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Book News

Reviewer: Book offers practical advice for dealing with an alien spaceship

'Making Contact'
by Bill Fawcett

Avon Books, $6.99

Review by L.D. Meagher

Web posted on: Thursday, October 29, 1998 2:58:32 PM EST

(CNN)--If you're ever confronted by an extraterrestrial, don't panic. That's the message, repeated endlessly, in "Making Contact", billed as "A Serious Handbook for Locating and Communicating with Extraterrestrials." This collection of essays is not an update on SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. Instead, it offers practical advice for dealing with an alien spaceship, should one land in your back yard.

Contributors include a physicist (who also writes science fiction), a doctor (who also writes science fiction) and a historian (who -- you guessed it -- also writes science fiction). Some of their efforts turn a clear eye toward the question of whether life exists elsewhere in the universe, and, if so, what it might be like. Other efforts view the universe through the lens of the UFO enthusiast.

Even an unabashedly pro-UFO contributor tries to provide a serious discussion of the mechanics of First Contact. In the unlikely event it should happen to you, there is worse advice than that offered in the essay "How to Talk to an Extraterrestrial". It assumes that the alien is not hostile, and is willing to communicate. If that's the case, the author argues Steven Spielberg got it all wrong. "In 'ET' the plot hinges on well-intentioned children hiding the abandoned extraterrestrial from government authorities on the grounds that scientists would just want to kill and dissect it. Nonsense! Your job is to make sure that the proper authorities are notified, but that you have assembled such a winning team of experts that the government can't take the lead away from you."

For the past 30 years, some scientists have been trying to estimate just how many civilizations might call the Milky Way galaxy their home. Their speculations are formalized in the Drake Equation, named for astronomer Frank Drake who formulated it. Some of its variables are -- so far, at least -- not quantifiable. Still, the best guesses of what those factors might be lead scientists to hypothesize that our galaxy is teeming with highly evolved life.

The Drake Equation provides a point of departure for two very different approaches to the question of extraterrestrial life. One concludes that if life is commonplace in the galaxy, then at least some of the UFO reports and alien abduction accounts must be true. The other approach, taken by scientist and author David Brin, reaches a very different conclusion: if we are surrounded by alien civilizations, why haven't we found any signs of them?

This divergence of conclusions underscores a major flaw in "Making Contact". Editor Bill Fawcett leaves no doubt that he is a UFO True Believer. Most of the essays he selected are the work of those who share his belief. Brin, in his two contributions (written more than a decade ago), all but dismisses the possibility that aliens are regularly dropping in on planet Earth and interacting with humans. He examines the question of extraterrestrial intelligence based on what we know, what we are learning, and what we can conclude from that information. His essays seem startlingly out of place, sandwiched between yet another recitation of the Roswell Incident, and a bellicose screed on the dangers that flying saucers present to our planet.

The latter is the work of William R. Forstchen, who is identified as a professor of history. He tries to put alien encounters into a historical perspective. He points out that no civilization has ever survived contact with another civilization which has far superior technology. He trots out the Spanish Conquistadors and the Aztecs. He has a point there. But when he looks around for other examples of what he asserts as a law of history, he runs into trouble. He is on especially shaky ground when he tries to bend the history of the Vietnam War to fit his theory. Perhaps he doesn't know who won that war. Then again, accurate portrayals of history may not be his true agenda. He concludes by calling for a "projection of Earth's defenses into low or high orbit against a possible incursion". It's possible he's really auditioning for a job in the Star Wars defense program. Or perhaps on the staff of Newt Gingrich.

Many of the essays in "Making Contact" are imaginative and informative. One explores the rift between "serious" UFOlogy and the fringe elements of this exotic subculture. There are "case studies" of UFO incidents, many of which have been staples of the faithful since the 1950s. And there's a fairly reasonable discussion of how to deliver first aid to an alien who has been injured by crashing in your back yard, most of which is applicable to much more mundane encounters.

Fawcett promises that his book will tell you everything you need to know about making contact with an alien intelligence. But it fails to fulfill that promise because it lacks a crucial element. It cannot tell you where to find one.

L.D. Meagher is a News Editor at CNN Headline News. He has worked in broadcasting for nearly 30 years.

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