One of the innumerable definitions offered of science fiction, a genre notably difficult to define, is that it is the "literature of ideas." (in opposition, presumably, to the mainstream of Anglophone literatures which, these days, is the literature of individual psychology). Most science fictions of course fails to meet that standard, but is instead trite manipulation of the iconographic symbols which science fiction represents—space ships, aliens, immortality, galactic empires, telepathy and the rest of that scf-fi stuff.
If the definition is to be taken seriously, however, there is no doubt that Robert Anton Wilson is a science fiction writer par excellence. His work is as rife with ideas as a Snickers bar is with peanuts—bizarre ideas, even heretical ones. One of his central preoccupations is the conspiracy theory of history—a preoccupation doubtless encouraged by the commercial success of the Illuminatus trilogy, co-written with Robert Shea. Alternate realities, psychogenic drugs, magic, and libertarianism pop up continuously—things which have made Wilson a cult hero to various lunatic fringe groups, but upon which he fruitfully draws for some of his weirder ideas.
A case in point is the very title of Wilson’s Schrodinger’s Cat series. Schrodinger used the idea of a cat in a gedankenexperiment to illustrate the fundamental ideas of quantum mechanics. Suppose we put a cat in a box, along with a gun. The gun is connected to a trigger activated by the decay of a single radioactive atom. After one half life, there is exactly a fifty percent chance that the atom has decayed, the gun has fired, and the cat is dead; and there is a fifty percent chance that it has not, the cat is still alive. There is no way to know, without opening the box, whether or not the cat is dead. The cat exists in a state of "quantum uncertainty": only an observer, by taking the action of opening the box, can determine whether the cat is dead or alive. In the same sense, by quantum theory there is no way to fix a particle's position and velocity: that, too, is always uncertain.
Wilson elevates Schrodinger’s cat into a symbol, opposing it to Pavlov’s dog; the bell rings and the dog salivates; it is a symbol of determinism. The cat is in a state of uncertainty; it is a symbol of free will. Determinism leads to the idea that the economy and society can be scientifically and efficiently controlled; free will, to the idea that it cannot, and that only a free economy and a free society can be both humane and creative.
So by the tortuous path of particle mechanics and epistemology, Wilson develops a set of symbols to represent the fundamental ideological conflicts of our day. one can agree or disagree with the analysis (and some of Wilson’s ideas are patently silly); regardless: one can only respect the sheer artistry of the presentation.
Wilson is unusual in that he takes style seriously. Most sf writers don’t; the pattern laid down by John Campbell, once the most influential editor in the field, still holds. Campbell’s dictum was, in essence, that prose should be transparent and immediately accessible to the reader—in other words: stylistically neutral. Some writers work well this way and others do not, but only with the "New Wave" in science fiction of the late 60’s did stylism become acceptable.
Wilson is not, perhaps, a terribly original stylist: Schrodinger’s Cat was in many ways an homage to Joyce. Wilson had a justification, though: the series takes place across a number of intersecting alternate realities, each containing slightly different versions of the same characters, a disjointed situation to which Jayce's prose is admirably suited.
The Earth Will Shake is perhaps the most readable of Wilson’s novels to date—that is, it proceeds in normal temporal order, there is no apparent attempt to hide or obfuscate, there is only one narrator, and the action occurs in one universe. In addition: it is both a book of ideas and one of personal psychology.
This is a coming of age novel—although the child who comes of age is an 18th century Neapolitan, and he does so by rejecting the Church, taking psychogenic drugs. becoming a Free Mason, and accepting the principles of radical liberalism.
The late 18th century is a congenial one for Wilson’s purposes. This is the last age in which the common practice of magic can reasonably be set; the first in which a political movement favoring civil liberties and free markets arose; and one in which underground movements and political conspiracies were rife. The age was nothing if not colorful, and Wilson makes the most of it, placing his narrator at an auto da fé in Naples, in pre-Revolutionary Paris, in the England of Burke and Samuel Johnson. Through it he interweaves the story of his narrator, Sigismundo Celine, a minor composer who meets and detests the young Mozart, and who is eventually forced to flee his native Bourbon-dominated Naples for political reasons.
The whole, of course, is merely preparation: Celine is clearly destined to play a role in America’s struggle for independence and in the cataclysm of the French Revolution. Wilson indicates as much—The Earth Will Shake is labelled as "Volume One of the Historical Illuminatus Chronicles." In general, one is required to be suspicious of people who plan series; but Wilson has chosen a subject of sufficient scope that it seems likely he will be able to continue while retaining interest and room for maneuver.
Whether or not it was consciously planned that way, this book is Wilson’s first work likely to appeal to a literary audience. The prose is clear and almost beautiful at times, the narrator engaging yet flawed in any number of particulars. It has its moments of comedy, its moments of tragedy: and its moments of dead earnestness. Wilson is one of the growing body of writers to which science fictioneers can point when they claim their genre contains writers of as much merit as the mainstream.
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