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Conspiracy Thriller

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message 1: by Jeremiah (new)

Jeremiah Genest | 12 comments Mod
I recently came across this definition

The conspiracy thriller (or paranoid thriller) is a subgenre of the thriller. A common theme in such works is that characters discovering a secretive conspiracy may be unable to tell what is true about the conspiracy, or even what is real: rumors, lies, propaganda, and counter-propaganda build upon one another until what is conspiracy and what is coincidence becomes an undecidable question. The protagonists of conspiracy thrillers are often journalists or amateur investigators who find themselves (often inadvertently) pulling on a small thread which unravels a vast conspiracy that ultimately goes "all the way to the top".

Is it correct? Or can conspiracy be more accurately viewed as a lense on other genres (fantasy, mystery maybe even romance?)

message 2: by Tim (new)

Tim Pendry (timpendry) | 1 comments Sounds good to me but another way of looking at the genre is to ask what purpose it serves in our wider culture ... conspiracy thrillers seem to reflect powerlessness against unseen social forces at times of rapid change.

There was the panic about the Illuminati and the Masons (linked to the French revolution) in the 1790s and afterwards. There was the quasi-panic against Irish Catholic migrants in the politics of the US in the 1850s.

Then there was the infamous forgery, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which fuelled right wing fears of Bolshevism and anarchism from the 1890s through to the Holocaust (and which got picked up again in Russia in the period after collapse of the Soviet Union). A 'Rothschild-type' conspiracy even appeared in China last year.

The American popular culture phase seems to start with fears of communist plots in the 1940s (notably in B movies) but then migrates to fears of a corrupt Presidency and of the military-industrial complex around the time of Watergate (and in the context of the political assassinations of leading liberals). It seems to peak with the X-Files in the 1990s.

I suppose we don't have to invent conspiracies nowadays because they are real enough in international politics, so the current phase (such works as the Da Vinci Code) is the popularisation of alternative history myths (like Baigent and Leigh's). Hence, all those potboilers you get at train stations and airports.

It is hard to see precisely why these fantasies seem to emerge at these times except that the educated middle classes always seem to be suffering from some deep anxiety because of rapid cultural change. Most of the fiction is backwards-looking and traditionalist.

Even in the apparently liberal 1970s versions, the analysis of the military-industrial complex behind the plots is closer to Eisenhower's and the fears are those of small town America rather than presenting anything critical in a truly socialist or radical way.

Impractical 'traditionalist' liberals placed so much of their expectations naively on one political clan to deliver an ideal of America that a concentration on conspiracy (rather than on political analysis) was just one way of coping with the shock of what would have resulted in severe disillusionment in any case had the murdered family members lived longer. A belief in conspiracy (even if true) evades the need to see American politics for what it is - a standing challenge to its ideals. It is always easier to believe that a bad faction took out a good faction rather than that the system is rotten - and this approach is fairly standard in conspiracy literature. Anything to avoid analysis of structures and systems.

The ideology of the X-Files is also quite conservative, with a strong catholic and family strand standing against unaccountable power 'out there' based on misuse of science and cynicism.

Personally, I love them as genre but the only one I can think of with any literary worth is the only half-serious The Man Who Was Thursday by G. K. Chesterton, another Catholic-conservative dealing with the emergence of anarchism in Europe (like Conrad in the Secret Agent at about the same time).

A fairly good but also only half-serious satire on the genre is Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum which at times seems like a gigantic Wikipedia entry by someone who has not found an editor yet. It might be Literature but it lacks the irrational joyous energy of the genre at its most 'purely insane'.

Personally, I consider most modern conspiracy theory to be a new branch of speculative fiction (with Baigent & Leigh's Holy Blood and the Holy Grail of 1982 the text that brings it mainstream), alongside the various forms of horror, science fiction and fantasy, with alternative history (a particular favourite of mine, see my own book reviews in GoodReads) often hybridising with conspiracy literature.

However, unlike most speculative fiction (except at the very hardest edges of science fiction and psychological horror), some of it edges towards the possibly true, if not now then in the future possible conduct of politicians or as an explanation of the past.

In rare cases, it fills gaps left by historians so that there are plausible alternatives to official explanations. This is the case with some 'faction' related to specific events in history (like the political assassination referred to above) where we can probably never know the full truth. The silences need filling and the speculation of the conspiracy theorists is no less valid on the facts than those of the professional historian - it often comes down to an imaginative judgement of human nature. And even if officials did not maliciously pervert the course of justice, officials can be blinded by duty or simply be utterly incompetent.

Indeed, as Robin Ramsay of Lobster has pointed out, conspiracies in politics are more normal than not. The main check on reality is that the members of the human race are just not competent enough to do very much more than combine to seize a political party, force through a policy or conspire against the public's interest as producers. Very big global conspiracies are simply not credible because we are not that clever, competent or organised as a race - unless, of course, you really do believe that aliens are among us or that God or the gods work in mysterious ways.

Most actual conspiracies are small-scale and time-delimited, soon exposed by their own errors and inner tensions. Trusts are, for example, conspiracies. Governments certainly are.

Which brings us to yet another sub-genre - the political or crime thriller which investigates corruption or organised crime and its relation to politics - or makes these its background. A good example is Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett which is said to have later inspired the Japanese film Yojimbo and so A Fistful of Dollars, but more properly Miller's Crossing.

What is interesting is that whereas macro-conspiracy literature (grail bloodlines, templars, rosicrucians, illuminati and so on) tends to look backward and be traditionalist and right-wing, micro-conspiracy literature, where it is just a backdrop to a story about organised crime and political corruption, tends to be progressive, radical and left-wing. Hammett was definitely a Communist.

So macro-conspiracy is a bookish response to anxieties about the unaccountable mob - after all, what is Lovecraft's Cthulhu myth but an alien conspiracy against good order - whereas micro-conspiracy is an angry individualistic response to the way raw power is exercised against the public interest - or is that too simplistic?

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