Conspiracies, Discordianism & post-modernist satire: Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea’s Illuminatus!, a 1986 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner

To highlight the Prometheus Awards’ four-decade history, the Libertarian Futurist Society is publishing Appreciations of all past award-winners that make clear why each winner deserves recognition as pro-freedom and/or anti-authoritarian in theme.
Here’s an Appreciation of Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea’s Illuminatus! trilogy, a 1986 Prometheus Hall of Fame inductee for Best Classic Fiction.


By Tom Jackson
I recently came across convincing evidence that Alice Walker, the famous American novelist and author of The Color Purple, believes that we are ruled by a “lizard Illuminati.”

An article at Vox.com helpfully explained that Walker is a fan of David Icke, and “Icke is best known for arguing that the world is run by a secret cabal of alien lizard people, many of whom are Jewish.”

Which brings me to Illuminatus!, and my attempt to explain a rather unusual literary work, one that won the Prometheus Hall of Fame Award in 1986, in a tie with Cyril Kornbluth’s The Syndic.

Illuminatus!, originally published as a trilogy of mass market paperback originals in the 1970s but sold since then as a one-volume omnibus edition, was written by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson, who at the time were working as editors for Playboy magazine.

The plot concerns a battle between the Illuminati, described as a secret cabal trying to rule the world, and their libertarian adversaries.

Wilson and Shea had a habit of going to a Chicago bar on payday, and during one of their meetups, Shea joked they could write a book based upon all of the crazy conspiracy theories readers sent to the Playboy Forum. The pair realized that could actually be a good idea and they set to work.

The two main heroes are Hagbard Celine, a libertarian who roams the seas in a large golden submarine, and Simon Moon, a left-libertarian.

Illuminatus! starts out with a mysterious explosion at a left-wing political magazine and the disappearance of the magazine’s editor. New York police officers sifting through possible evidence find a series of memos outlining various theories about the Illuminati.

Soon many other conspiracy theories are introduced and wild fantasy elements are brought in.

The books is a mixture of modernist and pop culture elements, a postmodern stew more unusual in the 1970s than it would seem now.

It references the works of James Joyce and the style is clearly influenced by the cut-up prose method popularized by William Burroughs, but the book also weaves H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos into the plot, and Lovecraft even appears as a character in the book.

There is plenty of libertarianism in the book, but also many elements of magick and the book also draws heavily upon Discordianism, the oddball joke religion (or religion disguised as a joke) based upon the myth of how Eris, the goddess of Discord, launched the Trojan War. The book has so many elements, it includes a fairly long appendix which explains some of its preoccupations.

Illuminatus! is not for everyone (many people apparently start it and are unable to get very far), but the people who “get it” tend to love it and become lifelong fans of the authors, particularly of Robert Anton Wilson.

I am one of those people; I have a blog, RAWIllumination.net, devoted to Wilson and Shea. One of the posts is Robert Shea’s acceptance speech at the Atlanta Worldcon when he accepted the Hall of Fame Award.

Note: Robert Anton Wilson (1932-2007) was an American author, libertarian futurist, editor, playwrightpoet, satirist (fnord) and major countercultural figure (along with his co-author and compatriot Timothy Leary) who wrote 35 fiction and non-fiction books.

Robert Anton Wilson in 1991 (Creative Commons license)

Among his wide-ranging jobs, Wilson served as associate editor of Playboy magazine from 1965 to 1971 and edited (with Robert Shea) the Playboy Forum, the magazine’s letters section. In 1965, he lectured on “Anarchist and Synergetic Politics” at the Free University of New York.

Besides the Illuminatus! trilogy (The Eye in the Pyramid, The Golden Apple and Leviathan), which he co-wrote with frequent collaborator Robert Shea, Wilson wrote several thematically related books, including Masks of the Illuminati,the Historical Illuminatus Chronicles (The Earth Will Shake, The Widow’s Son andNature’s God), the Cosmic Trigger series (including Cosmic Trigger 1: The Final Secret of the Illuminati), The Sex Magicians and the Schrodinger’s Cat trilogy (The Universe Next Door, The Trick Top Hat and The Homing Pigeons). Steve Jackson Games also created card-based games based on Illuminatus!

Robert Shea (1933-1994) was a former journalist and American novelist. Besides Illuminatus!,co-written with Robert Anton Wilson, Shea wrote several historical novels, including Shike, All Things are Lights, The Saracen and his final published book, Shaman (1991), a Native American story.

Robert Shea in 1977 (Creative Commons license)

During his journalism career, Shea worked as a magazine editor in New York and Los Angeles, served as an editor at Playboy magazine and edited No Governor, an anarchist zine mentioned in Illuminatus! and read by one of the characters.

* Coming up soon on the Prometheus Blog: An Appreciation of Cyril Kornbluth’s The Syndic, the other 1986 inductee into the Prometheus Hall of Fame for Best Classic Fiction, followed by Appreciations of Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land and Ayn Rand’s Anthem, the 1987 co-inductees of the Prometheus Hall of Fame.

* Other Prometheus winners:   For a full list of winners – for the annual Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction (Hall of Fame) categories and occasional Special Awards – visit the recently updated and enhanced Prometheus Awards page  on the LFS website. (This page contains convenient direct clickable links to each Appreciation for Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction, as they are published on the Prometheus blog.)

* Read the introductory essay about the LFS’ 40th anniversary retrospective series of Appreciations of past Prometheus Awards winners, with an overview of the awards’ four-decade history that launched the series in 2019 with review-essays about more than 40 Best Novel winners and that continues most weeks in 2020 with appreciations of the more than 40 Best Classic Fiction winners in the Prometheus Hall of Fame. If you’ve ever wondered why some fiction is recognized with a Prometheus, this series will help you better understand what LFS members see as the libertarian and anti-authoritarian themes in each winner.

* Read “The Libertarian History of Science Fiction,” an essay in the June 2020 issue of the international magazine Quillette that favorably highlights the Prometheus Awards, the Libertarian Futurist Society and the significant element of libertarian sf/fantasy in the modern genre.

* Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards, join the Libertarian Futurist Society (LFS), a non-profit all-volunteer association of freedom-loving sf/fantasy fans, and help nominate, judge and vote for the annual Prometheus Award winners. Libertarian futurists believe upholding and advancing culture is as vital as politics in spreading positive visions of the future, achieving a flourishing society based on cooperation instead of coercion and a better, free-er world (perhaps eventually, worlds) for all.

 

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