Little Green Men, Christopher Buckley

Random House, 1999, 300 pages, C$34.95 hc, ISBN 0-679-45293-1

I remember showing the bright-yellow jacket of this book to a colleague, who then asked the obvious question: “Are there any Little Green Men in it?” My first answer was “Well, with a title like this…”, but as it turns out, my colleague’s question was absolutely appropriate. Little Green Men is a rarity, a comedic thriller about UFOs that should satisfy both believers and sceptics alike. It also helps that for a humorous story of political intrigue, it’s about as non-partisan as it’s possible to be these days in the United States.

Starring an unlikely protagonist named John Oliver Banion, Little Green Men is the story of a Washington talk-show host who is suddenly abducted by UFO occupants. A man of considerable intellect and reason, Banion has trouble coming to grip with his predicament. That is, until he’s abducted again. After that, he simply decides to become a crusader for all UFOlogists, with predictable results: His talk show is yanked off the air, Majestic-12 gets involved, his family and friends desert him and he becomes the coqueluche of the vast fringe-wing conspiracy. But what he’ll discover will defy both his imagination and yours… and spin wildly out of control as he finds himself with just a little bit too much power.

I should probably avoid any further spoilers, because the pleasure of Little Green Men is how it twists the obvious developments and develops the obvious twists. As a confirmed sceptic regarding this whole UFO business, I approached the novel with guarded expectations, but what I got was considerably more interesting than what I first expected. It’s a remarkably clever little book, exploiting conspiracy hysteria in a fascinating fashion. Buckley Does Not Believe, and this detachment allows him to have a lot of fun with the material. (There are footnotes)

Purists should note, however, that even though this is billed as a novel of political humour, there isn’t much in way of belly-laughs in the book. They’re scattered here and there, but for the most part, Buckley sticks to reasonable just-this-side-of-reality plot developments, avoiding obvious burlesque unless absolutely necessary. But to judge this novel on the number of laugh somehow misses the point, especially when it’s hard to wipe a sustained grin off our face as we read the novel. (Given the considerable sustained appeal of the prose, be prepared to grin from beginning to end.)

Another note worth pondering: While you may get hints of known figures in the quick character sketches, don’t assume that Little Green Men has any link to pre-1999 political figures. In the first few pages, we learn that Saddam Hussein has converted to Catholicism, Robert McNamara was “addicted to mind-altering hair-restorative drugs the whole time he was escalating the war in Vietnam” [P.18], Israel annexed Jordan based on a new translation of the Dead Sea Scrolls and that our protagonist once co-authored a congressional committee report that “stuck a well-balanced tone between righteous indignation and cautious reform, between those who though that the United States had no business trying to poison Canadian prime ministers and those who, while disapproving of this particular instance, felt that the United States ought to reserve the right to dispatch troublesome Canadian PMs in the future, should circumstances warrant.” [P.16] In short, any resemblance between this reality and our is, hopefully, entirely coincidental. This lack of adherence to acknowledged reality is one of the elements making Little Green Men fun reading for conservatives and liberals alike.

The evolution of this protagonist from a righteous bastard to a definitely more sympathetic hero is one of the novel’s chief delights, but hardly the only one. I’d end up recommending Little Green Men to just about everyone. Sagaciously plotted, deliciously-written and executed with more than a twinkle of amusement, it doesn’t need much more to get my recommendation. If you think that X-Files-inspired rants and government conspiracies have evolved in a less-than-amusing direction lately, well, this is the book for you.

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