Captured By Aliens: The Search for Life and Truth in a Very Large Universe. By Joel Achenbach. Simon & Schuster, New York, 1999.

Judging solely by the title, the casual bookstore browser might quite reasonably dismiss Captured By Aliens as yet another tiresome alien abduction saga. But in this case, the old bromide about not judging a book by its cover--or its title--has never been more apt. Washington Post writer Joel Achenbach's Captured By Aliens: The Search for Life and Truth in a Very Large Universe is much more than it appears, and the clever ambiguity of the title is a sly clue to its central thesis.

As national polls indicate, most Americans hold the opinion that somewhere out there in the depths of space are other intelligent civilizations. It sounds perfectly logical. The universe is so incredibly immense that it would be an act of supreme arrogance to think that we puny, half-savage humans were the only intelligent beings anywhere, right? This is the "Assumption of Mediocrity," the idea that human beings are not particularly unique or special in the cosmic scheme and hold no privileged position vis--vis the universe. Captured By Aliens demonstrates how the Assumption of Mediocrity has become the predominant paradigm in discussions of extraterrestrial life both among scientists and the public at large, and how it naturally leads to the assumption, even the expectation, that we're not alone.

Achenbach argues that because the idea of extraterrestrial life has become such a familiar cultural touchstone, it's seductively easy to let ourselves be overwhelmed by our hopes and wishful thinking about the subject. We like the thought of ETs so much, and it sounds so reasonable, so cosmically right, that too often we tend to forget one very depressing but inescapable truth: as yet, there's absolutely no evidence for life on any other planet but our own. So Captured By Aliens is something of a reality check, a much-needed counterbalance to the glowing optimism that pervades most popular thinking on the subject of extraterrestrial life. But it's far from an anti-ET polemic. Achenbach's book is an intellectual travelogue through science, philosophy and fantasy, a journey he undertakes with an open mind tempered by a healthy skepticism, mixed with equal parts of curiosity, wonder, and disarming humor.

One of the great virtues of Captured By Aliens is that Achenbach presents a panoply of credible and incredible ideas, facts, and speculations not as intellectual abstractions, but through the words and personalities of a wide range of remarkable individuals. He lets NASA administrator Dan Goldin bend his ear with enthusiastic speculations, explores Carl Sagan's role as a leading figure in the popular acceptance of ETs (and the Assumption of Mediocrity), talks to the NASA scientists who thought they'd discovered life in a Martian meteorite, spends a night listening for alien signals with SETI scientist Jill Tarter at the Green Bank Radio Observatory, and even shoots the breeze with Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny of The X-Files. Along the way, he somehow manages to touch on practically every important aspect of the search for extraterrestrial life, including the Drake equation and Enrico Fermi's troubling question "Where are they?" He also investigates closely related subjects such as interstellar travel, Gerard O'Neill's space habitats and Robert Zubrin's plans for Mars colonization, while not hesitating to poke holes in some of the more grandiose and impractical notions of extraterrestrial life and humanity's cosmic destiny.

Yet Achenbach understands that the question of extraterrestrial life is so profound that it can't be confined to the halls of science. So he also investigates the outer fringes of ET belief, as exemplified by serious ufologists, self-professed UFO contactees, alien channelers and conspiracy fans. To Achenbach's immense credit, he treats these folks with both the same respect and the same irreverence with which he questions the more societally respectable scientists. He goes to UFO conventions, attends contactee meetings, and even lets himself be hypnotized to find out if he's a "Starseed": an alien intelligence trapped in a human body. Still, he finds himself rather unimpressed by contactee wisdom: "The aliens rarely have anything novel to say. They're a bunch of motivational speakers urging humans to make something better of themselves. You want to say to these aliens: You crossed half the galaxy to tell us that?"

Ultimately, Achenbach's explorations lead him to some unexpected yet oddly uplifting conclusions. As one might expect, he doesn't find the ETs he's searching for. But he discovers that even if it never succeeds, the search itself has a value all its own. In many ways, probing the universe with radio telescopes listening for signals from extraterrestrial civilizations is as much an act of faith as hypnotizing yourself to plumb your "alien origins," yet both spring from the same place in the human heart: the desire and the need to believe we're not all alone in the endless dark. We project our own hopes, fears and dreams onto the canvas of the universe, and they're reflected back to us as the belief in extraterrestrial life.

And there's something very human in that. The title of the book refers not just to the obvious association of UFO abductees or scientists dedicated to searching for life in the universe. It refers to humankind in general, "captured"--or perhaps, captivated--by the idea that there's more to the universe than just us. There's a purpose, a deeper and profound meaning, to it all. No matter the evidence to the contrary, we keep wanting that to be true. But Achenbach tells us that it's possible to become so wrapped up in the search for cosmic meaning that we humans tend to forget what truly remarkable creatures we are--whether we're really alone in the universe or not.

Captured By Aliens is one of those strange and wonderfully unclassifiable books that effortlessly straddles a wide range of seemingly conflicting ideas, viewpoints and arguments and still manages to tie them all together into an elegant statement. It's a book about science, philosophy, popular culture, and what it means to be human in a confusing, intimidating but ultimately grand universe.

(C) Mark Wolverton

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