Journal of a UFO Investigator
Viking (304 pp, $25.95, Hardcover February 2012)
Reviewed by David Soyka
The premise here is we’re reading a diary account of the titular UFO investigator who also happens to be a troubled teenager (though, arguably, “troubled teenager” is redundant). What starts out as a geeky outlet for outcast middle schoolers to pretend to be something other than outcast middle schoolers metastasizes into a fantastic escapade involving a self-selective group of super smart teenagers seemingly without parental supervision, one of whom is particularly sexy with amorous leanings towards our narrator, a concoction of conspiracy theories, a grueling ordeal in outer space and a love child between our hero and insect-like aliens aliens that has something to do with peace in the Middle East. In other words, just the kind of grandiose cracked thought process that leads a kid either to a life of lonely megalomaniacal rantings on Facebook or to develop the next on-line role playing game that makes him a fortune so he’s finally interesting enough to get laid.
Amidst all the Ufology is some contrasting harsh reality:
It was Tuesday, but I wasn’t in school. A freak snowstorm the day before had forced the schools to close and put my father into an even nastier mood than usual.
He’s come into my room about eleven the night before, complaining about the racket I was making, typing up UFO sightings on file cards. I promised I’d do something else that didn’t make noise. But he sat down on my bed to talk, starting out calm, reasonable. The way his inquisitions usually do.
He just wanted to understand, he said. How was it a bright kid like me could piss away my life on this UFO garbage?
You should be able to figure out where this is all heading even without reading the book blurb that gives it away. While this shall be a spoiler-free review, suffice it to say the fun here isn’t the outcome, but the ride chock-full of allusions to just about every B-movie SF trope and mystical imaginings about visitors from other worlds that take you there.
David Halperin is a retired professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina and this his first novel. I’m guessing that some of diarist Danny Shapiro’s teenage wish-fulfillment musings is semi-autobiographical; every current and present teenage nerd (meaning anyone who is reading this) can identify because we are not, after all, alone as we might think. The core science fictional notion of alienation has less to do with “real” aliens from outer space than to signify humanity’s alienation from society, from unpopular ideas, unpopular people, from ourselves. In other words, exactly how an awkward kid feels in trying to grow up.
Halperin frames his coming-of-age tale with just about every element of the UFO conspiracy mythos, from Rosewell to the Men in Black to alien sexual predation, along with some nods to Philip K. Dick, the uber-artist of alienation and paranoia. Even had you not know that Halperin was an academic who specialized in Judaism, the religious references won’t be suprising either; Ezekiel’s vision of a wheel in the sky is frequently cited by UFO nuts as Biblical evidence of spacecraft visitations. Equally worth considering is that psychologist Carl Jung (a bit of a nut case himself) late in his career theorized that UFO sightings reflected psychic disturbance in humanity’s collective unconscious. Certainly there’s a connection here with the psychological state of Halperin’s protagonist.
Halperin whips all these things together in an amusing gumbo that even when you begin to wonder just how far out he’s willing to go with just about every UFO cliche (answer: far enough) you keep reading to find out exactly whether the eventual landing will end safely or with a crash.
Which I guess is what all of us nerds are pretty much wondering about ourselves.