"It is not the intent of this book to confuse fact with fancy."  Authors Robert
Shea and Robert Anton Wilson insert this modest disclaimer on page 760
of their 800-page postmodern sci-fi work
The Illuminatus! Trilogy.  Perhaps
they should have offered these words of warning in large print at the outset
of volume one.

In any case, I don't believe them for a second. I've
never read a work of fiction that tries harder than
The Illuminatus! Trilogy to blur the boundaries
between truth-telling and myth-making, or to mash-up
Delphic pronouncements with bald-faced lies. Thomas
Disch, a sci-fi author who would defer to few in
concocting outlandish tales, once compared Robert
Anton Wilson to Oliver Stone, the filmmaker whose
JFK mixed conspiracy theories with historical
facts in a manner some viewers found exhilarating,
others intellectually dishonest.  Yet such a comparison
is unfair to both parties.  Wilson and Shea dish up
"explanations" of the JFK assassination (and other
seminal 20th century events) that border on the
hallucinogenic.  Stone, by comparison, seems like
an honorary member of the Warren Commission.

Readers of
The Illuminatus! Trilogy learn, for example,
that John Dillinger, the infamous bank robber killed by
the FBI outside a movie theater in 1934, actually survived
the incident and turned up with a gun at Dealey Plaza on November 22,
1963.  But he was late to the event:  several other organizations had
already placed operatives on the scene with orders to shoot the President
—and the real question, according to Wilson and Shea, isn't who planned
the assassination of JFK, but which gunman managed to pull the trigger first.   
But if you seek ultimate answers, you need to dig below the scene of the
crime, to the underground lair of the Dealey Lama, whose office is located
under the sewers of Dallas.  He’s a wise robed and bearded man who
presides over a powerful secret society, and is perhaps more influential
than either the President or conspirators up on ground level.

Full disclosure: there are many powerful secret societies hatching obscure
schemes in
The Illuminatus! Trilogy.  You will need to keep a scorecard if
you want to track who is doing what to whom.   And these nefarious cults are
so secret, even members aren't entirely certain who calls the shots, and
what goals are pursued.   Some play it safe by joining multiple secret groups
—one character in this book even operates as a quintuple agent in the
employ of five separate organizations. In the long, rich history of paranoia
literature, from Kafka's
The Trial to Eco's Foucault's Pendulum, no work of
fiction has made a bolder attempt to find conspiracies within conspiracies
and masks behind masks.

It would be easy to laugh at the bizarre and extraordinary events presented
The Illuminatus! Trilogy.   But, like Vonnegut and Pynchon, those other
masters of Cold War paranoia literature, Wilson and Shea deliberately
embrace absurdity and farce as a mask for more serious concerns. In the
course of this book, you will encounter talking dolphins, Adolf Hitler as an
old man, the ancient kingdom of Atlantis, mind-reading and Tarot card
prognostication, as well as a bunch of other newsworthy discoveries that
The National Enquirer would scorn as implausible. Those who claim
truth is stranger than fiction, haven’t read
this kind of fiction.  Typical
example:  When the characters discuss Thomas Hobbes's
a real-life Leviathan shows up a few pages later.  They fear for their lives…
but then take some comfort in realizing that they are merely characters in
a book.  Yet one speaks up with a sobering view: "In the absolute sense,
none of us is real.  But in the relative sense that anything is real, if that
creature eats us we will certainly die—in this universe, or in this book.  
Since this is the only universe, or only book, we know, we'll be totally dead,
in terms of our own knowing."

Did you get that?   Fortunately, the Leviathan decides to marry some smart
computer software and live happily every after.   And this is one of the more
coherent subplots in a book that constantly veers in the direction of an acid
trip style of realism.

Yet as I look back at my description of this book, I realize that I have misled
you.  Because this book is just as serious as it is absurd.  Even as Shea
and Wilson pile up ludicrous incidents on top of one another, they also want
to convey words of wisdom.  As strange as it sounds, given my summary
The Illuminatus! Trilogy wants to possess the authority of non-fiction.   
The authors add footnotes and appendices, and work hard to substantiate
many of their claims with citations and evidence.  Not all of the sources
are real ones—I am rightly skeptical when any author backs up claims
with references to the
Necronomicon by the "mad Arab" Abdul Alhazred.  
But much of the documentation withstands scrutiny.   Shea and Wilson
add to the peculiar flavor of their work by frequently inserting long passages
that can only be described as a counterculture philosophy of life.  When you
reach the final pages of this work, you will find that your greatest challenge
as a reader is not evaluating the literary merits of the trilogy, but determining
how much of it the authors themselves actually believe—and, by extension,
how much credence you ought to give to their claims.

At a minimum, grant these audacious authors credit for uncanny predictions
about their future (and our present).  When forced to specify the goals of the
dominant conspirators, they offer this wish list:

"Universal electronic surveillance.  No-knock laws.  Stop and frisk laws.
Government inspection of first-class mail.  Automatic fingerprinting, blood
tests and urinanalysis of any person arrested before he is charged with a
crime.  A law making it unlawful to resist even unlawful arrest.  Laws
establishing detention camps for potential subversives  Gun control laws.
Restrictions on travel…."

This list was published in 1975, but could show up in a current-day editorial,
and none of the items would seem out-of-place.  Of course, many items on
this wish list are no longer wishes, having come true during the intervening
years.  On a host of other issues, from gay rights to the decriminalization
of marijuana, the authors shrewdly anticipated a future in which libertarian
and authoritarian impulses have both managed to implement aspects of
their conflicting agendas.

But I do need to mention the literary merits of
The Illuminatus! Trilogy,
even if the work itself asks for evaluation on other grounds.  In an era
when sci-fi books pushed the boundaries and adopted many of the devices
of highbrow fiction, few authors raised the stakes higher than Wilson and
Shea. The shifts in chronology, perspective and tone are as dramatic as
anything you will find in the most fashionable postmodern authors of the
day.  The clever and cryptic allusions to other works of fiction could keep
scholars busy for years.  (Try counting the references to H.P. Lovecraft,
for example—you might find a hundred or more in these pages.)   With
the exception of
Samuel R. Delany, no sci-fi writer of this period drew
more heavily on James Joyce;  you will even encounter a recurring
soliloquy toward the conclusion of
The Illuminatus! Trilogy that emulates
the stream-of-consciousness of Anna Livia Plurabelle in
Finnegans Wake
and Molly Bloom in Ulysses.

In short,
The Illuminatus! Trilogy ranks among the most ambitious works
of the middle decades of the twentieth century, even as it resists
categorization.  Crazy and sane by turns, the work may best be represented
by a symbol that recurs in its pages: the
Ouroboros or serpent swallowing
its own tail.  In this instance, the reader is also asked to swallow a very tall
tale.  But the strangest part of this very strange story may be how much of it
has come true.
Check out our sister sites:

The New Canon
Great literary works
published since 1985

Great Books Guide
Reviews of current books

Postmodern Mystery
Experimental works of mystery &

Fractious Fiction
Radical, unconventional and
experimental fiction
conceptual fiction
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson

Reviewed by Ted Gioia
To purchase, click on image.
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at

Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Woolf, Virginia

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

Links to related sites
The New Canon
Great Books Guide
Postmodern Mystery
Fractious Fiction
Ted Gioia's web site
Ted Gioia on Twitter


SF Site
Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
Los Angeles Review of Books
The Millions
Big Dumb Object
SF Novelists
More Words, Deeper Hole
The Misread City
Reviews and Responses
SF Signal
True Science Fiction
Tor blog

Disclosure:  Conceptual Fiction
and its sister sites may receive review
copies and promotional materials from
publishers, authors,  publicists or other

All rights reserved.