions get more provocative but can't quite be answered. ... If you start saying 'Well, they are aliens and they're from this planet,' you're lost. ... I've often been in situations where the question has been impossible to live with. You can't not answer it, and you can't answer it either. And there you have it. You sit in a situation where you can't bear to be -- and you grow."

The opening of any book, and certainly a book like Mack's that calls for suspension of disbelief, ought to be both compelling and clear. For the life of me, I have no idea what Strieber is saying in that passage, nor do I understand why Mack uses it so prominently.

Perhaps Mack should have opened with material he relegates to page 252, in which those who say they have encountered aliens discuss the sexual aspects. Here is Mack, conveying Strieber's thoughts: "The sexual part of my relationship [with the beings] has been very complex and very rich and very difficult at times because I'm a married man. ...The physical dynamic is different in the sense that the sensation of intercourse moves through your whole body, and you become totally devoted to it for longer than I do in normal intercourse."

Mack relates that Streiber and his wife, Ann, have reached an accord concerning the other sexual relationship. But Mack does not say specifically what Ann thinks about Strieber having seen "a hybrid child in the [space] ship whose appearance makes him think that it might be the offspring of his union with the alien mate."

As with the hypesters at St. Martin's Press, the publicists pushing Mack's book for Crown betray not a word of doubt. Mack "asserts that the alien abduction phenomenon ushers in a new era in human consciousness, a time in which we must be willing to embrace the idea that alien visitation is occurring on some level. ... Dr. Mack transforms the ethereal ruminations common in works involving alien abduction into a compelling treatise of global importance."

One writer who provides an intellectual antidote to the "nonfiction" of Strieber, Mack and other authors is Joel Achenbach, a Washington Post reporter when Simon & Schuster published his book Captured by Aliens: The Search for Life and Truth in a Very Large Universe in 1999.

Achenbach gives spokesmen like Strieber and Mack their say. But instead of taking them at face value, he places their beliefs into a variety of contexts, such as the phenomenon of wishful thinking, the quest for spiritual meaning in a semi-secular age, and hard-fact advances in knowledge by astronomers and astronauts, among others.

May a million Achenbach-like books bloom. And may publishers start labeling the works of Strieber, Mack and others of their ilk more appropriately. "Science fiction" might do for starters.

Steve Weinberg, an author in Columbia, Mo., has written six books that he swears are nonfiction, including his 1992 book about the craft of biography, Telling the Untold Story. He spends his life seeking the truth as an investigative journalist.

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