Keely's Reviews > Leviathan

Leviathan by Robert Shea
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Oct 20, 10

bookshelves: science-fiction, philosophy, humor, america, spy, reviewed, supernatural-horror
Read from October 14 to 20, 2010

A sprawling, many-faceted, satirical series, Illuminatus! is difficult to rate and more difficult to review. There are so many aspects which one could address, so many points of divergence, ideas, philosophies, and influences, but at it's heart, it's a rollicking adventure story that, despite it's many political and social themes, rarely takes itself too seriously.

I can certainly say I liked it, but it's hard to say how much. Some parts were better than others, but there are many parts to be considered. Unlike other reviewers, I did not find the numerous asides and allusions to be distracting. If one piqued my interest, I looked it up and more often than not, learned something entirely new. Some didn't intrigue me as much, and I was happy to let them lie.

I treated the book like I treat life, following those threads which seemed, to me, to be the most fruitful, and refusing to become bogged down in the fact that I can't know everything. If a reader tried to track down every reference, they'd be going to wikipedia three and four times per page and likely lose the thread of the story entirely. The sheer volume of research behind the book is an achievement in itself, sure to keep the attention of detail-obsessed trivial pursuit players of the internet generation.

Others have also complained about the structure of the book, switching as it does in place, time, and character with no forewarning. Certainly these switches can cause a moment's uncertainty, but they hardly make following the plot impossible. The authors could have put more line breaks in, it would be a minor change. So minor, in fact, that I find it difficult to take seriously any claim that the lack of such breaks somehow ruined the story.

It was a deliberate effect by the authors, meant to impart information realistically and force the reader to take a more active role. In life, we are constantly inundated by information and it is up to us to decide what is important and where to make strict delineations. Likewise, in this book, the authors want us to take responsibility for our own parsing of data, refusing to spoon-feed it to us like so much propaganda.

The authors, themselves went through huge amounts of data to combine all of these conspiracy theories into a grand ur-conspiracy, too large and detailed to be believed and too ridiculous to be doubted. I've never had much interest in such theories, so it was nice to have them all in one place where I could enjoy them as part of a fun spy story.

I also admit a lack of interest in the beat poets, psychadelic culture, and World War II, so I'm glad to have gotten those all out of the way in the same fell swoop. This book is, at its heart, a chronicle of a certain point in American history, a certain mindset, a baroquely detailed conglomeration of the writings and ideas of the raucous sixties.

The book is at its least effective when it is taking itself seriously, particularly in the appendices. When it seems to believe in it's own conspiracies or Burroughs' bizarre understanding of history, it becomes a victim of its own joke.

It is at its best when it takes nothing seriously, least of all itself. The authors were involved in the flowering of the Discordian Movement, which has been described as a religion disguised as a joke disguised as a religion. The movement plays a large role in the text and is analyzed from all sides, but basically boils down to religion as imagined by Mad Magazine.

The revolutionary thing about Mad was not that it undermined authority, but that it simultaneously undermined itself. It's humor was the insight that you could trust no one and nothing to be the source of wisdom, but that you were perfectly justified in mistrusting everything.

Rather like the remarkable sixties series 'The Prisoner', the final message is that you must decide for yourself what is important, what is real, and what is misdirection. Also like 'The Prisoner', Illuminatus owes much to the spy books of the sixties, from their freewheeling sexuality to their ultra-modern secret bases and high-stakes secret missions. There is even an overt parody of the Bond franchise running through the books.

Unfortunately, it also seems to fall into the Boys' Club atmosphere of spy stories. Though it switches between narrators, all of them are men, and the focused sexuality of the book most often points toward women. There are moments where bisexuality, homosexuality, and feminist sexual power dynamics are explored, but these tend to be intellectual exercises while the hot, sweaty moments are by and large men acting upon women. I can enjoy porn, but I wish it were as balanced as the rhetoric to which the authors pay adherence.

Many male authors have shied away from writing female characters from the inside, despite having no compunction about getting inside them in other ways. I cannot reiterate enough the late Dan O'Bannon's insistence that the secret to writing women was writing men and then leaving out the penis.

He scripted 'Alien' without gender markers, all characters being referred to by last name, and Sigourney Weaver's portrayal of Ellen Ripley has proven one of the most realistic and unaffected of any woman in film. It was a disappointment to see Shea and Wilson so fettered by gender while simultaneously spouting the latest feminist sound bites.

In many ways, Illuminatus provides a bridge between the paranoid, conspiracy sci fi of Dick and the highly referential, multilayered stories of Cyberpunk. Conceptually, it represents a transition from Dick's characters, always unable to escape destruction at the hand of their vast, uncaring society, and Cyberpunk characters who are able to adapt to their distant, heartless society and thrive where they can. The language of Illuminatus is flashier and cooler than Dick's, but has not yet reached the form-as-function linguistic data overload of Gibson or Stephenson.

And as you might expect, the writing here is good: crisp, witty, evocative and mobile. Far from the accusations of being a text 'written on an acid trip', it is lucid and deliberate, even if it does take itself lightly. There certainly are those aspects which are inspired by psychadelic culture, including the free-wheeling structure. The authors invite comparison between moments, events, and characters which, in most other books, would be separated by the strict delineation of the page break.

But then, the surest sign of genius is the ability to synthesize new data from the confluence of apparently disparate parts, as Da Vinci did one day while studying the eddies in a stream for a painting, finding himself suddenly struck by the notion that the heart would pump blood more efficiently by forming such swirling eddies in its chamber instead of working as a simple pump. In the the past decade, internal body scanners have proven the accuracy of his small corner sketch. By inviting you to make such comparisons and synthesize your own conclusions, the book respects the potential intelligence of its reader.

But it is not all such conceptual exercises, and the lesson Cyberpunk authors learned was that a fast-paced, flashy shell can sugar even bitter pills. What delighted me was the realization that at its heart, this is a story of Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos.

Outside of Lovecraft and Howard, very few of the stories set in that universe are even passable, but this one comports itself ably, taking to heart the notion that an overabundance of data can break the human mind. Which dovetails nicely with the cautionary lesson of conspiracy theory: it seems vast, inexplicable beings of unimaginable power can also be human, and have cults just as Unaussprechlichen.

Overall, the series is interesting, unique, informative, humorous, and entertaining. There are moments where it bogs down, but overall, it is well structured and well written. There aren't many books where you get a fun spy story, a harrowing Cthulhu story, and a rundown of the zeitgeist of a part of American history all in one, but there's certainly this one.

Unless you're a teenager looking for a counterculture to believe in, its conspiracy mish-mash probably won't be a life-changing revelation, but it might be food for thought. Conspiracy fiction is big business these days with 'The Name of The Rose', 'Foucault's Pendulum' and 'The Da Vinci Code', while the originator of the genre gets comparatively little mention.

But this book is not designed to be easy to digest. You are not meant to internalize its message thoughtlessly. It's funny, contradictory, and self-aware, and it's hard for people who take themselves seriously to get caught up in a book that, for the most part, doesn't. I could say this book deserves to be more than a cult classic, but at its heart, this book is a cult classic, and its cultural influence will continue to seep in with or without grander acclaim.
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