The Searchers Trilogy By Chet Williamson
Book 1 City of Iron
Book 2 Empire of Dust
Book 3 Siege of Stone
New York: Avon Books, 1998-1999. $5.99 each.
I don’t ever watch The X-Files; it’s one of those shows that I find very predictable, even with its paranormal aspects. I recently won an auction on eBay for CSICOP’s library and when I received the item I bid on, I also received the Searchers series and a letter from the person I won the auction from-the author Chet Williamson. His letter explained the books and his objectives and his obstacles. I was not even going to read them at first. But the last page of each of the novels tells the readers “to further investigate the reality of the paranormal” by reading Gordon Stein’s Encyclopedia of the Paranormal, Martin Gardner’s The New Age, James Randi’s An Encyclopedia of Claims and Frauds and Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World. He also suggested visiting CSICOP’s Web site (http://www.csicop.org). There might be something to this, I thought, so I decided to read them just to see what he had to say.
Normally, fiction is not reviewed in either the Skeptical Inquirer or the Skeptical Briefs, but after reading these books, it became apparent that this series is written particularly towards skeptics, people who are interested in the mission of CSICOP, as well as those who know CSICOP and skepticism. The basic premise of the series is that three CIA operatives, who, unbeknownst to themselves, are asked by a rogue CIA director to investigate paranormal activities and claims and not to find out the truth, but to debunk them and send him reports regarding these claims. This goes against what CSICOP stands for - namely scientifically examining these claims and neither proving or disproving, but keeping an open mind without dismissing these claims out-of-hand. What makes this interesting to skeptics, however, is that one of the operatives is a long-time hardcore skeptic, writer and reader of the Skeptical Inquirer. CSICOP, famous skeptics, and skeptical principles make appearances throughout each of the books.
Famous cases, such as the investigation into the Borley Rectory hauntings, are discussed, as are the principles of scientifically examining these claims. But the overall problem with this series is the same problem faced by skeptics when dealing with the media: The supernatural and paranormal sells - skepticism does not. Williamson’s series, in an attempt to sell books, does have unexplainable elements and characters that have extraordinary "powers.” In his letter, Williamson points out that this is what the editors wanted when he made the deal with them. He was also able to add the skeptical elements to these fictional works, and the works are therefore unlike other works that are entirely "pro-paranormal.” I do not have a problem with Williamson’s series as fiction that tries to teach skeptical principles and skepticism, and that skepticism is a good thing.
The Searchers series ties into the “Unified Theory” aspect of the paranormal too. In this way, it is like The X-Files because it ties in Templars, the Holy Grail, crop circles, Bigfoot, UFOs, zombies, vampires, demonology and even the basic beliefs of Christianity into one story. This works because Williamson is able to examine all types of phenomena, and to show how they would be investigated or how they were investigated in the past, what to look for while investigating these phenomena, and many of the false assumptions people can make while examining the evidence.
I really enjoyed the subtle ways the skeptical viewpoints were introduced and the insider jokes placed throughout the series. My favorite is one where the team was investigating an occurrence, and they interviewed a drugged-up New Ager together and then broke up and interviewed others singly. When asked how the other interviews went, one of the operatives stated that the other interviewees made the first one look like Martin Gardner.
Despite its attempt at a New Age, X-Files type of appeal (including what the author called “an X-Files meets Men in Black rip-off cover”), I recommend this as a nice fictional work, with the paranormal as a subject, but dealing with it in a skeptical way. It is also a good first attempt to bring skepticism in a small way to a mainstream audience.