I want to believe....

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  • Monday, January 28, 2013
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  • Sean Ellis
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  • As a thriller novelist, I love a good conspiracy theory.  As a citizen of the planet…not so much.

    First, let me be specific about what I mean by “conspiracy theory.”  I’ll use the definition supplied by the Illumin…erm…Wikipedia: “A conspiracy theory explains an event as being the result of an alleged plot by a covert group or organization or, more broadly, the idea that important political, social or economic events are the products of secret plots that are largely unknown to the general public.”  That’s different than a “conspiracy” which is a group of people working together (probably in secret) to advance some (probably illegal) goal or agenda.  Conspiracies are real; they have existed in the past and exist even now. We know this because we have proof.  Conspiracy theories are an unproven belief that the best explanation for something is the existence of a conspiracy.

    In a thriller novel, the distinction is meaningless.  The protagonist will find the proof, unmask the conspirators and their diabolical agenda, and either stop them from carrying out their ultimate goal or bring them to justice for what they’ve already done.  Usually, it’s all about the secret agenda—world domination in some form, or maybe radical ethnic cleansing—and the bigger, the better.  Verisimilitude—the appearance of being truthful—is critical; the reader has to believe that this could be real, and the way to do that is to connect the fiction to reality, or even better, to popular knowledge—that is to say, to things that are popularly believed to be factual, but for which there is no actual proof or for which contradictory evidence exists—things like alien spacecraft, cold fusion, Nazi interest in the occult, and so forth. I would even go as far as to say that the “art” of writing a thriller is the ability to weave fact, conspiracy theory and popular knowledge together in a way that makes fiction believable, compelling and emergent.
    The problem of course is that what we might find very entertaining in fiction can be pretty disconcerting in the real world.  So while I love a good conspiracy thriller, I am a bit more ambivalent about conspiracy theories…which is kind of strange really because, like Agent Fox Mulder, I want to believe…at least I think I do.
    I joke sometimes about conspiracy believers wearing “tin foil hats”…you know, to block the signals?  Don’t laugh, it works.  The reality is that most conspiracy believers are highly intelligent, perfectly sane, and often well-educated professionals.  A few weeks ago, I had a very interesting conversation with a friend (one of the aforementioned erudite conspiratorialists) and our conversation which had started with a discussion of why film adaptations of books often go so wildly off-track, eventually touched on the Apollo moon landing “hoax” and how film director Stanley Kubrick had worked with NASA to shoot fake video footage.
    (Incidentally, Kubrick was the thread that connected everything; I’m not fond of his vision of Stephen King’s The Shining, but as my friend pointed out, Kubrick was trying to communicate secret knowledge to the world about the grand conspiracy, which is why he died mysteriously of a heart attack at age 70 just before the release of the film Eyes Wide Shut).
    The idea that the Apollo moon landing might be a hoax has drifted across my radar screen a few times. One of my favorite authors, Clive Cussler, reportedly subscribes to this belief, a fact which was used against him in court during the Sahara lawsuit, where opposing attorneys used that nugget to portray him as a crank.  Judging by the outcome of the proceedings, it probably worked (or was Cussler being punished for getting too close to the truth?)  There was also the 1978 conspiracy-thriller movie Capricorn One, in which the government tries to fake a mission to Mars (obviously using tricks they learned from Stanley Kubrick). 
    I had never really taken a look at the “evidence” for the hoax theory for the simple reason that I am a believer in the principle of Occam’s Razor, which is best summed up with the maxim ‘extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof’ but is sometimes better expressed ‘the simplest explanation is usually the correct one.’ In the case of the Apollo missions, the simplest explanation—to me, at least—has always been that it was NOT a hoax. 
    Conspiracies are complicated affairs, and the bigger they are, the more complicated they must of necessity be.  Benjamin Franklin famously wrote: “Three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead.”  To pull off a conspiracy hoax the size of the Apollo mission, you would need the secrecy of a lot more than just three men.
    That has always been—for me at least—where Occam’s Razor slices through conspiracy theories. It’s not that I believe people incapable of coming up with elaborate schemes to take over the world: false flag operations to destabilize governments and financial institutions; radiological isotopes to track our movements in drinking water, vaccines or disguised as worthless pennies; hypnotic messages in television broadcasts; or the creation of a false paper trail as the culmination of a nearly fifty-year long plan to put a foreigner in the White House.  I absolutely believe people are capable of conceiving of such ideas because that’s what I do for a living.  Conspiracy theories don’t break down because the ideas seem, at first glance, bat-guano-crazy.  Where they break down is in the execution phase.

    I think this is where thriller authors have done the world a disservice.  We tend to gloss over the logistical difficulties inherent in trying to pull off a moon landing hoax (just to name one example).  In the aforementioned film, Capricorn One, the conspiracy is small.  Most of the technicians at NASA believe that the mission to Mars is actually happening because they witnessed the actual rocket launch and are unaware that the crew was removed at the last minute.  The crew themselves become unwilling participants in the cover up—they are virtual hostages at a secret facility where all of the bogus mission footage is being filmed—and in the end, they are targeted for elimination so that the secret will stay a secret.
    The film, like any good thriller, works hard to establish verisimilitude, while glossing over the really big details like…how in the hell would you really be able to pull that off?  How many people would really have to be involved in the hoax, and how would you be able to guarantee their silence? They can’t all die under mysterious circumstances (or can they?)  And if thrillers have taught us anything, there’s always a crusading hero who will pull back the curtain and reveal the truth.
    But when it comes to consideration of conspiracy theories in the real world, we can’t gloss over the details.  As the complexity of a system increases, so also do the opportunities for breakdowns to occur.  Most conspiracy theories would require an extraordinary amount of logistical support.  You’ve got to pay for it all, and before you use the words “deep black budgets,” consider that real conspiracies are usually funded by things like illegal drug and arms sales.  There might be secret redacted expenditures, but I doubt they are anything like what we thriller authors imagine.
    There are material resources to consider. Some popular 9/11 conspiracy theories hold that the destruction of the World Trade Center was carried out using demolition explosives or that it was a missile, and not a Boeing 757, that crashed into the Pentagon.  Faking the moon landing would have required technology that didn’t exist at the time
    (For a discussion of this, see: Why the Apollo missions couldn't be faked)

    Then there are the human resources.  Have you ever noticed how the villains in thrillers always have an army of goons standing by?  Where do these guys come from?  Are they hired thugs or mercenaries?  Legitimate law enforcement agents, duped by a different version of the truth?  Are they true believers?  I’m not saying that those explanations are implausible in real life, but with each additional person added to a conspiracy, the chances that someone will let something slip increase. 

    To be sure, people really have been “silenced” to keep some conspiracies from being revealed.  How do we know this?  Because someone else spilled the beans.  Someone always spills the beans, either through loose talk, for selfish gain, or to protect themselves from being the next “mysterious death.”
    Conspiracy theories add multiple layers of complexity to the equation, all of which only make the conspiracy theory less plausible. I won’t reject all such suggestions automatically, but I will demand that extraordinary claim be supported by extraordinary evidence. 
    Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not doing the ostrich-head-in-the sand here, fooling myself with a web of willful ignorance.  Sometimes, it would be comforting to believe that the bad things in the world are the result of intentionally evil actions, instead of just massive amounts of stupidity and selfishness.  Maybe that’s why I enjoy conspiracy thrillers; it’s fun to believe in a few “bad guys” than to admit that maybe we’re all part of the problem.  And that’s why conspiracy theory is so seductive.  If I can blame Illuminati, or the Freemasons, or the Bilderberg Group…well, then it means I can blame someone else. 
    Like Mulder, I want to believe that the truth is OUT THERE.  But when it comes to conspiracy theory, it’s going to take a lot to convince me.


    Rick Chesler said...

    I'm sure there's something to the fact that OJ Simpson starred in Cap One.

    Sean Ellis said...

    Very good Rick. I was hoping someone would catch that. It is also worth noting that the producer of Cap One was Lord Lew Grade, who also adapted Clive Cussler's Raise the Titanic for film, (and famously said, when the film went overbudget, that it would have been cheaper to "lower the Atlantic"). RTT, like Sahara, was a box-office flop. Just a coincidence?

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