Saturday, June 2, 2012

Leopards in the Grass

Has this ever happened to you? You find yourself talking with someone who espouses interesting ideas on politics or philosophy. You find yourself broadly agreeing with him. Then he says something about stealth drones tracking all our movements through computer chips planted in our butts by CIA proctologists, or about the current economic malaise being an Illuminati plot, or about (my personal favorite) the inter-dimensional alien reptiles who rule the world through inbred elite human families. (See for more on that last one.)

It is particularly disconcerting when the people who say such things are obviously intelligent and well-informed. Michael Shermer, contributor to Scientific American, argues that intelligent people can convolute, reinterpret, and interconnect data in creative ways no dimwit ever could, so that intelligence is an asset, not a hindrance, to a conspiracy theorist. It is important to remember that the world is full of very real conspiracies, but, as Shermer says about hypothetical plots that require large numbers of people to keep silent, “The more people involved, the less realistic it becomes.

People are hardwired to see patterns and meaning in the world. Evolution saw to that. Any of our primate ancestors who concluded a rustle in tall grasses meant that leopards were lurking in there, for example, most often were wrong; still, they were more likely to survive than the primates who correctly surmised that rustling grasses and leopards only sometimes were associated. In the wild, being credulous about links is less likely to get you killed than being skeptical. Modern humans remain pretty good at discerning causes, patterns, meanings, and hidden links where they exist, but we are just as talented at seeing them where they don’t. We are motivated to see them, too; we feel uncomfortable with purposeless chaos. We are likely to prefer an outlandish conspiracy theory to a shrug and the old tee-shirt slogan, “Shit happens.” Nietzsche commented (not about the tee-shirt but about purpose), “People will accept any how so long as they have a why.”

We don’t live in the wild anymore. In modern civilization it pays to temper our natural inclination to infer hidden meanings, causes, and patterns with skepticism. Nevertheless, doing so is often a struggle, and even the most successfully skeptical of us might like to relax by indulging our paranoia, at least in our fiction.

Last week my copy of the newly released Nightworld arrived. I finished it in a day. It is the 15th and last in the remarkable Repairman Jack series of novels by F. Paul Wilson. There are other novels by Wilson that are not technically part of the series, but which have some of the same characters and presuppositions. There are also juvenile/young-adult prequels about the early adventures of the young Jack.

The Repairman Jack tales are reminiscent of HP Lovecraft’s stories in that they involve trans-dimensional entities. The entities are not supernatural in a strict sense, though in their manifestations they often seem to be. Their conflict, in something like a cosmic game of chess, has profound implications for life on this world, even though earth draws just a miniscule part of their attention; for thousands of years a tiny minority of humans have been aware of them, and, through all those generations, have conspired through secret societies to tap into their power for their own purposes. Given his druthers, “Repairman Jack” would have nothing to do with any of this stuff. Jack is an urban mercenary who endeavors to fix all-too-earthly problems for clients who, for one reason or another, do not wish to employ the police. Though no stickler for the law and not shy about violence where he deems it appropriate, Jack has a firm set of values; he is not dangerous to people who aren’t themselves dangerous. Very much against his will, Jack finds himself caught up in the proxy combat of those otherworldly entities through his clients’ cases. (There is a reason cases involving these matters keep coming Jack’s way, but the reason doesn’t reveal itself fully for the first few novels.) Jack gets a chance to see "behind the veil" to the secret history of the world and to the deeper reality of the universe.

The world of Repairman Jack is fiction, but it is appealing fiction. The series even might alter your perception of conspiracy theories, though I couldn’t say in what direction. I recommend picking up The Tomb, the first book of the Repairman Jack series. You then are likely to buy the other 14. You might even seek out, as I did, the juvenile Jack prequels, target demographic be damned.

Book Trailer for Young Adult Jack prequel to the Adult Repairman Jack Series


  1. I need to pick up "Repairman Jack". I keep hearing about it and it sounds a lot like the series of stories I've been working on for years. I'm afraid to read it on the one hand - and discover it is too similar and therefore renders my tales redundant. But at the same time, I love that kind of stuff and I'm sure I'd enjoy it a lot. Just need to take a chance and see where he went with the concept and have fun with it.

    1. It will take only one (The Tomb) to get you hooked. Unlike Lovecraft, Wilson has a very readable style, with dry humor mixed with pop culture references. Since the timeline of the novels covers only a few years (much shorter than the time it's taken to write the series), he had to update the first ones to keep some references current.

      I'm sure your take on the ideas are as different from Wilson as Wilson is from Lovecraft. If you ever want to send one my way for comment (or no comment, if you prefer) I'd be happy to take a look.