Sarah Scoles, a science journalist and contributing editor at “Popular Science,” follows up her terrific 2017 book “Making Contact” with “They Are Already Here: UFO Culture and Why We See Saucers.” Making Contact was about the pioneering scientist Jill Tarter, who was crucial to SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. They Are Already Here is about the many people —loners, crackpots, enthusiasts, even a few scientists— who believe extraterrestrial intelligence has already come looking for us.
The book is about the strange and proliferating world of UFO deniers, skeptics, and true believers. Scoles goes to their meetings, tramps out to their wasteland ‘crash sites,’ and sits by their campfires at night, hearing and remembering everything. She has mastered that rarest of all journalistic talents: the ability to listen to flagrantly implausible stuff with sympathy without ever sacrificing her critical rigor.
She has a fine-tuned BS detector, but she also has a heart. And in the course of this delightful book, she needs both, often. She presents dozens of the outlandish characters she’s met in her quest to understand what she describes as “UFO culture.” Thousands of Americans every year report seeing UFOs, and They Are Already Here asks what these people have in common, what separates them, and what it is they might actually be seeing. Like Christopher Bader, Joseph Baker, and Carson Mencken in their landmark 2011 study “Paranormal America” (given a substantially revised second edition by NYU Press in 2017), Scoles tries to get at the root of the whole phenomenon.
As she eventually makes clear, that phenomenon is most certainly not rooted in reality. In this case, reality, is prosaic. On June 14, 1947, on a ranch a few miles outside of Roswell, New Mexico, rancher William Brazel and his son Vernon came across some small scraps of tinfoil, rubber strips, paper, and sticks in the desert, an amount of material that wouldn’t cover half a picnic table. No metal. No saucers or saucer fragments. No alien writing. No engines. Certainly, no bodies, alive or dead.
When the Brazels’ five pounds of miscellaneous scrap made it to the Eighth Army Air Force base in Texas, it was identified as the remains of a weather balloon, or perhaps a balloon-lofted radar target. And that’s just where things stood, for decades.
Gradually the situation was transformed into a different narrative: heroic UFO believers fighting for the truth against an all-powerful government intent on suppressing it. The more government officials say, “But … but this is just five pounds of flimsy garbage you found in the desert,” the more UFO believers yell, “See? That’s just what we’d expect you to say, if you were covering up the truth!”
To be fair, as Scoles clarifies, the US military probably is indeed covering up the truth —but again, it’s prosaic truth.: Area 51 and other UFO hotspots have hosted cutting-edge military aircraft testing for well over half a century, including both the U-2 spy plane and its successor, the Oxcart project. The CIA has stated: “Over half of all UFO reports from the late 1950s and 1960s were accounted for by manned reconnaissance flights (namely the U-2) over the United States.” And as Scoles explains, the last thing the military wants is for people to see lights in the sky and think “spy planes.”
Scoles comes to feel a great deal of companionship with the various UFO believers she meets along the so-called “Extraterrestrial Highway.” Of a visit to Campfire Hill, a couple of miles from the front gate of Area 5, she recounts feeling something like a light electric touch at the back of her neck. It was “Like an autonomic reaction that twists the mouth’s muscles into a smile, tilts the head to the sky, and makes the mouth say, ‘WHERE ARE THEY?’”
They’re not here, and they have never been, but even so, They Are Already Here is neither nagging nor negative. Rather, it’s concerned with deeper narratives, and with putting a very human face on what’s become almost an American mythology. Even die-hard skeptics shouldn’t miss it.
Steve Donoghue is a book reviewer whose work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, and the Christian Science Monitor.