In this era of diminishing American intellectual curiosity and increasing American credulity, Area 51 has paradoxically come to symbolize both. More insane conjecture centers around that mysterious parcel of government-owned Nevada real estate than any other object or idea in American culture. Perhaps for this very reason, there have not been many attempts to write a definitive work on the place and its hold on our collective psyche. David Darlington, knowing that he was entering a morass of factual and social weirdness, went to Nevada in 1993 to scout the region, talk to its fringe inhabitants, and try to get the story straightened out on paper. What he got is fascinating, disturbing, and not easily defined. In Area 51: The Dreamland Chronicles, Darlington painstakingly details the official documented history of the Groom Lake test base, which is where the American military conglomerate built the U2, developed spy planes that went several times the speed of sound, experimented on captured Russian airplanes, and perfected Stealth technology. It also officially does not exist; this fact, and other strange-but-true stories of the paranoid and counterproductive security at the base, have only added to its legend. An officially nonexistent top-secret test base which can be seen from a public highway attracts a certain range of personalities, so Darlington found some great interviews camped in the desert around the base as well. There's an Aviation Week editor who simply likes to camp in the desert and watch the sky for experimental-aircraft test flights. There's an old-school UFO nut who thinks the Roswell aliens are in Hangar 19. There are second-generation UFO nuts who say the Roswell story is disinformation—that the alien corpses are actually from a crash in Kingman, Arizona, and are from the Zeta Reticuli star system; and that since 1998 divided by the number of the Trinity is 666, we're going to see plenty more of them soon. Darlington dutifully records all of their philosophies, remaining admirably detached and portraying even the fruitiest of them with compassion and dignity where he could easily have played them off for laughs. Area 51: The Dreamland Chronicles is still absurdly funny in parts, but the author maintains an admiration for individuals whose basic belief is that government should not hide its activities from its citizens. Of course, when the dispute spills over from the realm of the legally permissible to the realm of the physically impossible, the reader is left with important questions: If a government traps itself in a web of contradictory and outrageous lies, is it proper to respond with insane conjecture? Is it any surprise when people do so? Those who ponder the role of government secrecy or public hysteria in strange times won't want to miss this marvelously entertaining, wonderfully even-handed sleeper of a book.

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