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Shockingly Close to the Truth:
Confessions of a Grave-Robbing Ufologist

by James W Moseley and Karl T Pflock

(Prometheus, $25.00, 371 pages, hardback; 9 April 2002)

Once upon a time -- a glorious time -- publishers used cover scanto release autobiographies by people who weren't just movie celebs or ex-politicians or pop stars, but simply people who had led interesting lives and who could write about them interestingly. The autobiography -- or at least a certain subgenre of it -- was thus almost like a variant form of the novel, and readers tended to approach it in much the same way. You might never have heard of Fred Gluggitt, but he'd climbed Everest blindfold, slept with a belly-dancer and subsisted for a year in the Australian Outback eating nothing but woodworms, and he could write in a way that had you bursting out laughing every few pages. That was what you looked for in an autobiography: entertainment, a measure of education (perhaps), a window into someone else's world, and, at the most profound level, a certain level of identification with and communication with all of one's fellow human beings, not just with the individual who happened to be telling her or his tale.

Books like that are hardly ever published any more. Instead the tables in the remainder bookshops are piled high with the heavingly fat, probably ghosted, certainly carefully spin-doctored autobiographies of famous people whom you would run a mile rather than have in your home, or even be stuck in a bar with.

Well, here's an exception -- an old-fashioned autobiography that captures the spirit right down to the deliciously hokey cover illustration.

Jim Moseley (one assumes Karl Pflock is a sort of fully credited ghostwriter) has been a ufologist for decades. Correction: not so much a ufologist as what he calls a "ufoologist", observing and commenting on the field of ufology to a much greater extent than researching UFOs themselves. He certainly has done some UFO investigation -- coming to the conclusion that, while every UFO case he has personally examined is almost certainly unmysterious, nevertheless UFOs taken en masse probably do represent a mystery -- but essentially he has been, as dubbed a while back, ufology's Court Jester. He has published the long-running muckraker-sheet-cum-investigative-journal Saucer News (now called Saucer Smear) -- a sort of ufological Private Eye -- and he has met and/or interviewed virtually all of the principal protagonists in a certain segment of ufology: what one could call the mainstream of US ufology in the second half of the 20th century.

Oh, yes, and as a sideline he's occasionally gone on treasure hunts to Peru, conducting a legally questionable trade in ancient artefacts.

His reminiscences of all this are constantly entertaining, and on occasion very funny. What's especially interesting about them is that Moseley can, as it were, reach the parts that professional UFO debunkers like Phil Klass cannot reach. This comment applies both to his encounters with other ufologists and to his studies of particular UFO cases.

To take the latter first: Moseley is open-minded about the existence, physically or psychologically, of UFOs, and it is with that attitude that he has approached any examination of a case. This is in contrast with either the debunker or the devotee, each of whom will go into the case expecting to have preconceptions confirmed: the debunker will find plenty to ridicule, the devotee plenty to believe. Moseley, on the other hand, has a good chance of finding what is actually there. That he, as someone who's a part of the scene, has found enough to convince him that many famous cases are tosh is much more convincing than if, say, the late Carl Sagan had found the same: Sagan (who was interested in the subject in a minor way) or any other serious scientist would have investigated only as far as the first few obvious contradictions, whereas Moseley actually went on to probe such cases in some considerable depth.

In other words, by dint of the extent of his research he's an expert in a way that few outright debunkers can ever hope to be. And this applies also to his observations of ufoology. I can't actually name any names here, because some of these figures are astonishingly writ-happy, but various of the barmiest of the ufology superstars have opened up to Moseley -- despite his known editorship of Saucer Smear (which must go to show how barmy they actually are) -- in a way they'd never think to talk to someone who wasn't One Of Us. And Moseley, gleefully, lets them show themselves as they are.

His demolitions are all the more effective for this. Here, for example -- there's a plethora of choice -- is his conclusion concerning Roswell, with a conclusion also about CUFOS (one of the major organizations supposedly devoted to scientific UFO study):

Whatever the original motivation, CUFOS has long since dropped any pretense of objectivity about the case and is the one UFO group that unwaveringly stands behind it without qualification.

That single sentence tells us a lot about ufology and also a lot about the representation of ufology in the media: anyone here who hadn't gained the impression that most UFO buffs thought Roswell was likely to be pretty kosher, please raise your hands.

As the social history of ufology the publishers claim it to be in their cover blurb, even an informal one, this book is far from adequate. As noted above, it covers only a small segment of the field; plenty of really quite important ufological figures and their ideas, sane or crackpot, get no mention at all. The index lists only people, so there is no entry for, for example, Roswell, even though there's quite a lot about the Roswell fallacy in the book. I noticed that Hugo Gernsback is called "Gernsbach", so for all I know there may be countless other individuals -- or places, or organizations, etc. -- whose names are incorrectly spelled. One could go on chipping away at the book on such grounds for quite a long time.

But that's not really what it's about. What this constantly entertaining book is about is a very haphazard (delightfully haphazard) ramble through the life of someone who's been in the ufology game primarily for the fun of it. He has teased, he has hoaxed (often in tandem with his friend the late Gray Barker, although Barker almost made a profession of it), he has exposed (the whole of the 1957 issue of Saucer News exposing Adamski is reproduced in the appendix), he has annoyed (too many to name, but they're the sort of people you feel good that someone's annoyed); he has been ufology's gadfly. At the end of the day, he was delighted when "a certain Harry Lime" wrote from Vienna, Austria (not Greeneland?), to tell him he should be proud of, not dismayed by, the sobriquet he'd recently been given in MUFON UFO Journal: "The Reigning Court Jester of Ufology."

Revealing and entertaining by turns, Shockingly Close to the Truth is a book you'll love or -- assuming you're especially po-faced -- hate. This reviewer devoured it, and with a grin on his face the whole time.

Review by John Grant.

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