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Review: Borderlands May 25, 2013

Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient, Contemporary, Medieval, Modern , trackback

mike dash

In 1997 Mike Dash brought out a five-hundred-page whopper entitled Borderlands. This book, that somehow completely passed Beach by for fifteen years, is, to use the word of one reader, a ‘small ‘s’ skeptical approach to Forteana’: lengthy examinations of earth magnetism, UFOlogy and other disciplines that survive on the margins of modern science. What makes this book, worthwhile, is that it is, to the best of Beach’s knowledge, the only good small ‘s’ sceptic book out there. Certainly it is the only one that he has found: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com for alternatives. Given that general survey books on Forteana usually fall into uncritical/overcritical conspiracies or carping capital ‘S’ skepticism, this makes reading Borderlands a liberating experience. (Beach is himself a small ‘s’ sceptic in these matters and he likes to sum it up as follows: even if everything published in Fortean Times is nonsense in factual terms, we still have an extraordinary collection of sociological, historical and perhaps above all psychological data that is being ignored by the mainstream.)

With MD there is no question of infelicities of style: as online fans of his Smithsonian column will know. Beach managed the whole book in two admittedly late evenings because the prose was so smooth and undemanding. As to contents the first part of the book is given over to a detailed descriptions of Forteana, broken up discipline by discipline: the very best chapters is on cryptozoology with UFOs just behind; the shakiest (for this reader) the one religious chapter, where MD’s usual tolerance fails him. The second part of the book, meanwhile, looks for answers from ‘inner space’, gently pushing the idea that many Fortean phenomenon might actually come down to our brains malfunctioning or, to be all PC about this, functioning in interesting ways. Man with tin foil hat walks into the room: I say UFO nut and touch my temple; you say modern shaman and pull out the book contract…

For Beach it is incredible that this book has not had a bigger impact and actually rather depressing. Could it be that if you want to sell here you either have to prove that Antarctica was ancient Atlantis (and got shifted into the cold zone when the Venetians attacked in a million B.C) or rev up the most poisonous criticisms possible in a tone that would freeze de-icer? Suave, well-informed and pleasantly ponderous just doesn’t really do it and yet that is the best approach in terms of getting worthwhile ideas about Forteana on paper, perhaps the only intelligent one. When our great grandchildren reread Borderlands in a hundred years they won’t find much to add to the early chapters: there will still be people who come ‘that close’ to catching a sea serpent. Whereas the later chapters on how our brains work will presumably seem outdated and quaint. Things move so quickly there. Already there is a lot of new material and this is an area where cutting-edge researchers know that they are a long way from final answers. Yet, for this blogger at least, here is the way forward: strange data coupled with psychology.