Watch the Skies! A Chronicle of the Flying Saucer Myth, Curtis Peebles

Berkley, 1994, 420 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-425-15117-4

If you think even slightly like me, you must despair at the new age section of your favorite bookstore: Whole shelves full of astrology, angels, self-help parapsychology, meditation, crystals and -last but not least-, UFOs, extra-terrestrials and flying saucers. It still heartens me to see that at the nearest Chapters, these black/green/purple books are located right besides the comic book section. (Even though it’s really embarrassing when I browse the graphic novels shelves.)

Given the flood of easy cash (“a fool and his money are soon parted”) coming from the whole UFO craze, it’s hard to find good, accurate, complete and convincing sources chronicling this modern superstition. The “Skeptical Enquirer” magazine is good, but patchy due to its periodical nature (and not available everywhere). Watch the Skies has the advantage of debunking everything UFO in a single handy package.

The whole UFO business begins in 1947, when pilot Kenneth Arnold spots “peculiar saucer-shaped aircrafts flying in a line at incredible speed.” Over the years, Peebles shows the reader how the UFO myth was shaped by fringe notions (Did you know that “contactees” were once rejected by the “mainstream” UFO mindset?), pop culture events (from the pulp magazines to the classic movie THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL to… well, Peebles stops just before “The X-Files”) but mostly wishful thinking transforming perfectly explainable events in “weird, strange, mysterious” happenings.

And, most importantly for this kind of book, Peebles is convincing. Paradoxically, his credibility is strengthened by the fact that he doesn’t try to explain everything in a definitive manner. What can be explained is explained, and the remainder isn’t. But most of the classical elements of the UFO mythos -familiar to most laypersons- are explained away. The explanations ring true. This is about as even-handed as a skeptical book will get, and it’s immensely satisfying.

Also revealing are the various hoaxes that taint the UFO scene ever since if was created. How major pro-UFO figures were persons with a lot to gain, financially speaking, from the continued existence of the myth. How others had histories of troubled psychological pasts. How others purely manufactured events and documents to gain fame, money and/or popularity. The much-lauded MJ-12 documents are here completely destroyed by meticulous comparisons of these documents with contemporary official documents recently declassified. The Bermuda Triangle (remember that?) is also debunked. The famous cattle mutilation cases are also explained away and I, as an ex-farmboy who’s had to deal with his share of dead cows, agrees with Peebles that there’s no mystery to them!

A disquieting fact about the UFO myth is how it has transformed through the year from a simple “unexplained sightings” theory to a grab-all abduction / UFO / cover-up / secret pact / alien experiments conspiracy, much more sinister and much more dangerous that it ever was in the past. A myth must evolve and become steadily more exciting, or else it becomes quaint and passé. Glancing at the UFO shelves at the bookstore, I wonder how much more time this shameless commercial exploitation can continue…

Watch the Skies! is exceedingly well-researched, with almost fifty pages of end notes. A lot of the source documents are from official documents; others are the pro-UFO books themselves. A pretty good index completes the book, although there are regrettably no pictures.

The biggest surprise of Watch the Skies! is how entertaining it is. While scholarly, Peebles’s account is also compulsively readable. While I was looking forward to parts of this book as much as my next dentist appointment, I was pleasantly entertained by most of the book. It is also sufficiently accessible for anyone, regardless of scientific or skeptical background.

Ultimately, it’s obvious that Watch the Skies! probably won’t convert true believers into skeptics. As Peebles says, UFOs become a subject of fanatical, almost religious zeal: Reasoning becomes irrelevant. But Watch the Skies! is a significant book, because it takes a hard look at the whole UFO hysteria in a carefully thoughtful manner. A must-read for sceptics and should-read for everyone else.

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