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Area 51 Files

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Dreamland: Travels Inside the Secret World of Roswell and Area 51
By Phil Patton
Villard Books; 336 pages; $25

The heart of the alien mythology still beats in Area 51

By Christopher Weir

IN RECENT YEARS, Area 51--the top-secret air base in southern Nevada whose restricted airspace is known as Dreamland--has come to represent everything and, consequently, signify nothing. Both a proving ground for America's most exotic air power and a cheap prop for Hollywood's next alien flick, it doesn't so much conceal truth as stimulate the imagination. The result is a phantasmal terrain that, as captured by Phil Patton, is often ridiculous yet vaguely profound.

Until about 10 years ago, Area 51, also known as Groom Lake, was an essentially anonymous test site for such aircraft as the U-2 and SR-71 spy planes, as well as the F-117 stealth fighter. Then, in 1989, a cryptic figure named Bob Lazar burst onto the UFO scene claiming that he had been recruited to work at a place called S-4 in the vicinity of the Groom Lake complex. There, he claimed, he was shown captured flying saucers whose "antimatter" reactors were fueled by the mysterious "element 115."

Soon, the veracity of Lazar's tale was immaterial to the appealing notion of Area 51 as a sort of informational black hole that would digest any idea or fantasy, an ideological prism that could refract fringe obsessions into a rainbow of pop-culture realities. Today, among hundreds of examples, Volks-wagen runs commercials that irreverently suggest its Bug was "reverse engineered from UFOs," a concept first popularized by Lazar's tale of testing and deconstructing flying saucers to determine their engineering secrets.

Patton's approach to this phenomenon is largely, and successfully, anthropological. In charting the relatively brief history of Area 51, he discovers a real-time mythology churning at hyperspeed through the gears of the information age. Events or news that transpired just years ago, or even yesterday, are enshrouded in layers of interpretation and embellishment that would have once taken decades to manifest.

This process, Patton points out, is encouraged by Area 51's implicit flirtation with the unknown: "Folklore and superstition begin where science and knowledge end. And knowing stopped at the perimeter around Dreamland."

In his quest to define Dreamland, Patton engages everything from the ethics of secret military budgets to the slippery process of government disinformation, the inspiring tales of fearless test pilots to the antics of UFO researchers. With one hand on the steering wheel and a pile of brilliantly distilled research on the passenger seat, he cruises across the arid West and narrates a tale that is curiously epic, frequently humorous and always entertaining. The only time Patton runs into trouble is when his prose blows an occasional gasket: "You could see the black budget as a kind of hoodoo book of conjure spells, a set of computer viruses in bureaucratic codes--a pattern somewhere between hex and hexadecimal." Excuse me?

Meanwhile, a certain charm percolates through the book's impossible cast of characters, including the eminently likable Norio Hayakawa, a "conspiratorologist," full-time funeral director and part-time honky-tonker. "He was wild about country-and-western music," writes Patton. "He had a portable keyboard system, which he had brought with him and played at the Little A'Le'Inn. ... In the desert, I thought, everyone is a country star, everyone is an American--and everyone is an alien."

As it navigates Area 51's shifting mirage of astounding accomplishments and staggering absurdities, of elusive conspiracies and inevitable exploitations, Dreamland ultimately unveils a fantastic landscape laid to waste by overexposure and cynicism. The military brass and aircraft enthusiasts get fed up with the intrusions of UFO buffs, the UFO buffs get pissed off at misrepresentations in the media and Hollywood, and soon the media and Hollywood will be done with Area 51, but only after they've beat the whole concept to a pulp.

Thus, the dynamic of Dreamland becomes a metaphor for too many things in postmodern America: Everyone getting sick and tired of a place that doesn't necessarily exist, and before they ever really got to enjoy it.

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From the October 1-7, 1998 issue of Metro.

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