Thursday, March 26, 2020

UFO Culture Examined: They Are Already Here by Sarah Scoles



They Are Already Here: UFO Culture and Why We See Saucers by Sarah Scoles

Reviewed by Curt Collins

Full disclosure: Sarah Scoles interviewed a number of ufologists in researching this book, including me, and I am mentioned in chapter 8. I’ll mostly recuse myself from reviewing that chapter, but the rest is fair game.

It's not very often a new book comes along with saucers in the title, so although our focus here is on weird UFO history, I felt obligated to check it out and review it at STTF. They Are Already Here is pitched as: “An anthropological look at the UFO community, told through first-person experiences with researchers in their element as they pursue what they see as a solvable mystery—both terrestrial and cosmic.”

I first became aware of Sarah Scoles’ work from her Feb. 2017, article in Wired magazine, “What Is Up With Those Pentagon UFO Videos?” one of the few pieces of investigative journalism examining the AATIP story. She approaches the UFO topic from a journalistic background - her usual beat is covering science, and her previous book was about legitimate scientific matters, a biography, Making Contact. Jill Tarter and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. The AATIP story drew her in, and from there, this book.

The very first UFO book, Keyhoe’s The Flying Saucers are Real, set the model for most that have followed: The author receives an assignment or goes on an investigation (aka quest) which allows otherwise dull information to be packaged in dramatic scenes as the narrator overcomes obstacles and digs ever closer to the truth. The trope is tired, since it’s also an overused device to cope with the fact that there’s not going to be a satisfying ending. Since there's not much solid information, and even less in the way of clear answers, the UFO author usually has to drum up some drama by talking about the many locked doors they find, but insisting, have my faith my brothers and sisters, we’re almost to the truth

Chapter one begins with... you guessed it. But the author’s quest bit works very well here. Unlike in the hackneyed formula, Sarah actually does go on a journey - several of them, in a real-life journalistic quest to get under the skin of UFO mavens. By that I mean to understand them, but yes, she has gotten under their skin in both the positive and negative connotations!

Instead of a rabbit hole, she calls it a wormhole, but falls into a wonderland just the same. Part of how she was drawn in was driven by what she found to be curious lapses of details in the reporting of the AATIP story, and its uncritical acceptance by many, and the fact it was being merchandised.

Chapter two takes a weird turn, because it looks like the author began her investigation by going to a UFO convention. C’mon, man! That’s like trying to learn about zoology by going to the circus. Probably worse. But I get it, that’s where the UFO people are, from authors to devotees. A newcomer would expect a ufology conference to be a bit like a scientific conference where the latest scientific papers were presented and so on. Well, not so much here. There are some serious presenters and new data, but most of it is lectures from regulars on the UFO circuit, some of which are more performers than researchers. Often, it's no more than a UFO Comic-Con, a place to hang out with people with similar interests, with the option for cosplay and one-nighters.

Luckily, at the 2018 International UFO Congress, she ran into a few rational folks there, including Robbie Graham, who gave the lecture, “Searching for Truth in All the Wrong Places,” which caught her interest since he seemed to have a grounded approach and healthy perspective on a far-out and fringy topic. It was the book Graham edited, UFOs: Reframing the Debate, that led her to Canadian ufologist Chris Rutkowski, author of the chapter, "Our Alien, Who art in Heaven." Chris is a great guy with wealth of knowledge, but most people ignore him because he just makes too much sense.

Yow! Curt Collins is quoted in the chapter 8, which gives this book the distinction of being the possibly the first ever to mention the Roswell Slides, Gray Barker, and AATIP in the same chapter. And speaking of Gray... the playful wit of his good friend Jim Moseley (of Saucer News/Smear) seems to be alive and well in some of Sarah’s quips and chapter titles:


In chapter 4, Scoles begins her discussion of UFO history with the Kenneth Arnold sighting, which is good, because many numbskulls think it all started with a Roswell crash. She talks about how after Arnold’s story went big, the US was swept with saucer fever, and all of a sudden everyone was seeing saucers. There’s a brief mention of “perceptual contagion,”and that’s spot on. In 1947, there may indeed have been a saucer invasion, but people were reporting discs by the hundreds. In all the excitement, a lot of innocent birds, planes and balloons had their citizenship challenged; Martians everywhere. But that’s the point, she’s looking at the cultural impact of UFOs, which is why she fast-forwards to the Robertson Panel, the CIA panel that has been blamed for causing UFOs to be debunked and ridiculed. Those guys weren’t around back during the heyday of sea serpents, but sailors still got ribbed for being drunk on the job.

I had no idea who "The Patron Saint, or Something of Saucers" was going to be about, and seeing it in the index, thought that would have been Kenneth Arnold. Instead, it's an entire chapter on aerospace billionaire Robert Bigelow, sometimes called the Howard Hughes of ufology. His deep involvement of the AATIP story is just beginning to be understood.

Much of the rest of the book is Sarah's travels to meet people involved in the UFO scene, and she puts in a lot of time on the road and in the air to get to them. The writing is excellent, and the conversational tone of the book is works well, and it almost feels like the author is taking you by the hand touring into a UFO museum - or maybe a haunted house. The biggest gripe I have about the book is that an experienced UFOer will read the book, and say, "Why’d you go there, and why did you talk to that clown?” It’s like that old fairy tale, and anyone new to ufology is going to have to kiss a lot of frogs at the start.

There’s a line in chapter six that reflects her both her scientific background and the insight she gained by studying ufology:"
"Scientific methods are civilization’s so-far best attempt at removing biases, but nothing that involves a person (and probably nothing that involves a robot) is ever truly objective.”
In “It was Always You,” there’s an unexpected twist that closes not only the chapter, but the entire book. Scoles turns her examination 180 degrees and briefly examines her own beliefs, in what must have been a painful section to write so honestly about. It’s only a page and a half long, but one of the most powerful parts in the book. Though little is said there of UFOs, much is said about faith, belief, and feelings.

For UFO nerds like myself, who are often more concerned with data than literary merit, this book has a good index that’ll allow you to target any passage about any of the heroes villains or bit players discussed within.

There’s a passage from chapter one that can save you a lot of time, since if it doesn't grab you, They Are Already Here is not for you:
“I undertook this project because I wanted to understand why these people spent so much time on a phenomenon that they weren’t even sure was a phenomenon—at least not one beyond the human brain. What I found, when I got to know them, was that we were actually a lot alike in a lot of ways. They sought out mystery in the known world—and then scratched at its surface till it eroded into understanding. They believed people flying high in the government wanted to keep secrets. They craved evidence. They wanted better data. They wanted the truth. They wouldn’t—couldn’t—stop until they figured it out. That’s a lot like the journalistic process.”
I thought the book was great, and it would be perfect for any UFO buff to share with friends or family who don’t quite get the “UFO thing.”

In the AATIP-Bigelow-Skinwalker Ranch story, there's been a small tempest over a BAASS scientist saying they were using “the novel approach of utilizing the human body as a readout system for dissecting interactions with the UFO phenomenon.” Sarah Scoles volunteered, but it's sort of the same thing. Via this book, her brain can now be examined as a readout system for dissecting a scientific civilian’s exposure to ufology. She survived it, but can ufology survive its examination by her? I think so, and it’ll benefit from hearing her conclusions.


If you don’t think you’ll like it, buy a copy anyway just to burn. It pairs well with UFOs: Reframing the Debate.


P.S.

By chance, I happened to sit in an interview of Sarah Scoles on the Paracast radio show. During some of it, I’m sure Sarah must have felt like it was more like a cross-examination or inquisition. She handled herself well, and I thought she did a good job of representing the book.

We also talked about how the prejudice of some of the UFO crowd on Twitter who have rejected the book without bothering to read it. Ufology has dreamed of getting science and journalists to take an interest. Sarah’s done that, and taken two years to give ufology a chance. We should listen carefully to what she made of it.

2 comments:

  1. Good one, I hope to catch up Sarah's book, but I'm a hard cover junkie, and in the current state of things, thats looking like a real problem, down here in OZ. Thanks for the review Curt.

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  2. My copy arrived in the mail. I'm looking forward to diving into it after reading an online excerpt. If you haven't read it I recommend "In Advance of the Landing: Folk Concepts of Outer Space by Douglas Curran." It includes a self-made inventor working on his home-built saucer, another saucer forgotten by time.

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