Tuesday, March 10, 2009


I just finished re-reading the timeless Illuminatus! Trilogy a couple days ago, and although I've been planning to review it for awhile, I just didn't know where to start. After all, how can you sum up 800 pages of the most ridiculous, self-contradicting, confusing, and frightening science fiction since The Bible?
Depending on who you ask, the Trilogy is either completely brilliant or complete shit. I tend to land on the "completely brilliant" side of the fence, but the book is still frustrating to read (on purpose), totally pointless at times (on purpose), and full of undigestable plot twists and storylines (on purpose).

Robert Anton Wilson (above, left) and Robert Shea (right) co-authored this thing way back in 1975, with brains brimming with LSD and conspiracy theories. Just about ANYTHING controversial or mysterious plays a part in the story, from the JFK assassination to Atlantis to the (faked) death of John Dillinger. Throw in some talking dolphins, Lovecraftian mythology, lots of graphic sex and violence, tons of secret-society mumbo-jumbo, and a plot to "immanentize the eschaton" (read as: bring about the Apocalypse through covert ops and black magick), and you've got one Hell of a massive Mindfuck on your hands (Operation Mindfuck is also a central theme in the book, presented as half fiction and half truth).
If I had to try to sum up the (basic) plot of this hefty tome in a paragraph or less, I would do it thusly: The Illuminati, a top secret society of mystical evildoers who have been around since prehistoric times (in Atlantis and Mu, specifically), are trying to destroy the world by unleashing an army of Nazi zombies at a giant music festival in Ingolstadt, Germany (in addition to spreading a holocaust-virus known as Anthrax-Leprosy-Mu in the United States). The only thing standing in their way is the half-mad philanthropist Hagbard Celine, who travels the world in a giant golden submarine recruiting revolutionaries for his own secret society, The League of Dynamic Discord. Through a series of intertwining plots, involving biological warfare, assassinations, voodoo, and hefty doses of numerology (the numbers 5 and 23 are ALWAYS involved in everything), the two groups finally face each other in a massive psychedelic battle, featuring lots and lots of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll.
Got that?

Below: The two authors, R.W. Wilson (1932-2007(?)) and Bob Shea (1933-1994)

Though much of the mysticism in the Trilogy is based on the nonsensical(?) ramblings of the Principia Discordia (a humorous quasi-manifesto first published in 1969, left), the book samples liberally from dozens of sources, including Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos, The I Ching, Greek mythology, Satanism, and the Mad Arab Abdul Alhazred's Heavy Metal primer, The Necronomicon (which, in turn, leads us back to Lovecraft). In retrospect, it's hard to believe that this book was written by only two authors. The Illuminatus! stands on its own as an epic piece of sci-fi/fantasy literature, but can also be seen as a stepping stone in the evolution of the infamous Church of the Subgenius, a group of "secret society" practical jokers whose basic creed is spelled out by Malaclypse The Younger (among others) in the aforementioned Principia Discordia.

Below: The insignia of Celine's League of Dynamic Discord, a yin-yang encircling a pentagon (the all-important "5") and a golden apple inscribed with the word "Kallisti" (study your Greek mythology, fuckers!)

The scope and ambition of this book is near impossible to digest in only one reading (upon my second reading, I'm even more confused than before), but it's still a trip worth taking. The authors seem determined to throw everyone off their scent at one point or another, with points of view and storylines switching over in mid-paragraph and sometimes even mid-sentence. Although documenting many of the mysteries that have plagued mankind for centuries, the book presents even more mysteries of its own. For example: See if you can solve the mystery of Joe Malik's dogs, brought up in an appendix at the end of the book (if you can't figure it out, drop me a line sometime). It's fucked. You are not MEANT to understand this book. The Bobs don't WANT you to understand.

Robert Shea (who conceived the book after reading paranoid letters with Wilson at Playboy, where they were both editors), after co-authoring the Illuminatus!, chose to walk a relatively tame literary path, focusing mostly on historical fiction but occasionally including a quick Illuminati reference, until his death in 1994. Wilson, however, walked the path of the absurd and the fantastic for 3 more decades, forming an alliance with fellow tripper Timothy Leary and sowing the seeds of discord, anarchy, and quantum anti-reality along the way. His library is populated with references to Sufism, Immortality, Zen Buddhism, Discordianism (see above), and Futurology, as indicated by such further epics as The Cosmic Trigger, Prometheus Rising, and The Schrodinger's Cat trilogy.

Right: Pru Gee as the Discordian goddess Eris, 1976.

The Illuminatus! Trilogy was adapted for the stage by director Ken Campbell in 1976, presented as five acts divided into five 23-minute segments each, for a total running time of about 10 hours. It ran for the month of March, 1977, in the National Cottesloe Theater in Britain, after a shorter run in Liverpool the year before. Despite its rambling nature and convoluted storyline, it was well recieved by critics, the most important of which was Wilson himself.

You can buy The Illuminatus! Trilogy here, get an audiobook here, or read a much more detailed analysis of the original text here. I personally suggest you should do all three.

Begin your quest for Truth in the video below (PS the "Truth" doesn't exist.):

R.A. Wilson's last published words, as read on his blog shortly before his death: "I look forward without dogmatic optimism but without dread. I love you all and I deeply implore you to keep the lasagna flying. Please pardon my levity, I don't see how to take death seriously. It seems absurd."


TMM said...

Shelby...That ruled. As a devout fan Of R.A.W., I couldn't have asked for a better (short) review. Have you read Schrodingers Cat. Definitely the most entertaining book I've ever read. I love it all. I just got a copy of Masks of the Illuminati too.

Shelby Cobras said...

The Cat is next. Look for a review in about a month. Or..... you could write one....?