Eight Myths about Conspiracy Theories

This time I’d like to stray from science fiction and write about one of my favorite topics- conspiracy theories. Why do people, especially in the mainstream media, view them with such disdain? I’d say that it’s due to a number of misconceptions, which I’ll address below.

  1. Believing in conspiracies is a sign of mental illness.We’ve all met the disturbed, paranoid type. I once encountered a homeless woman who muttered continually about Richard Nixon “reading her mind” with spy cameras. Then there are the “tin foil hat” people, like Mel Gibson in Shyamalan’s movie Signs (or in Mel’s case, real life.) Since some conspiracy believers are crazy, the argument goes, all must be- a conclusion that violates Logic 101. There’s nothing crazy about keeping an open mind. Even if a given conspiracy is nonsense, it can still provide inspiration for a good story. Chris Carter took advantage of several of them for the X-Files.
  2. Conspiracies can’t work in the real world because conspirators are always caught.People often cite the Watergate and Iran-contra scandals as proof of this assertion. These guys were caught and prosecuted, despite their powerful positions. More likely it was due to the plotters themselves. Nixon was a paranoid drunk and Oliver North was an arrogant fool. Yet on the topic of organized crime, people draw the opposite conclusion. When we hear of a truck full of drugs being busted on the border, we wonder how many others got through.
  3. Someone will always talk and expose the conspiracy.Never underestimate the power of group loyalty. For example, a policeman who blows the whistle on corruption in his department runs the risk of losing his job, and will likely be viewed as a turncoat by his friends on the force. In intelligence agencies and the military there’s the added threat of legal sanctions. Look what happened to Bradley Manning, reviled by millions as a “traitor,” despite his good intentions.
  4. If conspiracies were real, people who threatened to reveal them would be killed.There are numerous examples of people with knowledge that was dangerous to the powerful who died under mysterious circumstances: Clinton aide Vince Foster, British weapons inspector David Kelley, and JFK mistress Mary Pinchot Meyer to name just three. In most cases, however, it’s more effective to harass, intimidate, and otherwise marginalize the truth-tellers. Even the most damning revelations are harmless if no one believes them.
  5. Companies and private organizations conspire, but democratic governments don’t.The media can’t dismiss all conspiracies, because they like to point the finger at modern bogeymen such as tobacco companies and the Vatican. Foreign governments are also fair game if they’re enemies of the United States. Right wing pundits accused Saddam Hussein of plotting to attack America, but our “friends” the Saudi monarchy (who actually do support extremism) were off limits. See Gary North’s article explaining how conspiracies for monetary gain are acceptable but not those for political power.
  6. Belief in conspiracy theories is bad for public health and/or the environment.

This is why the Climate-gate scandal never gained traction in the mainstream media: environmentalists can only be motivated by good. Instead we hear how parents in Pakistan refuse to vaccinate their children because they suspect the CIA of poisoning the injections. The media doesn’t consider the behavior of the US in Pakistan (especially the drone strikes) as a likely cause of these suspicions. Obama aide Cass Sunstein has publicly expressed his desire to suppress web sites that promote “false information” on health issues. No doubt he would like to treat conspiracy theorists the way European governments treat Holocaust deniers- with arrest and prosecution.

  1. Because some conspiracies are false, they all are.

I’m a big fan of conspiracy sites such as Prison Planet. This doesn’t mean I accept every one of their theories as fact. Even the ideas I consider to be far-fetched (chemtrails, HAARP) may contain a kernel of truth or, as I noted before, provide fodder for sci-fi stories. My own theory is that agencies such as the CIA secretly promote bogus conspiracies to discredit the government’s skeptics. Consider the many bizarre and contradictory theories about the 9/11 attacks. Debates about “pods” under the aircrafts’ wings and molten metal under the twin towers draw attention away from more obvious questions, such as, did someone in the government have foreknowledge of the attacks? Could this be why FBI agents were ordered not to investigate suspicious Arab flight students?

  1. Governments practice secrecy not to manipulate and exploit us, but to protect us.There are plenty of counter-examples that show how governments, even Western democracies, view their citizens as expendable pawns in the “great game” of international politics. Consider the Pentagon Papers, which revealed that the Johnson Administration deceived the public about the Vietnam War. Or the Downing Street memo, which admitted that the reasons for attacking Iraq were rationalizations for a policy that had already been decided. For me, the clincher was the book Day of Deceit, by Robert Stinnett, which uses declassified documents to prove FDR had foreknowledge of the Pearl Harbor attack, which he welcomed as an excuse to get the US into the war. What I find most amazing is that so many people are still so gullible. If the government proposes yet another war against an apparently harmless enemy, they conclude that “the President must know something we don’t.” Who, I ask you, are the crazy ones?


Conspiracy theories are not always far-fetched or implausible, though even the crazy ones can be entertaining. Sometimes they make more sense than the conventional wisdom. Perhaps the theories themselves may be part of a larger conspiracy.



Next Big Thing Blog Hop

My previous entry was about my current work, but as you can see if you check out the other authors, I don’t follow directions very well. Here are the answers to the official questions in the new author blog hop. I don’t yet have anyone lined up for the next hop, but I’m working on it.

1: What is the working title of your book?

Fidelio’s Automata

2: Where did the idea come from for the book?

There were two characters in a previous work whom I had to delete because they didn’t fit the overall theme. I hated to give them up, so I transported them back in time.

3. What genre does your book come under?

Steampunk (Sci-fi alternate history.)

4: Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

I hadn’t thought about that much. The title character is Cuban, so I’ll have to research Latino actors. As for his sidekick Hank, maybe Nathan Fillion?

5: What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

In an alternate-history America of 1901, a gay Cuban engineer and a cowboy turned Quaker team up to oppose a disastrous war.

6: Is your book self-published, published by an independent publisher, or represented by an agency?

It is not published yet. I am considering the possibility of self-publishing it as a serial in several parts.

7: How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

So far, about six about months. I hope to finish the entire novel by October.

8: Is this your first novel?

No. I finished my first novel, Centrifugal Force,in October of 2012. It is political science fiction involving a group of computer hackers who plot to overthrow the government. Since I didn’t see much of a market for it in the traditional market, I self-published It’s currently available on Amazon.

9: Who or what inspired you to write this book?

A friend of mine was writing a steampunk novel and it looked like fun.

A Fascinating History

One of the things I found most intimidating about writing a steampunk novel was the prospect of historical research. I needn’t have been worried. It’s been the most fascinating aspect of the project. Most steampunk fiction is set in the Victorian era, in the mid to late 19th century. My book, Fidelio’s Automata, begins in 1901, at the tail end of this time. One of the things I needed to learn was what peoples’ daily lives were like in those times, around when my grandparents were born. In those days, indoor plumbing was a luxury and electric power was an innovation mostly found in larger cities.

Among the more important issues to resolve was how my characters should travel. In 1901, the horse-drawn carriage was still a major mode of transportation, albeit a slow one. The automobile was new on the scene, and transcontinental highways were not even begun. I was intrigued to learn that the first cross-country highways were privately-run projects, in some cases spearheaded by western businessmen as a way to promote tourism from the East. Another factor was the newly invented bicycle, which required a smooth surface for riding. Cycling groups formed the core of the “good roads” movement.

Although I wanted one of my characters to have a car, since the book is centered around emerging technologies of the time, the most efficient way for the characters to travel would be by rail. Another mandatory form of transportation would be the airship, especially since that’s a staple of the steampunk genre. Since this is fiction, I’ve advanced this technology by a few years. This seems plausible because the airship required less in the way of infrastructure than did land transportation.

One of my favorite things about writing about this era is that it takes me back to my childhood. No, I’m not nearly that old, but since I grew up in a rural and backward part of the country, I had experiences shared by few people my age. For example, I attended a one-room country schoolhouse through the third grade. By the way, this facility did not have plumbing; we had to use the traditional little wooden building with the crescent moon on the door. The farm where my family lived was connected to the electrical grid only a few years before my birth. The wind-turbine my parents and grandparents had used for power still stood at the top of a tower in the middle of the yard.

This is all the more amazing when I consider that my son, who was born hear the close of the 20th century, has never known a time without video games, computers, and the Internet. Speaking of the Internet, this has been my most valuable resource. It’s quite easy to find population statistics for various cities that appear in my book, such as Buffalo, New York, and Toledo, Ohio. I can even download street maps from that time so I can use correct names. Outside of the fictional aspects of the book, I try to stick to factual whenever possible, to preserve its historical feel. Years ago, when I first began writing, I had to make a trip to the library every time I needed this kind of information, which was quite time-consuming. Thus my book about the past is being made possible by the technology of the future. I hope that when it’s finished you’ll enjoy reading it as much as I did creating it.

Oz The Not-So-Powerful

I’ve always had a great affection for The Wizard of Oz, having seen the movie at least 15 times in my youth. It was our family ritual to watch it when it came TV on every year. Thinking of it now reminds me of something JRR Tolkien once said – that Britain had no mythology, so he decided to invent one. L Frank Baum did the same for our country, even if he only considered it to be an American fairy-tale. So I had to see the new prequel “Oz the Great and Powerful” when it came to the theater. The trailers featuring Mila Kunis in leather pants were also a motivator. Sadly, Mila’s pants didn’t make up for this not-so-great movie.

Like the original 1939 classic it begins in black and white. The early 1900’s artifacts and costumes seem convincing. The protagonist, carnival magician Oscar Diggs, gets to Oz in the expected way, the tornado-based time-warp wormhole. Big surprise: when in Oz, the movie switches to color. This new Oz looks like an acid trip combining elements of Dr Seuss, Lewis Carroll, and 1970’s Yes album covers. As Oscar narrowly escapes death and crashes into a river, good witch Theodora comes strolling along to rescue him. She immediately assumes he’s the Great Oz of the late king’s prophecy, the wizard who will save the realm from the wicked witch. To me it was puzzling. Why was she walking when witches can fly? And why did she need Oscar’s protection, when (as we later discover) she can shoot thunderbolts from her fingers?

There are a lot of clever effects and cute moments, many of which hearken back to Baum’s book (such as a “China Town” inhabited by porcelain people), but those elements don’t salvage this predictable story. They seem to be trying too hard to make a non-musical clone of the 1939 masterpiece. As in the original movie, the main characters in Oz are the same actors (or voices) of people from the Kansas segment. In this case the concept makes little sense, since Oscar never “wakes up” from his dream. Also, this Oz seems strangely modern. The dialog sounds too 21st Century. The people of Oz are a diverse PC bunch, with blacks, Asians, and a guy in a wheelchair, though they forgot to include gay munchkins. One of Oscar’s new compadres is a flying monkey; the new, scarier baddies are flying baboons. Because Oz has a 3-D version, this movie is full of annoying “things jump out at the screen” moments. The overriding theme is, as with the original, “believe in yourself.” This time, however, it’s less about overcoming one’s own fears and more about being tricked into self-confidence by a phony wizard.

I wouldn’t say that Oz the Great and Powerful was a total stinker, though it wasn’t really worth the cost of a full-priced theater ticket. Neither was it bad enough to accuse it of blasphemy against America’s Oz mythology. In fact, it only increased my appreciation for Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, and the rest of the old gang. Wait for this one to come out on cable, and until then, have another look at the original.

Why Steampunk?

If anything has surprised me about the steampunk movement, it is its longevity. At first it seemed like a transitory fad, more about the fun of wearing “high tech” period costumes to conventions than the stories themselves. Perhaps that’s true, but the literary movement is going strong as well. This is one of the reasons I am currently writing in this genre- my own interest, coupled with its current popularity.

My first exposure to the genre was The Difference Engine by Gibson and Sterling. This sci-fi alternative history about the rise of mechanical computers was published before the “steampunk” term became popular. Alternate history, and the steam era were frequent themes in science fiction (such as Michael Moorcocks’ Warlord of the Air) but only recently did it become a true sub-genre. Since then we’ve seen talented young writers such as Cherie Priest and Scott Westerfield emerge to capitalize on this trend.

Conventionally, steampunk focuses on the Victorian era, which coincides roughly with the reign of Britain’s Queen Victoria, 1837-1901, in particular, the latter years of the 19th Century. In America, this was known as the Gilded Age. Then, steam power dominated the world. It was also a time of great optimism about humanity’s future and the advancement of technology. This is when writers like Jules Verne and HG Wells invented the science fiction genre – though admittedly not all their works were optimistic.

I’ve heard it said that nostalgia for the Victorian era is strong nowadays because in those times, the future looked bright, in contrast to today’s bleak economic and political outlook. Even the rigidity of western society in those bygone times seems refreshing compared to our modern decadence.

Still, there are those of us who can’t quite leave the Gilded Age as it was. This is where the “punk” element comes in. According to Wikipedia, sci-fi writer K.W. Jeter coined the term for the sub-genre containing his own works. The term was originally a pun on the term “cyberpunk,” a popular sci-fi subgenre of the 1980’s, which was in turn associated with the appropriately named “cypher-punk” political movement. At that time “punk” signified anarchy and/or decadence. Eventually the suffix the “punk” came to signify “alternate,” such as the modified histories of steampunk and other new genres such as “dieselpunk.”

Though I’ve always been fascinated by history and period novels, alternate history, such as the works of Harry Turtledove, are even more fun. This kind of writing provided the inspirations for my upcoming novel Fidelio’s Automata. What would have happened if McKinley had not died from the shooting in Buffalo, and Teddy Roosevelt had not become president? Because I grew up in North Dakota, TR (who lived there for a time) was part of the local mythology, and it would be fun to change his life story. Other fascinating characters from that time and place were the Marquis de Mores, an eccentric French nobleman and entrepreneur, and his “liberated” American wife, Medora. What if their business had not failed? The Marquis would not have returned to France, gotten involved in extremist politics, and died as the result of a political plot in North Africa. In Fidelio, I can change these events and speculate on what might have been.