The conspiracy theory of society…comes from abandoning God and then asking “Who is in his place?” -Karl Popper, Conjectures and Refutations, as quoted in Foucault’s Pendulum, Umberto Eco
I started with the concept of counterfeit antiques (and historicity) a few weeks ago, and last week I glanced at the importance of counterfeit religion in Asimov’s Foundation. Before I return to The Man in the High Castle next week (fair warning; finish your re-read of Philip K. Dick’s classic alternate history novel before then; I’m going to release a living hive of SPOILERS then) I wanted to get into the concept of counterfeit knowledge – or, if you will, pseudoscience – and strangely enough, the best novel to deal with the concept is not even a science fiction book, although in some aspects it comes close to being one.
Foucault’s Pendulum has as much to do with science fiction as Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude has to do with fantasy; that is to say, not much at all.
However, Eco’s epic approach to the theme of conspiracy theory does it in what I can only describe as a most scientific and speculative manner. Key elements include a blend of historic and alternate historic events, a computer capable of playing a game of intellectual association that resembles an artificial intelligence version of Hesse’s Glass Bead Game, and a foil in the guise of a coffee-table science book called The Wonderful Adventure of Metals.
“The Wonderful Adventure of Metals must be, most of all, the story of science’s mistakes. Stick in the catchy oddity, and in the caption say it’s wrong.” – Garamond (publisher) to Causabon (researcher) in Foucault’s Pendulum
The plot of Foucault’s Pendulum pivots on something I would describe as a counterfeit conspiracy: a trio of researchers working for a publishing house (well, two publishing houses, really – one that publishes books for a legitimate market, and a sister company that is a complete vanity press, designed to make its money off of desperate authors rather than readers) enlist the help of a seemingly free-associating computer to construct a far-reaching conspiracy theory, primarily to demonstrate both the implausibility of popular conspiracy theories as well as to see how easy it is to create one.
The narrator and main character of Foucault’s Pendulum is Casaubon , who shares a surname with Middlemarch‘s fussy and ineffective academic Edward Casaubon, whose life’s work – his masterwork – is the Key to All Mythologies, which is unfinished and useless when he dies. Even more prominently, the name is shared with the famous Christian scholar Isaac Casaubon, who was the first to demonstrate that the very founder of Egyptology, a Jesuit named Athanasius Kircher, had not – as had been widely accepted – properly cracked the code of hieroglyphics.
So, even the main character appears to have two unspoken inspirations – the false and deathbound academic, and the faithful, mystery-unlocking intellectual.
Ultimately, the novel is about how false stories – fairy tales, even – can end up taking on a life of their own, about how a lie can become the thing it mocks, and how the truth – like a stone hidden beneath shifting sand, will be revealed after strong winds, no matter how deep its concealers have buried it.
While Telluric currents – the esoteric sort – factor heavily in Foucault’s Pendulum, in William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land, a form of both the natural (i.e. electrical/scientifically demonstrated) and spiritual Telluric current form the crucial basis of power for the Last Redoubt. Back here on planet Earth, Telluric currents are a real phenomenon, although as of yet are unproven to contain the mysteries of global domination…
Foucault’s Pendulum draws up an interesting set of rules regarding the nature of carefully constructed lies, and how the best lies are like parasite chameleons: they’ve got just enough of the truth to obscure it, not quite enough fib to be ridiculed.
And like the pendulum, a good lie may be designed to swing one way, but it will always come back. Only if the liar is lucky, the pendulum’s plumb will go off track, missing him by just that much.