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Captured by Aliens: The Search for Life and Truth in a Very Large Universe Hardcover – Bargain Price, October 31, 1999

4.5 out of 5 stars 37 customer reviews

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Joel Achenbach (Why Things Are) describes Captured by Aliens as a travelogue, a record of his strange journey into "alien country." With Carl Sagan as a sort of totem animal on this spirit quest (in fact, one of the author's first stops is Sagan's living room), Achenbach plots an eccentric course through the land of UFOs and the search for extraterrestrial life, going from NASA headquarters in Washington, DC to local MUFON meetings, from an asteroid-blasted quarry in Belize to a Las Vegas hotel room in which he's hypnotized by an alien abductee. He even visits the set of the X-Files. (Achenbach reveals Gillian Anderson's very un-Scully-like take on alien beings: "[T]hey operate, vibrate--this is going to make me sound like a complete nut--they vibrate on a different energy level than we do.")

With the investigative skill of a seasoned reporter (which Achenbach is, for the Washington Post) and the wit and charm of an NPR commentator (which he also is), Achenbach turns out to be the perfect companion for such a cosmic road trip. This curious, earnest, and frequently hilarious writer proves equally at ease with legit figures like Sagan and NASA administrator Dan Goldin as he is with self-described "Starseeds" (aliens in human bodies) and technophiles like Mars-booster Bob Zubrin. Achenbach knows his science, but he always brooks just the right amount of nonsense. --Paul Hughes --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

In energetic, engaging prose, Washington Post staff reporter Achenbach (Why Things Are) introduces readers to an eclectic mix of scientists, millennialists, channelers, UFOlogists, debunkers and true believers who have been captivated, if not captured, by the notion of extraterrestrial life. The central figures are Carl Sagan ("a visionary, a poet of science, a quote machine for reporters on deadline") and Frank Drake, who promulgated a famous equation to predict N, the number of intelligent, communicating civilizations likely to exist in a galaxy like ours. In 1975, Drake estimated N to be 10,000; Sagan guessed a million. Urged on by Sagan and Drake, scientists have tried to eavesdrop on cosmic chat. Nearly 25 years later, the scientific search for extraterrestrial intelligence has continued to reveal nothing, in Achenbach's view, beyond static and the optimism of its advocates. In addition to respected scientists, Achenbach travels to a UFO convention, where he meets a man convinced that the aliens have the medical technology to cure his aching back and that President Clinton traveled by spaceship from Arkansas to New York (it took 15 minutes). ET is here, say many of those Achenbach interviewed, but we don't believe the evidence because of government deception and coverups. Achenbach's book can be appreciated for its assortment of characters and for its witty style. Whether N is one or one million, and whether intelligence is the result of deliberate creation or natural evolution, he concludes, we are privileged to be members of a species able to wonder about it. (Nov.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • ISBN-10: 0684848562
  • ASIN: B0000C37EE
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.1 x 1.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (37 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #4,285,527 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Joel Achenbach is on a quest - "a search for life and truth in a very large universe" as the book is subtitled. As is the case with many a personal quest, Joel isn't always exactly sure where he's going, or often where he's been, but that's part of the mystery - and the fun.

Achenbach wants to know where we (life) came from, how we operate, if we have neighbors, and how to find (and perhaps visit) them. Finding a bit of underlying cosmic purpose along the way would also be useful.

As he mounts his quest, Achenbach manages to talk with people involved in all aspects of cosmology, astrobiology, space exploration, and the popularization of science. He also devotes a hefty amount of attention to "non traditional" resources. In so doing, he applies honest inquisitiveness and a satirist's wit with equal measure upon all he meets.

This book often resembles a curious cross between Hunter Thompson's "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas", Carl Sagan's "Cosmos" and Robert Pirsig's "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance". That is, it is part satire, part fact, and part introspection. As Achenbach makes his way, he finds himself advised by the likes of Carl Sagan, Dan Goldin, Bob Zubrin as well as UFO abductees undergoing hypnotic regression in a Las Vegas motel room, UFO believer Joe Firmage making his billions in Silicon Valley, and a plethora of others from science and society.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this book is how Achenbach manages to weave this book of personal wanderings in with a retrospective on Carl Sagan's life. Sagan was clearly fading when Achenbach wrote the book.
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Format: Hardcover
The writing's the thing. I, apparently, am among the small minority of Americans not captivated by the "Are They Out There?" questions. Doesn't matter. I am captivated by Achenbach's prose, which is wry and droll, sometimes bordering on the wiseass, and very funny. Yet, perhaps unususal in a reporter, he attempts to maintain respect for each of the persons he interviews across a broad continuum of thought, even though he can't quite manage it for some of their thoughts. The phrases are so good, I found myself annotating my hardback. Buy it for the style.
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Format: Hardcover
Joel Achenbach, a reporter for the Washington Post, covers current thinking about life in the universe in this lively and very personal account.
The book is divided into three parts. The first part could be considered to reflect the "establishment" view, giving the perspective from mainstream science and personages including Carl Sagan and NASA administrator Dan Goldin. Even within the mainstream, though, there are controversies: the well-known one about whether meteorite ALH84001 contains life and the lesser-known issue over whether the Viking landers really did find signs of life, as one of the investigators on that mission continues to claim. Achenbach covers these as well as an overview of the Drake Equation, a profile of Dan Goldin, and other such relevant items.
Part Two takes a very different tack, covering the fringe: those who believe the aliens are here already, including those who think they themselves are the aliens (from the Pleiades, as I recall). Achenbach tries to be sympathetic to these, though not with complete success. As he concludes, "It is not the evidence of extraterrestrial creatures but, rather, the idea of the Alien that makes ufology such a powerful faith." As he makes clear, almost everyone would be delighted to find life elsewhere in the universe. The skeptics, however, require evidence before they will give in to their hopes.
All of the parts are rather loosely organized, jumping from subject to subject, but Part Three is the loosest of all, seemingly only tied together by the concept of "what might happen." Here he jumps from possible new technologies ("Zero Point Fields") that might get us to the stars, reports on a conference of Robert Zubrin's Mars Society, spends a chapter on the Mars Face, revisits what's going on now with SETI, and more.
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Format: Hardcover
Or, more accurately, how our collective imagination has been captured by the idea of aliens. Achenbach is a science writer for the Washington Post, and many of these chapters had their origin as columns; the resulting book is a breezy and pleasant as one would expect. The first third, the most interesting, deals with scientists' efforts to find extraterrestrial life; Achenbach clearly has affection and admiration for those who are engaged in what seems to be such an impossible task. The second third covers the tabloid-style conspiracy theorists, who believe that aliens are among us. This section starts off well, leaving the reader in wonder at how deluded people can be, but over time it becomes rather depressing. The looniness of Achenbach's subjects is in the end drearily monotonous, and there's a limit to how much of this insanity I can take. The final third is Achenbach's own personal journey, as he comes to see obsession with aliens, by both kinds of people, as a projection of personal issues onto a cosmic scale. This section seems somewhat unfocused; I sense that Achenbach is not entirely clear what he has gotten out of his quest. In the end, the first half of the book is superb; although it loses momentum rapidly through the second half, the author is still engaging enough that I was glad I went on this journey with him, even if it didn't really go anywhere.
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