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You Do Not Have To Read Dan Brown
© Jens Rushing
October 23, 2009

When I was showering this morning, I was reminded of a discussion on Dan Brown I had last weekend. I was reminded in the shower because, in the original discussion, I said I had been trapped in a bathroom for a long summer afternoon with only a family member's copy of Da Vinci Code to read, and I ended up reading shampoo bottles.

Dear writers: if you cannot compete with shampoo bottles, please consider a new line of work. (Mr. Brown has an excellent back-up career as a singer/songwriter if he wants it.)

Brown fans that I talk to seem to enjoy most of all the conspiracy theory elements, the Templars and the vast centuries-old schemes of the Catholic Church and the Illuminatus and so forth. Indeed, that stuff is fun. But Dan Brown did not invent it. His rendition of these elements is watered down.

There is a vast and thriving subgenre of conspiracy theory fiction, and it's decades old. Here are a few recommendations, so you can see the bodies of work that Brown has cannibalized.

Illuminatus

The Illuminatus trilogy is the grandfather of conspiracy fiction. Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson were two junior editors at Playboy in the late 60s, in charge of sifting the letters to the editor and weeding out all the crazy conspiracy-nut stuff. After a while, they noticed a web of connections between various theories in the letters, and decided it would make a great novel. So they co-wrote the trilogy.

These books are stuffed with every conspiracy theory you could think of, and they make it work. UFOs, the Mafia, the assassination of Dutch Schultz and his famous deathbed logorrhea, Atlantis, the Gaia hypothesis, the Hashashiyyin, the Templars, Cthulhu, and, of course, the Illuminati themselves.

The book plays with the nature of the narrative, occasionally becoming a book about itself, and often feeding the reader completely conflicting sets of information. It's a challenge and a joy to read. As a novel, as a traditional work of rising action-climax-denouement, it is flawed, but as a time capsule of the spirit of the late 60s, the political chaos and energy of the time, and as a mind-filk, it is unmatched. This is one of the few books that changed the way I saw the world, though not in a conspiracy-nut way.

The writers are aware that all their theories are just fiction, so they use the book to discuss the real, relevant issues in which they're interested, namely the merits of socialism and anarchy. It's a deeply interesting social discourse in the guise of an insane (sort of) adventure story. It'll blow your mind, several times, in the first book alone.

You can find the books in this original printing, where you can set all the covers next to each other for a neat triptych, or you can get it in a single-volume omnibus.

Shea and Wilson, sadly, never went on to anything as interesting as these books. Shea, bizarrely, became a somewhat melodramatic author of otherwise fine historical fiction. Most of his work is out of print now, but his son, Mike Shea, is reprinting a lot of it via Open Office and Lulu.com. It’s not the classiest edition of Shea’s work you can find, but it suffices; I recommend beginning with the epic All Things Are Lights, which deals with the Albigensian Crusade and Louis IX’s failed attack on Egypt.

The semi-sequel, the Saracen books The Holy War and Land of the Infidel, discuss the Templar/ Assassin relationship in more detail. Shea has a tendency to the melodramatic, and you could (to put it kindly) never accuse him of overwriting a scene, but his depiction of historical characters is novel and fascinating: Louis IX, the Sultan Baibars, and Kubilai Khan in his towering, majestic Zinja books.

Wilson became heavily involved with the psychedelic movement, became good friends with Timothy Leary, and wrote a lot about how we should all do peyote. In fiction, though, most of his later stuff just cannibalized the original trilogy.

Skip that. Get the original trilogy. Read it. These books are like the Beatles of conspiracy fiction; they synthesized everything that came before and influenced everything that came after.

Foucault's Pendulum

Like everything else by Umberto Eco, Foucault's Pendulum is hyperliterate and much smarter than you and me. But don't let the author's thirty-twoPhDs intimidate you. At its core, it's an excellent novel of character, with a few thriller elements to keep it interesting.

The plot is basically the real story of the Illuminatus trilogy: a few editors in charge of sifting submissions decide to put together all the crazy stuff they get and make a novel. But soon they find their fiction has taken on a life of its own, as others believe so passionately in what they have created that, in pursuing it, they create it. It's a conspiracy novel that comments intelligently on other conspiracy novels, but it also has moments of incredible beauty.

Eco's interest is intertextuality, how books relate to other books and how the reader influences that relationship, as you may know if you read The Name of the Rose. (If you haven’t, then I am sorry to report that you have wasted your life.) This book is even more passionate than that masterpiece about the relationship of literature to history to humanity.

Yes, it has Templars in it; also the Rosicrucians, the Freemasons, the Illuminati (of course), the Count Saint-Germain, Cagliastro, Roger Bacon, and kabbalism. Whatta book.

Buchan, Condon, Borges

Of course, there's a lot more to the subgenre. It lacks the pseudo-historical elements of the last two books, but one of the earliest works in the genre is John Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps, a thrilling little book about prewar German spies in England. There's also Richard Condon's classic The Manchurian Candidate, and Jorge Luis Borges's (freaking awesome) Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius. (Everyone can do with more JLB.) Iain Banks' The Business and Tim Powers' Dare are both supposed to be quite good, and conspiracies are all over the place in Philip K. Dick and Neal Stephenson.

Deus Ex, Assassin's Creed

Some of the most interesting work in the field has been in video games. The original Deus Ex is a narrative of unmatched quality in the genre; the strength of games as compared to books is that they can create a world that you can explore in a more literal sense than the worlds of books, where you are more or less confined to the author’s rails.

Deus Ex capitalizes fully on that, offering a massive, sprawling, richly detailed dystopian near-future where the rich hang onto the crumbling vestiges of power while those excluded simply try to make do. A kitchen-sink plot brings out the Illuminati and Templars, and their post-modern iteration, Majestic-12, an even more ruthless group with the naked power-hunger but without the philosophic defenses of the Illuminati.

There’s genetic engineering and nanotechnology, too. And it’s all married to flawless FPS gameplay and a riveting story.

A sequel was released a few years later, and, while not quite as good as the original, it’s still a heckuva game, and definitely worth playing through. A third chapter, due in 2010, has been announced. (“2010” is game-speak for “2011”.)

Another significant entry is Assassin’s Creed, which deals with the timeless war between Templars and the Hashashiyyin. Via science, the protagonist relives memories of the Third Crusade and battles a plot to obtain the all-powerful MacGuffin. The Templars are portrayed as forces of oppression and conformism (well, okay, I guess I can buy that) whereas the Hashashiyyin are benevolent free-thinkers. While this is a complete and total middle finger to historical accuracy, it makes for a fun plot, unfortunately mired in a slow, slow, slow game. The sequel, due this fall, is awaited with cautious optimism.

The Templars

If you'd like to know more about the Templars, get a history and learn for yourself how the real Templars were quite fascinating, even if they were more mundane than the fantasies make them out to be. They didn't guard the Holy Grail or worship Mahound or Bahamut, no, but they were an incredibly powerful, wealthy organization in a land rife with intrigue. I recommend Piers Paul Read's The Templars; it also provides good background on the Crusades. It's a bit dry, but 100% bullshit-free, an important distinction to make when researching this group.

So much has been written on them, and so much of it blatant conspiracy-mongering taken as fact, the flimsiest mind-melting nonsense.

You don't want to get sucked into that. You might as well read Dan Brown.


Jens Rushing writes. He plays a fair concertina and a passable banjo. Visit his site for gibberish and doggerel.

 
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