How to Construct the Ultimate Conspiracy Theory
Tim Powers is one of the foremost practitioners of the secret history genre, in which real historical events are revealed to have surprising fictional explanations. And Powers—who was good friends with the ultimate master of paranoid sci-fi, Philip K. Dick—has developed a reliable system for spinning out elaborate new conspiracy theories. It starts with reading a lot of history and looking for unexplained facts that seem to be connected.
“If I run into two or three such snags in a nonfiction book, I start to think maybe you could cook up a supernatural backstory in which those enigmatic or apparently irrational actions actually make sense,” Powers says in Episode 186 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast.
He’ll collect several dozen such oddities, then find some way to tie them all together into one story. This process has led to popular novels such as Last Call, On Stranger Tides, and Declare, which suggest that Bugsy Siegel was the Fisher King, that Blackbeard practiced voodoo, and that superspy Kim Philby was involved with Noah’s Ark.
“My governing principle with research is that none of this is a coincidence,” says Powers. “If Einstein did something in Germany on the same day that Charlie Chaplin broke his toe in Hollywood, I think, ‘Aha! Not a coincidence.’”
His new novel, Medusa’s Web, imagines that magical sketches called “spiders” allowed silent film stars like Rudolph Valentino and Alla Nazimova to project their minds through time. As the theory took shape, he began to notice apparent confirmations for it in everything from Greek mythology to the films of Ingmar Bergman.
“If it’s very late at night,” he says, “I find sometimes when I open some new research book, it’ll appear to confirm my fictional theory, and I’ll think, ‘Oh my god, Powers, you’re not making this up! You’ve stumbled on the actual story here.”
But he’s careful not to get too wrapped up in his theories. Writing novels has taught him that you can find confirmation for anything if you look hard enough.
“I’d be nuts if I took this into everyday life,” he says.
Listen to our complete interview with Tim Powers in Episode 186 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
Tim Powers on the supernatural:
“It may be relevant that I’m Catholic, and so supernatural events are not entirely ruled out. One time I was going to write a book which was sort of ‘The Exorcist in San Bernardino.’ … I got a book by Malachi Martin which was actual transcripts of exorcisms—dialogues between priests and devils—and I thought, ‘Cool! Wow, boy, I’ve got all my research right here. This is great.’ And I opened the book, and on the first page it says, ‘The author and publisher advise that anyone reading this book say the following prayer before and after each chapter.’ And I slammed it shut and thought, ‘Well, I don’t need that. Uh-uh. I ain’t doing that.’”
Tim Powers on Philip K. Dick:
“He was always very mercurial in his convictions, which leads to a lot of inaccuracies about him—people will say he was Episcopalian, he was an Orthodox Jew, he was Gnostic, and I think, ‘Yeah, for a day.’ Check with him the next day and he’d be something else. … It’s weird to see the sort of consensus caricature of him that emerges—this kind of crazed, drug-addled hermit writing these crazy books all alone. And I think, ‘That wasn’t the guy I knew.’ The guy I knew was really sociable and funny, well-read, skeptical. It must be the same with people who knew Byron or Hemingway or any other writer who becomes a legend, you start to notice that the legend doesn’t resemble the actual model much.”
Tim Powers on William Ashbless:
“The college paper printed poetry, and it was close enough to the ’60s that the poetry was all just horrible free verse about children and flowers and rainbows. So we figured we could write poetry that would sound very portentous but be, in fact, meaningless. … We needed a name for our poet and [came up with] ‘Ashbless.’ The paper published them, so we wrote another lot that was dumber, and they published that. … We said [Ashbless] was hideously deformed and couldn’t attend any readings or meetings, but he had given us these poems to read in his stead. … Blaylock and I would often break out laughing in the middle of reading them, which people thought was very insensitive of us, to be laughing at the poetical efforts of our deformed friend.”
Tim Powers on breaking the fourth wall:
“I hate ‘tongue-in-cheek,’ ‘irony,’ ‘self-referential,’ anything where the writer says—in effect—to the reader, ‘Well, we both know this is just made-up stuff, huh?’ … I remember a George MacDonald Fraser book called The Pyrates, and they’re reading a magazine called ‘Playrogue’ or something—which was a parallel for Playboy—and in a sword fight one of them says, ‘You can’t kill me on page four!’ … I don’t like that sort of tone in fiction. I feel very cheated. … I don’t like it in Terminator movies if Schwartzenegger says, ‘I’ll be back,’ for the second time. That’s just winking at us. The first time it was great, but now you’re just nudging us in the ribs and saying, ‘Hehe. Remember, remember?’ Which is taking me out of this immediate story at hand.”