The Truth Is Out There

AREA 51: The Dreamland Chronicles, by David Darlington. Holt, 281 pp., $25.

DEEP IN THE NEVADA desert, about a hundred miles north of Las Vegas, there's a secret air base known as Area 51. Originally built in the early 1950s, it is a shadowy place (to this day, the Pentagon refuses to confirm or deny its existence) patrolled by camouflage-suited security guards, and so restricted that breaching its perimeters may precipitate the use of deadly force.

In recent years Area 51 has become a pilgrimage site for acolytes of the flying-saucer movement, drawn by reports of strange lights in the sky above the facility and rumors of captured UFOs within. It has also attracted other fringe-culture enthusiasts, who see in its hidden bunkers and secret agendas a psychic map of America at the millennium, where conspiracies obscure the truth at every turn.

Because of this, suggests David Darlington in "Area 51: The Dreamland Chronicles," Area 51 is no longer just an Air Force installation, but a repository "for every imagined modern conspiracy from the invention of AIDS to the destination of kidnapped children, who were supposedly subjects of medical experiments in an underground lab."

That's a lot of weight to lay on a single cultural touchstone, but throughout "Area 51," Darlington makes a strong case for his claim. To do so, he introduces a number of Area 51 regulars, among them Bill Uhouse, an engineer who says he worked with an extraterrestrial named Jarod to create a flight simulator based on alien technology, and Bob Lazar, who claims that as an Area 51 employee, he saw several flying saucers, and was shown documents revealing that "in the course of modern human history, three spiritual leaders - including Jesus Christ - had been artificially created by alien engineers."

To counterbalance these perspectives, Darlington invokes Glenn Campbell, author of the "Area 51 Viewer's Guide," an intelligent, skeptical compendium of information and opinions about the base. Campbell, clearly, is someone Darlington identifies with, perhaps because unlike most of his fellow "ufologists," he's more interested in the phenomenon of UFO mania than in proving whether or not the saucers are real. "The field is full of nuts and ridiculous folklore," he admits early in the book. ". . . UFOs are like a Rorschach test: When people look at a light in the sky, what they see indicates something about what's inside of them."

The idea of UFOs as a collective Rorschach test is insightful, but it's also dangerous territory for a writer to work. After all, to do his material any kind of justice, Darlington must walk a tightrope between his own credibility and that of his subjects, many of whom, he points out, are "deeply disturbed."

As a remedy, he adopts Campbell's " `folklorist' approach," in which the goal is not necessarily to come up with answers but simply to record the questions themselves. That's an effective strategy, especially when it comes to some thing as slippery as Area 51, and it lends flexibility to a narrative that covers a wide range of topics, from the early U-2 tests, which took place at the base in the mid-1950s, to allegations that UFOs are controlled by the Illuminati, part of a secret plan for world control. At the same time, Darlington's stance allows him to suspend disbelief and, rather than judge his sources, repeat their stories in their own words. In places, this can sabotage the book's momentum (once or twice, interviewees ramble at distracting length), but more often, it provides a vivid portrait of a subculture for whom official history is little more than a lie.

Given their cynicism toward traditional belief systems, what may be most astonishing about the Area 51 faithful is the religious fervor they bring to their quest. Throughout "Area 51," we are confronted with a kind of cosmic zealotry, a sense that in the alien experience, much can be explained. For Darlington, this is symbolized by events like the "UFO Friendship Camp-Out," which he describes as a cross between a New Age convention and a tent revival, complete with references to Lucifer and the end of the world. "It used to be common knowledge," one UFO insider tells him, "that experiences with supernatural beings were encounters with extraterrestrials - like Elijah ascending into Heaven in flames and a whirlwind . . . Really we're all part of the great God that's everywhere at every time."

Later, Darlington reflects on this while camping in the desert, "waiting for things to appear in the dark." "It seemed," he writes, "like a very particular activity for a time and place in history - post-Cold War, millennial America - but it wasn't really all that specialized. How different were we from pre-Christian desert nomads sitting beneath the same stars, organizing them into meaningful shapes and investing them with power and influence over our lives?"

The answer, of course, is that we're not very different, that in a culture where absolutes no longer seem relevant, the people of "Area 51" are engaged in a modern-day version of the age-old search for God. This is true not only of UFO buffs, but of conspiracy theorists in general, who are reminiscent of nothing so much as religious fanatics, seeking out the hidden forces of history to bestow meaning on the world.

For all their talk of millennium, Darlington's cast of characters is motivated less by its implications than by something far more basic - their fear of everything they can't explain. As Joe Travis, proprietor of the "UFO Friendship Camp-Out," declares, "The reason people like us come together is to seek truth from chaos," reflecting the religious idea that without some overarching intelligence, the universe can't help but be incomprehensibly anarchic, willfully bizarre.

In that sense, it doesn't matter if the stories in "Area 51" are true, or even provable; it may be better if they're not.

Truth has the nasty taste of anticlimax, made up, as it is, of annoying loose ends. What if there were no extraterrestrials or UFOs at Area 51, just the mundane experience of test pilots working on secret military aircraft, bored by the tedium of their efforts and the unrelenting desert sun? How would that connect to our desire for conspiracy, for an explanation that would let our fears make sense? No, what's important is a narrative, one that can encompass all the threads of history in a way that's at least compelling, if not necessarily real.

As Darlington explains, "Like the reality of flying saucers themselves, which despite widespread testimony remain unaccompanied by physical proof, the question of whether this tale is `true' or has been somehow summoned up from a labyrinth of psychosocial forces is not one that my sources are prepared to answer. Everyone seems to agree, however, that it's a heck of a yarn."


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