I find UFOs to be an interesting psychological phenomenon but I am depressed by the poor quality of most books on the subject. So often the authors seem to be excessively gullible (more rarely, excessively sceptical) or have become fixated on some explanatory theory of their own which they take to be fully satisfactory, discounting those cases that don't fit the theory well. This book is a welcome exception to the trend; rather surprising, perhaps, because the blurb might lead one to expect otherwise. Paul Devereux has actually seen a UFO and has written about and researched various mysterious phenomena for many years; Peter Brookesmith is trained in literary criticism, folk traditions and music and has also written extensively on mysteries of various kinds. With these backgrounds one might have expected an uncritical book recounting sightings and abductions and quoting them as solid evidence of alien visitation, but not so.
Most books of this kind tend to go over fairly familiar ground as regards the cases they quote, so I usually assess them by turning to the last chapter to see what the authors' conclusions are. In this case I found a thoughtful and balanced assessment. Devereux distinguishes two strands in ufology: sightings of unidentified objects in the sky and alleged abductions. Most ufologists regard these as different aspects of the same phenomenon, but Devereux thinks they should be separated. He seems comparatively uninterested in the alien craft theme (he thinks the sightings may at least in part be geophysical phenomena such as "earth lights"), and concentrates on the abduction experience, which he relates, to my mind persuasively, to altered states of consciousness like those induced by certain drugs. Brookesmith is also chiefly interested in what people's accounts of UFOs and their alleged occupants tell us about ourselves and he emphasizes the quasi-religious nature of much ufology.
The main part of the book discusses some of the more striking UFO manifestations to have been reported in the last 50 years but it is not a comprehensive review; if it were it would have to be of encyclopaedic proportions. Instead, it concentrates on major themes to have emerged from all this material over the years and tries to put it in some kind of perspective. It is large-format and contains numerous illustrations but it is in no sense a coffee-table book; there is plenty of serious critical discussion. Admittedly, the ultra-sceptical reader will not be prepared to indulge the authors in all their speculations. On the contentious topic of crop circles, for example, which some observers have linked, somewhat tenuously, with UFOs, they recognize that there is a vast amount of faking but are willing to entertain the possibility that there is a paranormal element at work as well—something analogous to the poltergeist phenomenon—which is of course itself a contentious subject.
The notorious Roswell case is discussed (mercifully, quite briefly) and is rightly judged to be flimsy; the authors have little time for the conspiracy theories so beloved of many ufologists. Purported abductions are treated at rather greater length. The interesting experiments of Michael Persinger, who has used magnetic fields applied to the brains of volunteers to cause altered states of consciousness, are discussed. The suggestion is that magnetic fields may be generated near geological fault lines and may produce altered mental states; but it is questionable whether these could explain all the reported phenomena.
This is undoubtedly one of the best books on UFOs to have appeared in recent years. It would be pleasing to think that it is a pointer to a complete explanation of the UFO phenomenon, but that may be over-optimistic. Devereux concludes his discussion by saying that we may have to wait another 50 years to see ufology mature into a real multi-disciplinary study, and this may not happen at all; instead it may degenerate into "an absurd swamp of lies, deception and self-deception, gullibility and escapist fantasy." He thinks it could go either way, though my money is on the swamp.