By Jon Katz (Reuters)
In "Dreamland: Travels Inside the Secret World of Roswell and Area 51," Phil Patton has produced a rare literary work from the ascendant culture that mingles technology, popular culture and science fiction with alienation, suspicion, and disconnection from mainstream media, politics, and government.
"Dreamland" is the call name given to the control tower for the airspace over what's commonly called Area 51, a secret military aviation-engineering and research facility the size of Belgium located 100 miles north of Las Vegas.
Officially, there is no Dreamland, something that gives it a particularly exotic quality in an age of instant information and ubiquitous media access. The government still denies the existence of Area 51, although Vanity Fair photographer Annie Liebowitz was permitted to go there after the Gulf War to photograph the Air Force's pride and joy, the Stealth Bomber. Less glamorous intruders are greeted by men in jeeps and desert camouflage who arrest them.
Because Phil Patton is a friend as well as a techie culture pioneer, I expected to read Dreamland. I didn't expect to write about it. However, Patton's exploration of the reality and mythology surrounding one of the US government's most notorious and compelling secrets is too special not to pass along.
Patton, a hacker at heart, has followed the dictum that boundaries exist to be crossed. He penetrates Area 51 to its mysterious core, tracking down and interviewing pilots, guards, neighbors, bureaucrats, soldiers, and engineers who live and work there. He travels with the cadre of freaks and geeks drawn to the place like hummingbirds to sugar water.
Dreamland makes clear from the first pages that Area 51 has become more than a secret military installation. It's a mysterious and enchanting terrain of the imagination that echoes back to the height of the Cold War, when the world seemed to hover on the edge of a nuclear holocaust.
Dreamland is a beautiful travelog on this strange place, a nation all its own. "Hiking up to Freedom Ridge,'' writes Patton of his first climb of a nearby mountain overlooking the secret base, "we dodged the brambly, fragrant sage and fuzzy, Muppet-like Joshua trees and crossed rocks than seemed inscribed in some alien cuneiform.
The perimeter of the base was marked by orange signposts running across the high desert and, on the other side of the barrier, strange-looking silver balls, the size of basketballs, on poles. The lore held that they were motion detectors or other sensors.
Some claim that, thanks to ammonia sensors, these can sniff the difference between a human and a wandering cow or Rocky Mountain sheep. In any case, the exclusion of the public has made Dreamland a de facto wildlife preserve.
Patton, a meticulous reporter, finds the source of UFO reports, the origin of the odd lights seen to this day over the base at nights. Bureaucrat by bureaucrat, memo by memo, he uncovers the nature of the work done at Dreamland, at considerable expense to American taxpayers, for decades. Patton manages to breach this secret world while appreciating and respecting its mystery.
Area 51 crawls with intrigue. Stealth chasers and "youfers" (UFO buffs) meet at secret desert sites and creep around the remote mountains watching for night lights. Saucer seekers have gathered for years at rancher Steve Medlin's landmark black mailbox, considered the best spot for UFO tracking.
Dreamland is a convergence place, the source of much UFO mythology. Area 51 is where the alien spacecraft from Roswell, New Mexico, is supposedly hidden and where, even now, UFOs are said to fly regularly. It's where scientists pick apart alien corpses in the movie Independence Day, where Chuck Yeager flew test planes. It's home to atomic bombs, designers and builders of top-secret supercraft, and aviation freaks. Mulder and Scully go there all the time.
World War II and the Cold War gave birth to the United States' secret government of today. In the past half century, global conflicts have become the justification for a massive invisible apparatus-containing the CIA, the NSA, NORAD, bases like Area 51 — that still spends tens of billions every year on things most Americans don't know anything about, even as the conflicts that sparked them grow increasingly remote.
It seems no coincidence that the rise of secret worlds like Area 51 have coincided so closely with an increased alienation from and hostility toward government. A whole subgenre of action movies from Hollywood feature government agents from the secret world hiding one truth or another at all costs and with the best gear anywhere.
With secret agencies, budgets, bases, and defense research, a powerful parallel universe of paranoia, suspicion and myth has arisen, a mirror world of assassination buffs, militias convinced armies are assembling to hunt them down, UFO believers, and government conspiracy theorists of every stripe.
But Dreamland isn't ultimately a political place. Trawling the Net one day, Patton, typed Dreamland into his search engine. An evocative reference came back, to Edgar Allan Poe's Dreamland, tucked away in a university literary collection.
Even through his fervid investigation, Patton understands that mystery can sometimes be a gift, touching our imaginations in a particular way, making the world seem less mundane. In the age of revelation, there's little left for us to imagine.
Patton came across a Net post from an Area 51 buff that articulated this point: "I hope we never find out what's in there. I'd just like to observe something about us Area 51 freaks. As much as we talk about wanting to know what goes on in there, I think that's all just posturing. What would happen if the US government opened its doors to us, and let us see all that was going on?
"Depending on what is there, we'd be either vindicated or disappointed, but we would also rapidly lose interest. What would we focus our attentions on? Where would we go next? The greatest thing about Area 51 is its mystery, otherwise nobody would care.