Sunday, December 19, 2010

Conspiracy theory

Conspiracy theories make for great fiction and film. Many bestsellers posit conspiracies that would seem to take more infrastructure and organization than we expect in our own world... but that's why they fascinate us.

As I said, the worldview of a conspiracy-theory novelist is usually (for the time of writing the book), "Everything is connected." Some secret organization or subversive powerful interest group is controlling a series of seemingly disconnected events in order to achieve some hidden goal. This makes for fascinating reading, especially when it's coupled with important cultural objects (The DaVinci Code) or seminal historical events (Winter Kills, which derives, as so many fictional and non-fictional conspiracy theories do, from the JFK assassination). I think one reason we are intrigued by books like these is they bring order to what seem like random and usually negative events, and by positing a sort of single master villain, make it more possible to imagine correcting or preventing disaster. That is, a single big conspiracy, however scary, is easier to deal with than a bunch of random events, so the essential task of "social" popular fiction -- to disrupt then restore order-- seems more difficult and interesting, but ends up easier.

Anyway, a question I have is-- if you are going to have a sleuth or investigator discover the conspiracy and follow the clues through, do you want someone who believes in conspiracy, who is already of the mindset that "Everything is connected?" Or would you rather go with someone who is skeptical and might even have reason to reject the conspiracy and has to be convinced?

DaVinci Code uses a semiotician as a slueth, that is, someone academically trained to see connections and signs in everything. (In fact, when I was reading Chronic City, I realized that the conspiracy theorist/semiotician in the middle of that was almost schizophrenic-- there seems to be a fine line between the semiotician seeing signs in how Mother's Day cards are arranged, and the schizophrenic hearing radio transmission through his tooth fillings.) The advantage here is that he is trained to interpret and connect, and doesn't have to be taught. Also, I guess, he doesn't have to be convinced. He can get right into the investigation without having a lot of resistance to the notion of a conspiracy. He hits the ground running (literally).

But in Winter Kills, the disaffected young brother of the assassinated president has an incentive not to investigate. The whole world has accepted the conventional wisdom, and he quickly realizes that yanking at this loose thread (a deathbed confession) might lead to information he doesn't want (family involvement). He has to be drawn in to believing in the conspiracy.

So, two questions:
1) What characterizes a good opportunity for a conspiracy theory story? Why, for example, has the JFK assassination engendered so many conspiracy theory stories, and 9/11 (which probably has at least as much official secrecy and unanswered or misanswered questions, and inadequate answers) hasn't?

2) If you had to pick a protagonist/investigator for a conspiracy theory, would you choose one who already was open to such theories, or a skeptic, and why? For example, if you watch Law and Order, SVU, there's an odd couple-- Munch, who is probably a licensed paranoid, who never met a conspiracy theory he didn't accept-- and Finn, a real skeptic, who doesn't believe in God, apple pie, or any theory at all. If you had a conspiracy theory novel, which sort of protagonist would you choose, a Munch who was predisposed to believe it, or a Finn who is predisposed to disbelieve it and has to be persuaded?

And of course, why, and under what circumstances? And what do you see as the hallmarks of the conspiracy novel?

“Searching is half the fun: life is much more manageable when thought of as a scavenger hunt as opposed to a surprise party.”
Jimmy Buffett



Judy said...

I like the combination of the two.. kinda like Scully and Mulder. I find that the juxtapostion of the two mindsets make for a good conflict (it also doesn't hurt if there's a romantic element involved.. lol)

green_knight said...

I've seen plenty of 9/11 conspiracy theories (what, you didn't know the US goverment instigated it so they had an excuse to go to war for oil?) and I'm not sure I subscribe to the 'everything is connected' tenet - to me, most of them look like 'someone had you fooled with an elaborate setup'. It looks almost like a subtype of a lot of speculative fiction - 'the mundane explanation isn't what's *really* going on'.

As for who would be right to investigate - I have no idea. Again, it depends on the book you want to write - and there's a third type, the person with the open mind who doesn't really care one way or another, who just wants to find out the truth (or the murderer, or get the McGuffin back).

Clare K. R. Miller said...

I don't read much conspiracy theory fiction, but I prefer the kind of protagonist who has to be convinced in general. It makes the story richer, and if the protagonist accept weird stuff without question or evidence, I'm going to be questioning it the whole time.

Mystery Robin said...

1) Two reasons why JFK has many conspiracy theories and 9/11 has fewer. The first has to do with the time. I don't think America expected a president, especially a fairly beloved president, to be killed. We were an optimistic, less cynical nation and we didn't see it coming.

The second reason is 9/11, tragic as it is, made logical sense. Crappy Middle Eastern policy + the idea of jihad (which most of us had heard of), terrorists... it all came together for us. I think the conspiracy theories surrounding 9/11 had to do with the response... why did we really invade Iraq, because *that* didn't make sense.

JFK didn't make sense - the lone gunman who got off the shot of a lifetime. I still don't see how it could have happened. Same with Marilyn Monroe - it didn't make sense that she'd take her own life at that time. We wanted another reason.

2) What sort of sleuth do I prefer? I like an uber intelligent Sherlock Holmes sort of sleuth. See what I don't, explain what I can't. I can bring my own skepticism. ;)