Conspiracy fiction has long been considered a sub-genre of spy or thriller fiction. But it’s science fiction that can best embrace the outlandish theories that quietly root in our collective unconscious: Who “they” really are; how the world is truly governed; or why are self-driving cars being rammed down our throats?
Never mind that a recent formula developed by an Oxford University mathematician has essentially discredited paranoia by revealing that any conspiracy worth concocting would be “prone to unravelling.” (Apparently humanity’s inherent tendency to gossip would have pretty much foiled any attempt to fake the Moon landing for longer than 3.7 years.)
Despite the sheer unlikelihood of successfully perpetrating a global conspiracy, storytellers have found them irresistible since at least G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday; A Nightmare. Published in 1908, it features a cabal of anarchists and a devious novel-ending twist that has become a staple of the genre.
British pulp-era sci-fi writer Eric Frank Russell first bolted science fiction and conspiracy together with Dreadful Sanctuary, a Cold War-era novel about an international conspiracy to thwart space exploration.
By the 1970s, conspiracy and science fiction were beginning to commingle more broadly. Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson’s The Illuminatus! trilogy, published in the mid-1970s, was nothing short of a madcap Grand Central Station of conspiracy theories. Using plots both real and imagined, the series focused on the eternal war between the Illuminati and the Discordians while also including an increasingly confusing parade of groups and sub-conspiracies. Concepts like “fnord,” the 23 enigma and immanentizing the eschaton were all brought to light thanks to Shea and Wilson.
Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, published in 1973, is set in the dying days of World War II. It tells the story of hapless Tyrone Slothrop’s attempts to find the truth about himself and why his sexual encounters seem to attract V2 rocket strikes. Naturally, he does so while fleeing an endless array of sinister intelligence organizations with even more sinister technologies. Although not dissimilar in tone to The Illuminatus!, it’s generally considered to be a literary work rather than science fiction.
U.S. author Philip K. Dick really took conspiracy and ran with it, making paranoia and ruminations over free will his literary bread and butter. Despite their pulpy roots, Dick’s works, ranging from the early 1950s to the ’80s, frequently feature characters manipulated by unseen powers and forced to question their realities, their identities and their very sanity.
Marginalized even within the science fiction community during his life, it took TV and movies before Dick’s paranoia-soaked stories came into their own. His novels have proven to be increasingly popular sources of adaptations into movies (Total Recall, A Scanner Darkly and Blade Runner, which will see a sequel released in 2017), as well as a TV series (The Man in the High Castle).
Television shows, with their relentless story pacing and constant need for startling plot twists, now feed on a steady diet of conspiracy-inspired paranoia. The X-Files brought the world of conspiracy to the top of pop culture consciousness. While the basic alien conspiracy underlying the series was straightforward, it became increasingly muddled to meet the need for new, status quo-shattering revelations.
The culmination of this trend may be seen in Orphan Black, the Canadian science fiction TV series about a street-level con artist, Sarah Manning, who stumbles onto the revelation that she is one of several identical clones. A desire for quick money leads her to impersonate one of her clones for a time, but eventually Sarah is drawn into the larger mystery of where she and her clones have come from, and why someone seems determined to kill them all.
The premise very neatly merges standard conspiracy fare with a fairly profound exploration of identity. As she finds and meets more of her clones, Sarah is literally confronted with alternate versions of herself. A soccer mom, a genius microbiology student, a police officer and even a cool corporate impresario.
The deeper Sarah delves into the conspiracy, the more her identity is blurred. Throughout the series, she’s routinely faced with lives she could have led if her childhood circumstances had been different or, more hauntingly, if she hadn’t squandered opportunities and made the “wrong” choices. At one point, hearing that one of her clones is a PhD student, Sarah’s foster mother blithely wonders, “What happened to you?”
That’s exactly the question Sarah must be asking herself each time she uncovers a new clone living a different life. Compounding the situation further, Sarah is frequently placed into situations where she has to impersonate her own clones. By investigating and flushing out the conspirators, Sarah is learning more about her origins … yet also growing more confused about herself.
During the first season, Sarah makes an offhand remark. “Every time I think I know something, I’m wrong.”
This sums up not only the excitement of a good conspiracy story, but also its main problem. Conspiracies, and their necessary earth-shattering revelations, consume plot at a voracious pace. Sometimes, especially in the serialized format of a weekly TV series, the basic premise can feed the beast for only so long.
Storytellers occasionally find a solution by throwing unnecessary complications into the plot as a way to obfuscate the real story and prolong the sense of mystery. In this twisted way, the storytellers become conspirators themselves. Instead of peeling away layers, they actively mislead readers and fog their understanding of the truth.
Despite its limitations, and a somewhat chequered past, the relationship between conspiracy fiction and science fiction has grown closer to the point where they now seem to exist almost hand in hand. In science fiction, conspiracies of all kinds from the political to the personal have found their heartland.
Wes Smiderle is a science fiction writer, former reporter, and editor based in Ottawa.