UFO: The Inside Story of the U.S. Government’s Search for Alien Life Here—and Out There
Garrett M. Groff | Nov. 2023 | Avid Reader Press | 544 pages | ISBN: 9781982196776 | $32.50
When Martha MacCallum of Fox News asked Gov. Chris Christie about UFOs at the August 23 Republican presidential debate, the roaring laughter from the audience cut off her question. “C’mon, man” Christie responded, making a crack about “Martians.” A few weeks earlier, Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand brought up UFOs at an outdoor constituent event, only to have the audience laugh and giggle until she responded in kind. Among the public, outside of the very online world of UFO-themed social media, flying saucers just aren’t a serious subject. However, interest in UFOs among media and legislative elites has convinced American publishers that UFOs are due for a prestige-media makeover.
Harvard-trained former Politico and Washingtonian journalist and editor Garrett M. Graff’s forthcoming book UFO: The Inside Story of the U.S. Government’s Search for Alien Life Here—and Out There, out this November, bills itself as the first “serious narrative history” of America’s hunt for UFOs, though it certainly is not. It’s merely the first to target a wealthier, more elite professional audience than the paperback tomes of yore. Indeed, the book’s claim to be the “inside story” of anything is also a bit of slick fantasy meant to appeal to the professional class, given that this is a book made up primarily of material from previously published books, mostly by pro-UFO authors. It contains no inside information of any kind, except for the requisite hints, common to all UFO books, that anonymous officials secretly confirmed some hidden truth that the author is unable to share. At least Graff, who is the same age as me and presumably grew up reading the same media, had the decency to relegate that claim to the acknowledgements at the end, given that it has no bearing on the actual text.
Typically, my reviews go in detail through the evidence and arguments that an author presents in support of his or her (well, let’s be honest—it’s almost always his) thesis. Here, there is simply nothing to discuss. UFO contains nothing new. If you have read a couple of classics, like Edward Ruppelt’s Report on Unidentified Flying Objects (1956) and J. Allen Hynek’s The UFO Experience (1972), and Leslie Kean’s UFOs (2010), Jerry Achenbach’s Captured by Aliens (1999), and Curtis Peebles’s Watch the Skies (1994), you have read the collection of facts Graff presents, more or less. Graff, of course, has gone back to cite the underlying newspaper articles and government files that these older authors used, which makes his book more serious than the typical copy-and-paste rush job, even if he has less to say than any of his predecessors.
For you see, by “serious,” Simon & Schuster means that Graff affects a studied neutrality, declining to offer either analysis or criticism in what is almost entirely nothing more than a chronological list of events in the history of ufology from 1947 to the spring of 2023. I say “affects” because this pose of Olympian neutrality is very much window-dressing, but we will get to that later. I tend to be of the school that thinks that if a book has something to say, the author should say it. Graff, however, seems to be a student of the current trend in historical writing that aims toward inoffensiveness, refusing to offer a point of view, declining to provide critical analysis, and leaving it to the reader to puzzle out some meaning from a lengthy collection of facts that might otherwise be gleaned from Wikipedia.
The book’s more than fifty chapters move chronologically through a selective presentation of ufology, interlaced with largely unrelated scenes from the scientific search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Graff’s sources for each chapter are unexceptional, mixing familiar sets of government documents with lengthy and largely uncritical summaries of ufologists’ books and, in places, material gleaned from UFO websites. The historical chronology derives in large measure from Peebles’s 1994 skeptical history of ufology, Watch the Skies!, which was both shorter and more useful than Graff’s book, considering that Peebles, a Smithsonian aerospace historian, was deeply familiar with the subject and had the expertise to speak critically of ufology’s heroes and famous cases.
Graff’s book, by contrast, reads like the work of dilletante dropping in to a trendy subject for an instant book, following up on his highly praised Watergate: A New History from last year. The unseemly haste with which he wrote UFO—with the help, he says, of a small army of publishing staff—shows on nearly every page where Graff is dazzled by ufologists’ pretentions to science. Graff wrote his book, he says, in less than a year, beginning in the summer of 2022 and finishing the final edits right after David Grusch started publicly talking about dead aliens and crashed saucers, with the final text finished on August 1 of this year. He knew virtually nothing about the subject before writing, had an assistant to complete much of the research, and saw his editor make more than 9,000 edits in each of the three drafts of the manuscript. The rush shows in the author’s superficial coverage of his subject and the unearned awe with which he seems to hold the ufologists whose work he only rarely criticizes.
To take but one example, Graff devotes two chapters to hero-worship of Leslie Kean, whose various UFO works he not only cites but summarizes without evaluation or criticism, despite her open admission in a Showtime UFO documentary and on social media to distorting her reporting to push a pro-UFO political agenda. Ignoring her efforts to find a portal to the afterlife on a spiritualist quest, he praises her lavishly, along with other dubious characters, including Jacques Vallée, cast as a hero of the cause, with nary a word about his fabrications or endorsement of hoaxes or his speculation about UFOs being tricksters from other dimensions teaching us theosophical lessons. And he praises dubiously ethical abduction researcher John Mack (who also saw aliens as a one-way ticket to an afterlife dimension of bliss), of whom Graff all but admits to being in awe. By contrast, he subtly casts government officials as villains unwilling to defer to ufologists’ fantastical ideas. He appears to place scientists like Carl Sagan and Francis Drake somewhere between the two camps, celebrating them when they seem open to aliens and criticizing them when they (correctly) inform the public about the lack of evidence for aliens. He see J. Allen Hynek (who eventually came to think UFOs were psychic poltergeist-style space ghosts from another dimension) as the ideal scientist. That he strongly suggests Avi Loeb has likely proved this summer that an alien spaceship delivered cosmic mail to Earth tells you all you need to know.
And here is where UFO fails most miserably. Graff has carefully affected a pose of neutrality in order to make ufology seem much more serious than its purveyors have ever been. He never comes right out and says anything too positive or too negative, using only subtle implication, juxtaposition, and structure to make subliminal points. His ignorance of the deeper levels of the subject lead him to downplay or ignore vital elements of the subject, for example dismissing the entirety of the ancient astronaut, occult, paranormal, and interdimensional pseudo-spiritual nonsense that dominates the UFO field and casting it as a minor sidelight in the quest for nuts-and-bolts flying saucers. Similarly, he sins terribly in refusing to engage with popular culture except in the most superficial ways. In his telling, ufology is a branch of science most directly influenced by the United States government, with popular culture a mere reflection of its greatness. But in real life, pop culture is in constant conversation with ufology and shaped the field more than ufology shaped pop culture. Unknown to Graff—or perhaps purposely omitted—the U.S. government began its UFO investigation in 1947 by looking into tips it received about sci-fi author Richard Shaver and concluded that science fiction stories were probably behind early space alien claims. Did Graff know that an issue of Amazing Stories about the Shaver Mystery and its non-human flying discs was on newsstands when the Pentagon first learned of UFOs? Or that the young men who first investigated flying saucers were the core audience for such magazines? He also makes no mention of The Outer Limits’ influence on alien abduction narratives, nor does he deign to admit that The X-Files and Ancient Aliens shaped Americans’ UFO ideas more than ufology fed the shows’ stories.
Having established his parameters, Graff cleverly uses the largely unrelated chapters about scientific research into life on other planets to give credence to the idea—never proven, never in evidence—that UFOs are alien spaceships. If one search for aliens were legitimate, he implies, then the other must be, too. And yet, even Graff concedes that there has never been convincing evidence for aliens. So why, then, do we frame UFOs as an investigation of aliens?
At root, Graff falls for the oldest fallacy in ufology: “I don’t know; therefore, aliens.” The very idea of space aliens—which I remind you lacks any conclusive physical evidence—was always science fiction, a mythology grafted onto “I don’t know” to assuage feelings of ignorance. (Graff notes that demons or angels were also an early explanation, but he dismisses that one, despite the same amount of evidence in its favor.) But it all revolves around a logical problem: The mythology of space aliens leads to anomaly-hunting instead of scientific investigation. By assuming aliens are possible, or even likely, every “solved” UFO case immediately get ejected from the set of data used to draw conclusions, preserving the “mystery” but biasing the set. Sure, it’s possible that a flying saucer black swan exists, as real black swans do, but ufology keeps investigating each unsolved case, and purging every solved one, in the hope that one might turn out to be the aliens they assumed without evidence to be the explanation for some UFO, despite nearly all the original sightings that gave rise to the myth having proved to be non-alien. (The rest lack enough information to identify.)
The big question is who exactly this book is for. For the UFO fan, it is too familiar and too unoriginal to be of much use. For the casual reader who is curious about the government’s UFO interest, it is too massive a list of barely sketched names and random dates and confusing sightings and too free from critical analysis, authorial guidance, and contextual narrative to do more than overwhelm the reader with volume. It’s boring without being enlightening, the print version of one of those streaming knock-off “prestige” dramas that use a lot of dark mood lighting and obscure dialogue to fool viewers into thinking they experienced something profound.
I agree with Graff that the story of UFOs is less the story of space aliens than the story of humanity’s search for transcendence through a quasi-scientific adventure. Graff, however, wants aliens to be real. He tells us that the government’s efforts to investigate flying saucers gives us “permission to wonder,” and ultimately that sense of cosmic awe is the true reward. How sad a spiritual world do we inhabit that we seek salvation in spaceships, how impoverished an intellectual life do we lead that we need the government’s permission to feel? If Graff’s book has value, it is as a chronicle of the lengths some humans will go to in order to cloak their own hopes and dreams in the borrowed authority of government to justify these longings to themselves—and each other.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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