Little Green Men — Christopher Buckley

Little Green Men not only holds up well, but might even improve with age and the stream of stories about lunatic politicians. The novel supposes that “alien” abductions are happening at the directive of a secret government agency named MJ-12. The rationale was originally to a) scare the Russians and b) inflate the defense budget, both of which seem so plausible that I wouldn’t be surprised if such a thing had or is taking place.

MJ-12 functions well enough that “Fifty years and more after the first UFO sightings, the vote was in: a full 80 percent of Americans believed that the government knew more about aliens than it was letting on.” Yet most serious thinkers dismiss aliens as a crackpot phenomenon. A computer program maintains this tension by abducting people unlikely to be believed; as a low-level bureaucrat named Scrubbs says, “the credibility algorithm seemed to have a bias toward overweight women. It would be nice if just every once in a while it picked, well, Claudia [Schiffer—who was then a desirable model] would be nice.” Once again, Buckley knows too much about government and the boredom so many government jobs entail, getting the details of tedium so right that I almost wonder if Little Green Men wouldn’t also be at home in a political science syllabus. Little details about Scrubbs, and the ridiculousness of the situation in general, provide the efficient comic combustion fueling the novel: it mocks both government, the media, and Washington D.C. at just the right levels.

Our friendly bureaucrat Scrubbs decides not to be as feckless as we suspected him to be, and he orders the abduction of a talk show host blowhard named John Banion not just once, but twice, causing Banion to make alien abduction his main topic, much to the ire of his sponsors, friends, and others, who respond with “Slammed doors, trenchant sarcasm, dripping scorn. He wondered if this was what the disciples went through.” Middle East peace and the Russia situation never seemed so simple.

Imagining himself as part of Jesus’ retinue is perfectly appropriate for a man whose ego has so long been inflated by punditry that he probably does imagine himself leading the sheep who are his audience. And yet at the same time, a series of byzantine turns causes him to get a much lower brow, higher rated show that, as one character observes, is more interesting anyway because his followers take action instead of pondering the universe over their morning coffee.

These followers might have some trouble with the intellect, however, as Banion’s messiah-like speech to them on the subject of government secrecy indicates:

People! [Banion says.] Do you know what we are?
Tell us! We want to know! What are we, anyway?
Mushrooms!
From the sea of perplexed looks, it was clear that Banion’s metaphor was not immediately apparent.
You know what you do with mushrooms, don’t you? Stick ’em in the dark! Feed ’em a lot of shit!
Ah! Yes, now we get it! It’s a metaphor!

A lower class but a larger volume: that’s Banion’s power. But his ability to change Washington itself is suspect; a presidential election following a NASA fiasco brings new faces to Washington who claim that they’ll crack down on influence peddling. One politico observes: “They all say that when they’re running. Then they get to town and see how it works and we all become best friends.” Banion steps outside the circle. What follows is hilarious because it’s both real and surreal, and things even stranger than fake UFO abductions happen in Washington when one departs the well-worn path. No wonder so few do.

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