Tag Archives: Conspiracies


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.

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Return of the X-Files

Just a couple weeks ago I wrote about my affection for the old X-Files series, as I’ve been rewatching them on Netflix and in anticipation of the new miniseries, which has now aired its first two episodes (as I write this – by the time it’s posted #3 will have shown as well). I also did a little reaction thing to (finally) seeing the new Star Wars film, so I thought I would do the same for the return of X-Files this week.

On the whole, I liked the first two episodes very much. I have seen a lot of criticism for the first one for being heavy on the monologues and for unreeling an immense convolution of plot, and some of that is probably fair. On the other hand, from the first scene where we got Scully’s ‘oh this is bullshit’ expression back again, the X-Files had returned and it was, for me, like having some old friends visit for a little while.

These kind of things are always a little risky; I mentioned a while ago about how much I had looked forward to a new Star Wars, only to have Phantom Menace appear. It could not have been such a heavy disappointment if I hadn’t wanted it to be good so very much. It’s kind of like a favourite musician on a comeback tour or an athlete trying to come out of retirement; you have great memories of them, you want them to do well and to give you some more magic, and yet you can’t help but be a little worried the whole time about it not being quite the same.

I think X-Files has – so far – done about as well as they could have in giving fans More X-Files, which is probably all they intend to do. I don’t expect any bold new direction for the series at this stage of the game. It was probably a bit of a gamble to plop the tangled coils of the show’s Alien Conspiracy plotline down right out of the gate, but the intricate strands of the schemes that enmesh Mulder and Scully has really always been part of what you sign up for when you watch the series. You either dig it or you don’t, and most of the time I find the scope and scale of the plots our agents find themselves up against joyfully fantastic, and as I said in my previous blog on this, that they match themselves up against these apparently titanic opponents is part of why I love these characters.

We did get classic Mulder and Scully back, too – Duchovny still has the boyish enthusiasm for the wild ideas Mulder wants to believe in that comes bubbling out from an understandably weathered demeanour. Gillian Anderson’s performance is everything I could have wanted; Scully the sceptic is still there, but you can also see the affection and concern she has for her butterfly-chasing partner that she’s been through so much with. Mitch Pileggi has somehow gotten younger.

After only two hours (ish) of TV the new X-Files has already given us stealth UFOs, amphibious babies, Cancer Man, telekinesis and suicide by letter opener. Again, it’s not anything that breaks the mold for the show, but it certainly uses the original mold to cast some new stories that sit pretty comfortably on the shelf next to the old ones.

Along with the delightfully gonzo stuff that X-Files has always, at it’s best, dished out, we also got some moments of perhaps surprising poignancy. In the first new episode, there was a wonderful spot where we watched Scully slide into a sort of resigned despair as she realizes that Mulder is, once again, flipped over into True Believer mode and isn’t seeing anything other than what he wants to.

One final thing that struck me that did seem to me different from the original series experience also came in the first episode where Mulder is unspooling the grand conspiracy as he sees it, and suddenly there were right wing standbys like the FEMA camps thrown in there as well. I half expected him to say the government was coming for everyone’s guns.

Conspiracy as an idea is in an interesting place these days; with the revelations about NSA monitoring (along with their various accomplices) people are more apt than ever to believe that there really are things being done by their government that they’re not aware of and might not approve of. I know people in Canada are far more suspicious of government than I ever remember them being in the past. So it may be that a show like X-Files has to go pretty far to come up with a conspiracy that sounds like it goes beyond what a lot of the audience might suspect is going on in real life. It also seems to me that this vein of explicitly right-wing conspiracy is something that has grown a great deal in the years that X-Files was away. It’ll be interesting to see what the writers do with that, as one of the assumptions about the motivations of the people behind the scenes seems to have changed.

I also realize now that I may have quite a bit to write about this, so I’m gonna leave it for its own entry.

Overall, I couldn’t be more pleased to have X-Files back, at least for a brief while. I’m not sure how long they can continue to make the old formula work, but it’s been fun spending time with these old friends for at least this short visit.


A while back I wrote about George R. R. Martin’s delay in finishing his latest book (I hope reasonably sympathetically) and now I appear to have had my own Martin moment sneak up on me. I had hoped/planned to have the sequel to King in Darkness done by the end of November or beginning of December, and now here we are at the start of February and it still isn’t quite finished.

There’s been some disruption from holidays and other Real Life issues going on and I think that’s the problem more than anything else. I still feel quite positive about the book (which, if you remember my Statler-and-Waldorf issue, is good news) and the feedback from my Eager Volunteers has been encouraging as well. I just need to ruthlessly rope off some time in which to Sit And Write and get this thing knocked out.

So, I’m not quite prepared to call this a Writing Crisis, but flipping the calendar over was a bit sobering. Gonna get to work.


Bit of a short entry this week, for which I apologize to those of you who prefer something more long form. I’m a bit under the weather and also should probably go Write A Thing.

I’ll try to do better the next time.

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All right, the goofy idea is put off for another week because today I’m going to write about The X-Files. As you are probably aware, we’re a couple of weeks out from a 6 episode miniseries that will bring the show back for the first time in a long while – yesterday (I believe) a teaser website was launched and at least the initial signs are pretty promising. As it happens, I’m also plowing through the old series at the same time, having discovered that they’re all up on Netflix. So X-Files has been on my mind the last while and I’m going to make that our subject for the week.

The first thing is that in going back to the show for the first time in a long while, I was reminded how genuinely good it was. X-Files has since been so parodied and ripped-off (and, to be fair, the series probably outlived the really good ideas that were there at its inception) that it’s easy to forget that the original source material was actually very well done. I remember really liking first season episode ‘Darkness Falls’ when it aired and man, it’s a pretty solid hour of spooky TV. As increasingly convoluted as the show’s central UFO plotline eventually became, you watch the early stages of it and are reminded why this got people hooked.

Now, X-Files definitely came too late for me to say that the show made me want to write speculative fiction (William Gibson and Doctor Who having accomplished that mission long previously), I think it did affect the kind of stories that I generally like to write, and read. I like the overlap of the bizarre and the horrific with the very ordinary, which X-Files is all about. As much as Mulder and Scully are meant to be very talented FBI agents, they are also lacking magic powers, amazing gizmos, or prophetic destiny as they try to cope with whatever ghastly thing they run into each week. Most of the time, despite being federal agents, they’re among the least powerful players on the field and have to scramble to do whatever they can, which is sometimes just survive. Relatively ordinary people grappling with the extraordinary is another idea that has had a lasting appeal for me.

I also like (although this may be more how I feel now than how I felt then) that despite being so heavily outmatched, they don’t quit. It would be entirely reasonable for either or both of our heroes to decide that look, every time we try to investigate these crazy issues we tend to end up in deadly peril, one or both of us gets injured and, oftentimes, some government agency or other swoops in to destroy, hide and discredit all the evidence and we’re left with nothing. We quit. We’re gonna work on mail fraud or something where we won’t die and may actually make some progress. Of course, if they do that there’s no show, but it’s still admirable that neither character (even Scully, the sceptic) is willing to throw in their hand. They’re still going to try to bring the truth to light. I like that a lot.

I think probably a lot of the fiction we enjoy to today and a lot of writers working today owe that kind of debt to X-Files, (really, The King in Darkness could almost be an X-File) and a lot of the popularity of speculative fiction – pretty mainstream today – can be at least partially attributed to the success of the show. I’m not enough of a TV historian to know exactly how far to push the idea, but I do know that shows like Star Trek (original flavour) and Doctor Who were far from mainstream. Most people didn’t watch them and fans of those shows were regarded as a little odd. Lots of people watched X-Files. New episodes got hyped during NFL football. At it’s peak, it wasn’t unusual if you did know what was going on with the show, it was a little unusual if you didn’t. I think that’s a change (for which Quantum Leap and Next Generation vintage Star Trek also need to get credit) that has benefited SFF ever since – it opened the genre to way more fans than it had ever drawn in before, people who discovered the astounding, challenging fun these sorts of stories have to offer and have stuck around. X-Files (in part) brought a huge amount of attention (and therefore money) to SFF that hasn’t wandered away yet, and has continued to grow. Both for fans and for writers, that’s pretty cool, and it’s not hard to find a bunch of fiction that has a lot of X-Files in its DNA.

As well as that very broad effect, X-Files altered things for fans and writers in a bunch of more specific ways as well. The most obvious of these is the idea of the ‘shadowy government conspiracy’. I don’t think you can fairly say that this really originated with X-Files – post Vietnam America was pretty rife with sentiment that the government was up to no good – but I think the show did mainstream the idea and made it the default setting of a lot of fiction from that point onwards. The assumption now (in books, movies and TV from all kinds of genres) is that the government (usually the U.S. government, but not exclusively) keeps secrets from its populace and enacts various dastardly schemes to keep the truth hidden. Government agencies are to be regarded with suspicion. In general, the authorities are not on Your Side and may in fact be working against you.

That’s a massive change from the stories, a generation earlier, which (perhaps fuelled by post WWII optimism) tended to present governments and their agencies as solutions to problems rather than being part of the problem. Generally the government was either a Good Thing to be defended or sometimes, it was the cavalry that would come sweeping in at a key moment to help do the defending. Post X-Files, if you call in the cavalry you’re not too sure who or what they might decide needs to be swept away. How much X-Files drove that change in sentiment, and how much it was a symptom of it, is more than I can say. Either way, if you look around the fiction (and not just speculative fiction) that we create these days, it’s still the operating paradigm. Whenever The Feds show up, we’re just waiting for Cancer Man to loom up out of the background.

This is all stuff that I more or less expected as I went back to the show. I want to talk a little about one thing that has been very different. When I watched X-Files as it originally aired, my favourite character was (of course?) Fox Mulder. I know at least part of the reason that I wanted to get myself a trenchcoat was that I thought (very, very wrongly) that I would look as cool as Mulder does running around in his. So there’s that, there’s also that he’s (probably?) the show’s protagonist, so you’re supposed to like him. But I think I was also sort of primed by my own life to that point to like a character who has ideas that a lot of the people around him find strange or ridiculous, who doesn’t really ‘get along’ in the systems around him particularly well, but also tends to be right, or at least closer to right than anyone else, most of the time, and looks fairly heroic in persisting in what he knows/believes to be true in the face of nearly endless opposition. To a very limited extent, if Mulder could cope with it, so could I, and I’m sure that I liked him for that reason even as I’m just as sure that I would have stridently denied it, had you asked me at the time. I do still like the character for those reasons.

However, in coming back to the show, my favourite is now Dana Scully. In part that’s just because I enjoy Gillian Anderson’s performance so much – I could watch her somewhat resigned contempt for the people who try to treat her like a fool all day – but I also think there’s a case to be made that she’s the real hero of the show. While Mulder runs around on various lunatic schemes that have, truly, no chance for success and will probably end up with him under arrest and/or being shot, Scully doggedly keeps working away at evidence she can actually get her hands on, at trying to put together a demonstrable case of what’s going on. Mulder will run off to get a glimpse of a UFO that will (after Scully rescues him) just be another wild story; Scully is looking for something solid she can point to. It doesn’t often work, of course – the show would collapse if the central conspiracy was dragged into the light – and the evidence she’s after ends up getting confiscated or destroyed or traded in to save Mulder’s life, but her approach to things is admirable. It doesn’t matter what they know, or think they know, if they can’t prove it. Mulder just needs to know things, Scully actually wants to accomplish something by being able to prove that these things are true.

It is true that her scepticism, in certain episodes, starts to seem a little contrived after all the things the character has explicitly experienced on earlier cases. Most of the time, though, I think they pitched it about right – Scully believes that there’s a dastardly government conspiracy that has involved incredibly unethical things and bizarre misdeeds. She’s seen the rooms full of files and the mass graves (I can’t believe they did a mass graves scene, with the US government as the instigators, on network TV) and the weird medical remains. She’s just not going to say ‘and therefore aliens’ until that’s clearly supported by what she can lay hands on. For now, horrifically unethical medical experimentation is probably an awful enough story to go forward with. I guess I still tend more towards the ‘I want to believe’ sentiment from Mulder’s poster than the sceptical standpoint, but I figure Scully’s point of view is usually reasonably justifiable based on what she’s actually seen tangible proof of. Plus, of course, Gillian Anderson acts the hell out of it all.  “Please explain to me the scientific nature of the Whammy.”

All right. That’s a lot about The X-Files. I could ramble on further but I’ll call it here for now.  Maybe I’ll write a little more once we’ve seen the new series. I guess needless to say, I’m really looking forward to it. Thanks for reading – I hope your truth is out there this week.

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