I said a few weeks ago that I had a bunch of thoughts about conspiracies in fiction. I’m finally getting around to typing them at you. Right now a lot of speculative fiction, and stories from other genres, includes the idea of a conspiracy as part of the plot line. Audiences seem to dig ’em, which of course incentivizes writers to keep creating them. (I don’t believe it’s entirely a coincidence that X-Files came back this season, nor is it solely attributable to the current trend of remaking/rebooting absolutely everything) Outside of fictional worlds, it also seems that the idea of plots and schemes to conceal various truths and serve myriad nefarious ends is widely popular.
As I think I’ve said before, the idea of shadowy conspiracies is certainly not new. People have been worried about secret networks running things from behind the scenes for a very long time – the Romans worried about Christians, medieval authorities were often concerned about networks of heretics, and by the 18th century (or so) there were those Freemasons to worry about. The idea of the government coverup or conspiracy in particular really seems to have taken off around the 1960s (in the West, at least), when there was real evidence that civil authorities might secretly be up to no good.
To some extent it’s probably a natural thought process to imagine what goes on behind closed doors, to wonder if the people running things are all they seem to be, and (one hopes) to question what we’re told. I think probably everyone has felt, at some point in their lives, that the deck is stacked against them and that, somehow, things are working against you. I think we also tend to be natural connectors of dots and seekers of patterns, patterns which may not always actually be there, or mean anything. All those things combine (I think) to make people somewhat inherently prone to imagine or search for plots and schemes in the world around us.
I think a good conspiracy theory works well in fiction partly because they are inherently dramatic (the gradual reveal of a previously-hidden enemy) and they’re great for making your protagonist look heroic, as they struggle against opponents with significant resources and numbers on their side. (As an aside, that’s part of why I like Mulder and Scully from X-Files.) I think there’s also an element of the puzzle at work here; readers often like to have riddles to solve and clues that they can either try to put together themselves to reveal something, or watch them gradually fall into place until the Truth Is Revealed. So, conspiracies make sense in fiction at least partly because they work really well in a few different ways, and if you look at stories through history you find lots of them.
It does seem, though, that we are especially ready to entertain the idea of conspiracies, in recent years. Just picking from a few recent stories in the news, two years on from the disappearance of MH 370, many people argue that the jet did not crash, but was diverted, its passengers concealed for no clearly expressed purpose that I have seen. Within days of the death of Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia, there were theories flying around that Scalia had been murdered, presumably to allow the outgoing President to stack the Supreme Court on his way out the door. What seems to have been a fairly typical military training exercise (Jade Helm) got turned into an attempt to impose martial law and (somehow) overthrow U.S. society.
The MH 370 stories are, no doubt, partly fuelled by the lack of a solid official explanation for what happened to the flight; all we have is a best guess based on scraps of evidence. However, it’s worth noting that even the recovery of pieces of debris from the plane doesn’t appear to have brought an end to the theories that the jet did not crash, but was hijacked or diverted; the pieces of metal are all part of the conspiracy.
This is deeply sad more than anything, when it comes from friends and family of the victims. I suppose anything might be better than accepting that a loved one is really gone. However, this is also really not unusual with conspiracy scenarios – any evidence to the contrary can always be accommodated as part of a disinformation scheme, as an attempt to hide the truth. In some ways, the more of this evidence that appears, the more clear it becomes that the theory must be true – look how hard ‘they’ are trying to hide it! A good conspiracy theory can be incredibly durable. There are, after all, people who still believe, apparently sincerely, that the Earth is flat, or that the globe is hollow, and everything to the contrary is a conspiracy.
I don’t pretend to have a complete explanation for why ideas like these seem to be more attractive than ever. I suspect that (like so many things) the internet and social media are part of the deal. You can get your pet theory out to an audience that is so much bigger than was imaginable a few years ago, for very close to no cost. It’s also, of course, far easier to find these ideas as well, and to get connected with fellow believers. In general, we get exposed to a great deal more information about everything than was true in previous years. Lots of it can be hard to understand, and in searching for an explanation for it all, sometimes we may reach for unconventional explanations. Just as the internet is a fertile ground for just about any kind of communication, it’s a fantastic growth medium for ideas like these.
For writers, this is both a good and bad thing. There are tons of ideas out there that can be harvested for story ideas and plot points. It can also make things a little tricky because coming up with a conspiracy that would surprise or amaze a reader is perhaps harder now than it has ever been before. Based on things we know happened (doctoring of WMD evidence prior to the invasion of Iraq) or think happened, it’s easy to have your fictional plot overshadowed by ‘reality’. It’s just a guess, but I feel like the writers for the new X-Files series felt they had to turn up the volume on this (mini) season’s plot for it to hit as hard as they wanted it to, perhaps especially coming back after such a long time.
I don’t really have a nice bow to tie up all these thoughts in – which is another thing conspiracy theories are great for. They can provide a neat, comprehensible explanation to what can seem baffling, frustrating and confusing. Sometimes it can be preferable to believe something alarming and scary than just not know what to think at all. So although I don’t have a great sweeping conclusion to end this week’s blog on, I do know that I’ll continue to be intrigued both by stories of plots and conspiracies, and by their continuing appeal to society at large.
Thanks for reading.