A long time back, I did a couple of book reviews here. Or maybe, just one. I don’t remember and, because of how I have to do this thing, I’m not gonna go back and look. Not that important. Anyway, the point is, I did those one or two reviews—on the first two books of a fantasy trilogy—and have never done anymore.
That’s gonna change.
Partly because I’m finding it harder to come up with new topics about writing every week, and I don’t want to rehash olds ones. And, since this isn’t a political or commentary blog, I’d rather not go off on that tangent. We’ll be here for hours if I do.
So, I’m gonna do more book reviews. I’m no professional at it, but maybe I’ll get better as I go along. Any feedback you can give me is appreciated. Reading is an integral part of writing, so I don’t see this as being outside the scope of my blog. And maybe the opinion of an amateur will give you something else to consider.
I’m a fiction writer, so I primarily read fiction. It’s what I started out reading and it’s where I’m most comfortable. I know of people who look down their noses and say, “I don’t read fiction,” like this makes them special or something, like indulging in fiction is some kind of mortal sin or something. Well, I just figure they’re missing out on something good.
I’m not an elitist like that. I read non-fiction. For one, I like to learn. For another, I need occasional breaks from fiction and need to satisfy that urge to acquire new information. A lot of the topics I read would be considered a little outside the box. For instance, I like Graham Hancock, author of Fingerprints of the Gods. It’s revisionist history, and I wouldn’t say I buy all of it, but he raised some good points, it’s interesting reading, and, perhaps most important, he emphasizes that the operating model of mainstream historians has gotten stuck in a rut. Everything they discover about a civilization takes on some kind of religious significance. But, as my brother points out, what would archaeologists a couple thousand years from now make of one of our courthouses? Most of them have engravings like “In God We Trust” over the doors, things like that. Sounds like a temple to me.
Another thing I enjoy is conspiracy theory. Again, I don’t necessarily buy into all of them, because I don’t believe our elected officials possess the required intelligence and fortitude to keep anything secret for long. But maybe I’m just being cynical. And, there’s the point that, behind every urban legend, there’s a kernel of truth.
Which brings me to the book I want to talk about: Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base by Annie Jacobsen.
This ain’t conspiracy theory, folks. This book is based on government documents pertaining to Area 51 that were recently declassified. It also make use of extensive interviews with people who worked there, developing black projects such as the U-2 spy plane and its successor, the Oxcart (what the Air Force called the SR-71 Blackbird). The Oxcart broke speed records that held well into this century, and yet it was built in the late 50s/early 60s.
There’s no way I could relate all there is in this book. The text is 384 pages long. Add to that over 100 pages of documented notes, a bibliography that’s close to 30 pages long, and you’ve got quite a document.
Many of the things she reveals—for the first time, I might add—are scary as hell. Such as the fact we almost went to war with North Korea in 1968. Turns out we were spying on North Korea, gathering SIGINT—signals intelligence—on them from the Yellow Sea. The USS Pueblo parked itself 15.8 miles off North Korea’s Ung-do Island, technically in international waters. But since when have rogue states like North Korea concerned themselves with such things? Anyway, the North Koreans captured the ship and crew, and if it hadn’t been for two Oxcart recon flights—they were stationed at Kadena and doing spy flights over Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos—we might well have gone to war.
Then there was Orion, the ship that was supposed to take men to Mars. Except, the way it worked, rather than using rockets as the Apollo missions did, Orion was to use a nuclear reactor. That plan was scrapped after the Test Ban Treaty, but not before they exploded not one but two of these reactors to see what would happen—in defiance of the Test Ban Treaty.
There are also some amusing incidents. Back in 1942, the Army Air Corps was developing the jet engine. Up until that time, all planes flew with a propeller, so to have a plane flying around without one was a worry. They wanted to keep it secret, after all. So, every time a test pilot went up over the Muroc dry lake bed in the Mojave, they attached a fake propeller to the front of the Bell XP-59A. The Bell pilots had a lot of airspace, but every now and then, pilots training in the P-38 Lightning would spot this plane flying around trailing a lot of smoke and they wanted to know what was going on, so they’d fly over for a look.
The chief XP-59A pilot, Jack Woolams, got an idea. He ordered a gorilla mask from a Hollywood props house and removed the fake propeller from his jet. Next time a P-38 came flying by, the poor guy inside saw a gorilla flying an airplane that didn’t have a propeller. According to Edward Air Force Base historian Dr. James Young, this poor pilot landed his plane and went straight the bar for a stiff drink, then related what he’d seen. His colleagues said he was drunk and needed to go home. But the other XP-59A test pilots got in on the act and more P-38 pilots saw a gorilla flying a plane without a propeller. It’s even said the Army Air Corps psychiatrist getting in on it as well, helping the Lightning pilots understand how they could become disoriented with high altitude and see things that weren’t there—like gorillas flying airplanes.
In another amusing incident, radar technician TD Barnes relates how, when they were doing radar tests on captured MiGs in 1968, the Russians learned we had some of their planes and started concentrating their satellite coverage of Area 51. Since the people working there couldn’t do anything when the satellites were overhead, they ended up locked down for weeks and got bored. So, they’d go out on the tarmac between flights, paint the silhouettes of weird aircraft and heat them up with hair dryers for the infrared photos the Soviets were taking. They also mixed up chemicals to make their tennis shoes glow in the dark. They rewired the Special Projects car so the next poor guy who drive it would get shocked. They even set up a tall antenna in an attempt to get some TV programming from Las Vegas, but ended up getting an international channel in Spain and watched bullfights in Madrid.
But the amusing incidents are few and far between. It’s the scary stuff they did that gets your attention. Such as Project 57: exploding a plutonium bomb in Area 13 to simulate a plane crash involving a dirty bomb. It took place in 1957. Keep in mind that plutonium isn’t dangerous unless you actually inhale particles…but then it’s the most dangerous substance known to man. That human body can’t handle any exposure—if you inhale one-millionth of a gram, it’ll kill you. It gets distributed to your bones and, with a half-life of over 20,000 years, you won’t outlive it. So, they exploded this bomb, then didn’t clean it up. They just threw up a chain link fence around it and left the plutonium there for 41 years. The top layer of dirt was removed in 1998.
For me, this book served as a reminder of what it felt like to live during the Cold War, knowing that, any day, there might be a nuclear exchange. I’ve talked about that in more detail elsewhere on this blog, but reading this book brought back how it felt. And, learning that we came closer to that war than is publicly acknowledged is even scarier. Even with the publication of this book, no one will officially admit that Area 51 exists, and the author ran into more than one roadblock when she made document requests, even under FOIA.
No book about Area 51 would be complete unless it addressed the conspiracy theories associated with the place. For some people, utter the words Groom Lake, Nevada Test Site or Area 51, and they’ll start looking over their shoulders for MIBs and black helicopters. And no study of the UFO/alien tech conspiracies would be complete without reference to the Roswell Incident.
It will please you to know that Ms. Jacobsen addresses these issues—and what she has to say is, in its way, more disturbing than thinking the government had hidden alien bodies and their spacecraft from us for over 60 years. In fact, I’d say it’s more insidious.
I debated whether or not to talk about this, as it’s one of the most surprising stories in the book. This is a serious work, after all. No matter how many sightings of UFOs, no matter how many deathbed confessions have come out of late from people who claim to have seen the Roswell UFO and the alien bodies, this stuff is still considered fringe. Claim you’ve seen a UFO—and I have, in the strictest sense of the word—and you’re labeled a nut. Since what I saw was probably an experimental craft that I couldn’t identify, and since I don’t have much a rep to worry about anyway, I don’t care.
The thing is, what Ms. Jacobsen reveals is insidious enough, and based in the whole Cold War conflict so well, that it’s hard not to believe it. In short, the Roswell UFO was actually a Soviet flying disc, remote piloted and containing surgically/genetically altered children. It was sent by Stalin in an effort to panic the populace as a whole, and he used the famous War of the Worlds radio broadcast of 1938 as inspiration. When the author asked the man who told her this story—the last living engineer associated with the Manhattan Project—why this wasn’t revealed to the public in order to show up Stalin for what he was, he finally told her that we were doing it, too, and still were up through the 80s that he knows of.
Bill Clinton tried to find out the truth and, according to the engineer, he came very close. Keep in mind these are people who decide that, often, even the president doesn’t have a need-to-know about this stuff. Here’s the final exchange from the book:
“I think he might have come very close,” the engineer said about President Clinton. “But they kept it from him.”
“Who are they?” I asked. The engineer told me that his elite group had been given the keys to the original facility at Area 51. “Who inherited the keys from you five engineers?” I wanted to know.
“You don’t have a need-to-know,” is all he would say.
Ms. Jacobsen leaves it at that. She doesn’t really give us her opinion, not in so many words, though she does bring this story up several times throughout the book, as if she accepts it as truth. Personally, it wouldn’t surprise me if it’s true. We’re talking about a government that has injected poor black men with syphilis, and exposed “volunteers” to radiation to study its effects (that one’s in this book, too).
This post has run a little long, so let me say this: read the book, if you like this kind of thing. I do, and I enjoyed it immensely. And let me leave you with one encouraging quote from her acknowledgments, one that ties in with this blog quite well:
It takes a village to make a writer. I’m one of the lucky ones who has always known writing is what I was meant to do. I arrived at St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire, at the age of fifteen, typewriter in hand, and wrote for nearly twenty years straight without earning as much as one cent. Only at the age of thirty-four did things shift for me, and I’ve earned my living as a writer ever since. I say that for all of the writers following in my footsteps. Don’t give up… [emphasis mine].
Pretty encouraging, don’t you think? For me, that was worth the price of admission.