Conspiracy fiction  

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The conspiracy thriller (or paranoid thriller) is a subgenre of thriller fiction.

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".

Conspiracy theory in the US (and echoed in other parts of the world) reached its zenith in the 1960s and 1970s in the wake of a number of high-profile scandals and controversies, most notably the Vietnam War, the assassination of President Kennedy, the Chappaquiddick incident, and Watergate. These works exposed what many people regarded as the clandestine machinations and conspiracies beneath the orderly fabric of political life.

Because of their dramatic potential, conspiracies are a popular theme in thrillers and science fiction. The subtle shades and complexities of historical fact are recast as a morality play in which bad people cause bad events, and good people identify and defeat them. Conspiracies are often played out as "man-in-peril" (or "woman-in-peril") stories, or yield quest narratives similar to those found in whodunnits and detective stories. It is perhaps no coincidence, then, that the English word "plot" applies to both a story, and the activities of conspirators.



One of the early pioneers of the genre was Graham Greene, whose 1943 novel Ministry of Fear (brought to the big screen by Fritz Lang in 1944) combines all the ingredients of paranoia and conspiracy familiar to aficionados of the 1970s thrillers, with additional urgency and depth added by its wartime backdrop. Greene himself credited Michael Innes as the inspiration for his "entertainment".

The American novelist Richard Condon wrote a number of conspiracy thrillers, including the seminal The Manchurian Candidate (1959), and Winter Kills, which was made into a film by William Richert in 1979.

Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges also wrote some stories featuring conspiracies. In Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius (1961), a group of intellectuals invent a fictional planet (Tlön), which is then revealed to society at large as if it were a real place, with the result that humanity becomes enamored with it and the structure of reality is replaced by the fiction of Tlön.

Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) includes a secretive conflict between cartels dating back to the Middle Ages, such as the Phoebus cartel. Gravity's Rainbow also draws heavily on conspiracy theory in describing the development of ballistic missiles during World War II.

Illuminatus! (1969–1971), a trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson, is regarded by many as the definitive work of 20th-century conspiracy fiction. Set in the late '60s, it is a psychedelic tale which fuses mystery, science fiction, horror, and comedy in its exhibition (and mourning, and mocking) of one of the more paranoid periods of recent history.

Ishmael Reed's Mumbo Jumbo (1972), set in 1920s America, takes its plot from the battle between The "Wallflower Order," an international conspiracy dedicated to monotheism and control, and the "Jes Grew" virus, the embodiment of jazz, polytheism, and freedom.

Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum (1988) features a story in which the staff of a publishing firm, intending to create a series of popular occult books, invent their own occult conspiracy, over which they lose control as it begins to supplant the truth.

Iain Banks' novel The Business is set within a fictional and highly secretive corporate body, evolved from a cartel of merchants in ancient Rome, who secretly run many of the worlds multinational corporations as fronts. The novel is set against the backdrop of 'The Company's' attempt to buy leadership of a fictional Himalayan principality in order to gain a seat on the UN.

The popular 2003 novel The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown draws on conspiracy theories involving the Roman Catholic Church, Opus Dei and the Priory of Sion.

In Grant Morrison's comic series The Invisibles, both the protagonists and their adversaries are members of competing conspiratorial groups. The series references a number of conspiracy theories, including those concerning the Illuminati and the Knights Templar, as well as UFO conspiracy theories which became popular during the 1990s.

Australian author Matthew Reilly's novel Scarecrow deals with the Majestic 12 as the conspirators of an international war. His other novels deal with such conspiracy theories as the competition between different areas of the Department of Defense and the secret breakdown of NATO.

Contemporary authors who have used elements of conspiracy theory in their work include Margaret Atwood, William S. Burroughs, Don DeLillo, Philip K. Dick, James Ellroy, Joseph Heller, Robert Ludlum and James Phelan.

Conspiracy theory in science fiction

One of the first science fiction novels to deal with a full-blown conspiracy theory was Eric Frank Russell's Dreadful Sanctuary (1948). This deals with a number of sabotaged space missions and the apparent discovery that Earth is being quarantined by aliens from other planets of the Solar System. However, as the novel progresses it emerges that this view is a paranoid delusion perpetuated by a small but powerful secret society.

Among modern science fiction writers, Philip K. Dick was one of the most prolific in this regard. Dick wrote a large number of short stories where vast conspiracies were employed (usually by an oppressive government or other hostile powers) to keep common people under control or enforce a given agenda. In one story, aliens invade Earth and destroy its civilization almost completely, but the remaining humans are made to believe that Earth won the war and has to be reconstructed (the aliens apparently want a pacific coexistence with humans). In another story, an undefined organization periodically "freezes" parts of a city, changes and reorders it, makes the appropriate changes in the minds of humans found there at the time, and then lets things go on as usual (similar to the film Dark City).

In his novel; 2012: A Conspiracy Tale, English author Bryan Collier combines contemporary conspiracy theories with Mayan legend.

Other popular science fiction writers whose work features conspiracy theories include William Gibson, John Twelve Hawks, and Neal Stephenson.

Film and television

One of the earliest exercises in cinematic paranoia was John Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate. Its story of brainwashing and political assassination holds the distinction of not merely reflecting contemporary fears and anxieties, but anticipating future conspiracies and scandals by some years.

The screenplays for two of the best-known conspiracy thrillers were written by the same writer, Lorenzo Semple Jr.: The Parallax View, directed by Alan J. Pakula, was released in 1974, while Sydney Pollack's Three Days Of The Condor entered release the following year. Pakula's movie is considered to be the second installment of a "paranoia trilogy," beginning with Klute in 1971 and ending with All The President's Men in 1976. Pakula returned to the theme with The Pelican Brief. Actor-producer Robert Redford played a part in 'Three Days of the Condor and All The President's Men. Director Costa-Gravas attributed two entries to the subgenre: Z and Missing.

Oliver Stone's Academy Award-winning 1991 film JFK — based on books by New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison and conspiracy author Jim Marrs — suggests that President John F. Kennedy was not killed by Lee Harvey Oswald acting alone, but rather by a group opposed to Kennedy's policies, especially his supposed reluctance to invade Cuba to overthrow Fidel Castro, and Kennedy's purported eagerness to withdraw American armed forces from the Vietnam War. Members of the CIA, the Military-Industrial Complex, and President Lyndon Baines Johnson are implicated as responsible for Kennedy's assassination.

The 1997 movie Wag the Dog involves a pre-election attempt in the US by a spin doctor and a Hollywood producer who join forces to fabricate a war in a Balkan state in order to cover-up a presidential sex scandal. Interestingly, it was made before the Clinton / Lewinsky scandal and the US led Kosovo intervention. Like All the President's Men and Marathon Man, it stars Dustin Hoffman.

Other films in the "paranoiac" or "conspiracy" vein include Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation, Capricorn One, directed by Peter Hyams, and Brian De Palma's Blow Out. More recent analogues include Conspiracy Theory, directed by Richard Donner, Tony Scott's Enemy of the State, and Mark Pellington's 1999 thriller Arlington Road.

One of the most celebrated contributions to the genre in the United Kingdom was the BAFTA award-winning television drama Edge of Darkness, written by Troy Kennedy Martin. David Drury's Defence Of The Realm and Alan Plater's A Very British Coup offered other British perspectives on the conspiracy topos.

On television, The X-Files was rich in conspiracy theory lore, often drawing influence from the aforementioned 1970s conspiracy thrillers.

24 and Prison Break, currently still in production, make heavy use of conspiracies. 24 bases each season around some series of threats against the United States, most of which stem from a conspiracy. These conspiracies usually extend to within the White House or the fictional government agency CTU. Prison Break revolves around a conspiracy to frame an innocent man for murder and simultaneously elevate an American politician to the United States Presidency.

An episode of South Park parodied 9/11 conspiracy theories in Mystery of the Urinal Deuce.

A luminary of the genre could be considered to be Gene Hackman, who starred in a variety of conspiracy-themed films: The Conversation, The Domino Principle, The Package, No Way Out, Absolute Power and Enemy of the State.


Deus Ex is filled with various references to conspiratorial organisations such as the Illuminati, Majestic 12 and the Knights Templar and also includes several conspiracy theories such as the New World Order, Area 51 and Roswell. The game's sequel, Deus Ex: Invisible War also makes references to the Illuminati and Knights Templar, as well as inventing fictional secret societies such as ApostleCorp and The Omar.

The Metal Gear Solid series contains a shadowy group known as "The Patriots" who manipulate politics in America. There are also references to numerous conspiracies in the games. Many of the characters betray the main protagonist, as well as one another, creating a very paranoid atmosphere.

Army of Two has a conspiracy-like plotline in which a private military contractor (mercenary)attempts to turn the US military into one private military corporation so he can command it, and launch meaningless operations to earn money.

Act of War: Direct Action features an industrial plot to take control of oil reserves and the infrastructure of the US.

The Broken Sword series, loosely inspired by Umberto Eco's book, also features the Knights Templar, among other conspiracy theories.

The Max Payne series contains a conspiracy plotline, with backstabbing from almost every character that the title character meets in the game. The series is also well known for having Norse Mythology incorporated into the plot, as well as having secret societies including 'The Inner Circle', an Esoteric cult group who work behind the scenes, pulling the strings. Their leader, Alfred Woden employs Max Payne to take down Nicole Horne, the antagonist of the first game. As Max learns in the sequel, many of the people he knows are also members of the group.

The Syndicate series revolves around an alliance of megacorporations gaining world domination through mind control.

XIII focuses on a plot to kill the President of the United States.

Area 51 has a plot based on a deep, vast conspiracy between extraterrestrials and the Illuminati as well as many other American organizations. It's interesting to note that the plot is derived from the combination of several conspiracy theories modified to fit in together. Throughout the game, files revealing and talking about popular conspiracy theories can be found.

The role-playing game and card game GURPS Illuminati by Steve Jackson Games features a humorous look at conspiracy theories. The illuminated pyramid is the company's logo.

The recently released Stealth game Assassin's Creed features the Knights of the Templar and towards the end of the game it also makes numerous references to the Illuminati and the Maya calendars 2012 end-of-the-world theory.

Critical analysis

See also

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