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Conspiracy fiction


Conspiracy fiction

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Particularly since the 1960s, conspiracy theory has been a popular subject of fiction. A common theme in such works is that characters discovering a secretive conspiracy may be unable to tell what is true about the conspiracy, or even what is real: rumors, lies, propaganda, and counter-propaganda build upon one another until what is conspiracy and what is coincidence becomes an unmanageable question.

Because of their dramatic potential, conspiracies are a popular theme in thrillers and science fiction. Complex history is recast as a morality play in which bad people cause bad events, and good people identify and defeat them. Compared to the subtlety and complexity of rigorous historical accounts of events, conspiracy theory gives the reader a neat, intuitive narrative. It is perhaps no coincidence, then, that the English word "plot" applies to both a story, and the activities of conspirators.


'High' literature

Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum, features a story in which the staff of a publishing firm, intending to create a series of popular occult books, invent their own occult conspiracy, over which they lose control as it begins to be believed.

Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49, includes a secretive conflict between cartels dating back to the Middle Ages, such as the Phoebus cartel. His Gravity's Rainbow also draws heavily on conspiracy theory in describing the creation of ballistic missiles in World War II.

Ishmael Reed's Mumbo-Jumbo, set in 1920s America, takes its plot from the battle between "The Wallflower Order," an international conspiracy dedicated to monotheism and control, and the "Jes Grew" virus, a personification of jazz, polytheism, and freedom.

Other contemporary authors who have used elements of conspiracism in their work include William S. Burroughs, Joseph Heller, Don DeLillo, and Margaret Atwood.

Popular novels

Illuminatus!, a trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson, is regarded by many as the definitive work of 20th-century conspiracy fiction. Set in the late '60s, it is a psychedelic tale which fuses mystery, science fiction, horror, and comedy in its exhibition (and mourning, and mocking) of one of the more paranoid periods of recent history. The popular, humorous trading card game Illuminati New World Order is based in part on Shea and Wilson's fantasy.

The popular 2003 novel The Da Vinci Code draws on conspiracy theories involving the Catholic Church, Opus Dei and the Priory of Sion.

Australian author Matthew Reilly's novel Scarecrow deals with the Majestic 12 as the conspirators of an international war. His other novels deal with such conspiracy theories as the competition between different areas of the US defence force and the secret breakdown of NATO.

Other authors who have dealt with conspiracy themes include Philip K. Dick and Robert Ludlum.

Among modern science fiction writers, Philip K. Dick (1928-1982) was one of the most prolific in this regard. Dick (who was himself a paranoid) wrote a large number of short stories where vast conspiracies were employed (usually by an oppressive government or other hostile powers) to keep common people under control or enforce a given agenda.

For example, in one story, aliens invade Earth and destroy its civilization almost completely, but the remaining humans are made to believe that Earth won the war and has to be reconstructed (the aliens apparently want a pacific coexistence with humans). In another story, an undefined organization periodically "freezes" parts of a city, changes and reorders it, makes the appropriate changes in the minds of humans found there at the time, and then lets things go on as usual (similar to what is seen in the movie Dark City).

Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges also wrote some stories featuring conspiracies. In Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, a group of experts in different fields forms a loggia in order to invent a fictional planet (Tlön), which is then revealed (purposefully but not obviously so) to society at large, as if it were a real place, with the result that humanity becomes in love with it and the structure of reality is replaced by the fictional reality of Tlön. In another short story, Borges explains how, in ancient Babylon, a lottery was invented that first granted monetary prizes, then also monetary fines for losers (because "Babylonians are fond of symmetry"), then also non-monetary benefits and punishments, including death, mutilation, the despise or the submission of other people, the love of a person, a high government office, etc. The lottery becomes free and compulsory, so that no-one is exempt from luck and misfortune, and finally it turns into a synonym of blind fate, handled by an organization outside the reach of ordinary human control.

Iain Banks' novel The Business is set within a fictional and highly secretive corporate body, evolved from a cartel of merchants in ancient Rome, who secretly run many of the worlds multinational corporations as fronts. The novel is set against the backdrop of 'The Company's' attempt to buy leadership of a fictional Himalayan principality in order to gain a seat on the UN.

Other popular science fiction writers whose work features conspiracy theories include William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, and Tim LaHaye.

Conspiracy thrillers

The conspiracy thriller (or paranoid thriller) is a subgenre of the thriller which flourished in the 1970s in the US (and was echoed in other parts of the world) in the wake of a number of high-profile scandals and controversies (most notably Vietnam, the assassination of President Kennedy, Chappaquiddick and Watergate), and which exposed what many people regarded as the clandestine machinations and conspiracies beneath the orderly fabric of political life.

The protagonists of conspiracy thrillers are often journalists or amateur investigators who find themselves (often inadvertently) pulling on a small thread which unravels a vast conspiracy that ultimately goes "all the way to the top".

Film and television

One of the earliest exercises in cinematic paranoia was John Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate (1962). Its story of brainwashing and political assassination holds the distinction of not merely reflecting contemporary fears and anxieties, but anticipating future conspiracies and scandals by some years. Other films in the "paranoiac" or "conspiracy" vein include Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation (1974), Capricorn One (1978), directed by Peter Hyams, and Brian De Palma's Blow Out (1981).

The screenplays for two of the best-known conspiracy thrillers were written by the same writer, Lorenzo Semple Jr.: The Parallax View, directed by Alan J. Pakula, came out in 1974, while Sydney Pollack's Three Days Of The Condor came out the following year. Pakula's movie is considered to be the second installment of a "paranoia trilogy" that began with Klute in 1971 and ended with All The President's Men in 1976. Modern analogues include Oliver Stone's JFK (1991) and Nixon (1995), Conspiracy Theory (1997), directed by Richard Donner, Tony Scott's Enemy of the State (1998), and Mark Pellington's 1999 thriller Arlington Road. On television, The X-Files was rich in conspiracy theory lore, often drawing influence from the aforementioned 1970s conspiracy thrillers.

One of the most celebrated contributions to the genre in the United Kingdom was the BAFTA award-winning television drama Edge of Darkness (1985), written by Troy Kennedy Martin. David Drury's Defence Of The Realm (1985) and Alan Plater's A Very British Coup (1988) offered other British takes on the conspiracy topos.

The X-Files, a long-running 1990s TV drama series, continued a long tradition of B-movie-type plots and conspiracies, employing almost every available conspiracy theory in the course of its lifetime.


A number of novelists have made repeated contributions to the conspiracy thriller genre. Indeed, many of the most acclaimed conspiracy films have been adapted from novels.

One of the early pioneers of the genre was Graham Greene, whose 1943 novel The Ministry of Fear (brought to the big screen by Fritz Lang in 1944) combines all the ingredients of paranoia and conspiracy familiar to aficionados of the 1970s thrillers, with additional urgency and depth added by its wartime backdrop. Greene himself credited Michael Innes as the inspiration for his "entertainment" [1].

The American novelist Richard Condon wrote a number of conspiracy thrillers, including the seminal The Manchurian Candidate, and Winter Kills, which was made into a film by William Richert in 1979.


Oliver Stone's Academy Award-winning 1991 film JFK — based on books by New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison and conspiracy author Jim Marrs — suggests that President John F. Kennedy was not killed by Lee Harvey Oswald acting alone, but rather by a group opposed to Kennedy's policies, especially his supposed reluctance to invade Cuba to overthrow Fidel Castro, and Kennedy's purported eagerness to withdraw American armed forces from the Vietnam War. Members of the CIA, the Military-Industrial Complex, and President Lyndon Baines Johnson are implicated as responsible for Kennedy's assassination. Stone has stated that JFK was intended as a Fable to counter the Warren Commission's conclusions, with which Stone disagreed. Some of the claims in "JFK" have been disproven (most notably by the History Channel) or were already known to be at least highly dubious.

The 1997 movie Wag the Dog involves a pre-election attempt in the US by a spin doctor and a Hollywood producer who join forces to fabricate a war in a Balkan state in order to cover-up a presidential sex scandal. Interestingly, it was made before the Clinton / Lewinsky scandal and the US led Kosovo intervention.

Other films include Arlington Road, The Parallax View, The Conversation, Nixon, They Live, and A Beautiful Mind.

Gaming narratives

The video games Metal Gear Solid and Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty contain a shadowy group known as "The Patriots" who manipulate politics in America. There are also references to numerous conspiracies in the games.
Deus Ex is filled with various references to conspiratorial organisations such as the Illuminati, Majestic 12 and the Knights Templar and also includes several conspiracy theories such as the New World Order, Area 51 and Roswell. The game's sequel, Deus Ex: Invisible War also makes references to the Illuminati, the Knights Templar, as well as inventing fictional secret societies such as ApostleCorp and The Omar.
Broken Sword, loosely inspired by Umberto Eco's book, also features the Knights Templar among other conspiracy theories.
Act Of War features an industrial conspiracy plot to take control of oil reserves and the infrastructure of the US.
The role-playing game and card game GURPS Illuminati by Steve Jackson Games features a humorous look at conspiracy theories. The illuminated pyramid is the company's logo.
Pagan Publishing's Delta Green and Delta Green Countdown books provide a more serious perspective on conspiracy theories in role-playing games, and relate them with the works of the late H. P. Lovecraft.

Critical analysis

Melley, Timothy (2000). Empire of Conspiracy: The Culture of Paranoia in Postwar America. Cornell University Press. ISBN 0801436680.
Didion, Joan [1979] (1990). The White Album. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. ISBN 0374522219.

See also

External links

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This guide is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia.

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