Science fiction took a big step toward modernity (actually postmodernity) with Theodore Sturgeon’s “Unite and Conquer,” which I read recently in the collection A Way Home. Within that story, the genre became aware of itself, in the sense that he made the connection between earlier plot motifs in H.G. Wells and the underlying conceit that humanity can unite only in the face of an immediate and existential threat. From that realization, it was a short step before someone tried to manipulate that phenomenon, for good intentions (i.e., to force peace and unity on humanity) or bad (i.e., to consolidate power).
The main actor in Sturgeon’s story manufactures an alien threat but with the purest of intentions, as does the darkened cabal in The Outer Limits episode “The Architects of Fear.” Of course this idea of a ruling order manipulating current events dates way back in annuls of fiction, at least as far back as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The first tenet in this faux-historical document states “…[M]en with bad instincts are more in number than the good, and therefore the best results in governing them are attained by violence and terrorisation than by academic discussions” (quoted from David Aaronovitch’s Voodoo Histories).
Humanity has been repeating this story over and over again, in some form or fashion, for at least 100 years, up to and including modern 9/11 conspiracy theories. I once had the idea I would track down its origins – where did this conspiracy theory of a guiding cabal of global architects first start? I thought I had a clue with Sturgeon. Maybe he was the first to introduce aliens into the mix, which popped up again in The Outer Limits and Watchmen (read the book if that doesn’t make sense to you), but he certainly wasn’t the first to write about this notion of a global elite guiding our history. I realized I was “chasing gulls,” a term Alan Moore used as he delved into the myths and studies of Jack the Ripper along with the “ripperologists” grasping for that one bit of evidence that reveals the killer’s identity.
So I have largely abandoned my search for the origins of this myth of a global cabal. Its origins are complicated and extensive, and it’s unlikely this story is less than 100 years old or even 1,000 years old. This is a story we like to tell ourselves.
Funny thing is, regardless of whether or not there’s a group of elite puppeteers pulling the strings on world events, the assumed end result, that the world population becomes compliant out of fear or united in purpose, doesn’t seem to ring true. At least not anymore – I can’t speak to the prevailing mood during the Crusades or the Cold War or after Pearl Harbor. Maybe we are just not as easily moved as previous, once we reached a point in our culture where we believe we should get everything we want, any time we want, and everyone, except for maybe you, will be a celebrity. The only thing that effectively scares us is something that might dispel that belief – and that we might have to sacrifice or at the least take responsibility for our actions. Baby Bush knew the temper of times, too well perhaps, in telling us to go to the mall instead of to your local recruiting station. It’s not 1984, it’s a Brave New World.