Death by UFO

In the mythology that has grown up around unidentified flying objects, Ann Arbor was the place to be in 1966, when a variety of strange lights were spotted in the skies above the University of Michigan. In the days before the Internet, cable television, tabloid news shows, news of the sightings were slow to spread, and the story has taken on a life of its own.

Flash forward to the present day, when summer school student and reporter Zoe Kaplan sees a triangle of lights whizzing through the sky. Her article makes USA Today and sets off a media firestorm that also attracts a wide variety of nut cases, including a paramilitary unit who had seen “Mars Attacks” too many times, a New Ager who channels the alien K-Tel, and a college professor who may or may not have found a way to prove that aliens really exist.

Susan Holtzer captures the madness and, well, silliness that surrounds a story that takes on a life of its own. While there are mysteries to be solved in “The Silly Season,” its primary pleasures lay in revealing saucer mythology to those of us who had let our subscriptions lapse to Popular Science (my primary source of UFO information during the 60s) and Fate magazines. Bet you didn’t know America signed a treaty with the aliens in 1954, allowing them to build secret bases and carry on human abductions and experiments. In between sightings and factional infighting among the true believers, Holtzer also sneaks in the rationalist point of view as explained by the Snorg Hypothesis (which, at its heart, is the fact that you can’t prove a negative).

Lost in all the action is her detecting couple, police lieutenant Karl Genesko and his fiancee Anneke Haagen, but that’s all right. It’s really the story of how Kaplan learns that pitfalls of ambition in the pursuit of a story, and I can’t tell you how nice it feels to meet a character who gives a credible imiation of a reporter. “The Silly Season” is a hoot of a book, and the temptation to read parts of it aloud is hard to resist. Those who believe that the “X-Files” is a documentary will find this offensive in the extreme. To the rest of us, “The Silly Season” is a wild carnival ride into the middle of a media whirlwind and out the other side.