(Part two of Lewis Shiner's interview with Robert Anton Wilson. Part one ran yesterday.)
How about politics?
I've gotten increasingly agnostic and I've gotten older, and increasingly wary of ideologies, including my own. So if you tied me to a lie detector, with a gun to my head, I would have to say, most of the time, I'm somewhere on the libertarian-anarchist continuum. But I distrust myself. I distrust being rigidified and getting dogmatic, so I keep challenging my own assumptions and looking at alternatives. Knowing how dumb I am, I don't want to become another dogmatist. I saw what happened to Ayn Rand and sweet Jesus forbid it should happen to me.
Now my political activity consists of making regular contributions to Amnesty International, which I regard as insurance, not as charity. Amnesty has a very simply policy, namely, "People should not be locked up for their ideas." I'm all for that. I figure anybody in jail for his or her ideas is depriving my brain of nourishment. If they could get out and publish their ideas it might inspire me; it might give me new ideas; it might cause brain growth. As long as one heretic is locked up, part of my brain is locked up and I'm not getting the nourishment I need. So that's the one thing I still contribute to regularly: Amnesty. My wife contributes to the American Friends Service Committee — I don't, because she's already doing it. That's about it. I'm very cynical about politics. I have a wan, nostalgic hope that Jesse Jackson will win, just because a black president would restore a balance. So would a woman president, of course.
Large parts of The Earth Will Shake are openly didactic —
I don't mind being didactic. It's unfashionable, but my favorite writers were all didactic — Dante was didactic, Shakespeare was didactic, Chaucer, Jonathan Swift, Ezra Pound.
Do you see a big distinction between your fiction and non-fiction?
No, because I can't tell the difference myself. I think it's entirely arbitrary which books are put in fiction and which are put in non-fiction. I'm a big fan of Charles Fort, and one of the things he said that I especially treasure is, "I frankly offer this as fiction, in the same sense that Genesisand The Origin of Species and Euclid's Geometry are fiction."
Strieber's Communion is entertaining, whether it was true or not.
It's a very clever work of art. He creates more terror in that "factual" book than most "fiction" writers. He knows how to build up the tension and get under your skin. I'm pretty skeptical about abductee stories, but there was a point about three quarters of the way through that book where I found myself looking around the room to see what damned thing might have gotten in in the last few minutes.
I'm not convinced Communion is fiction. I'm not convinced it's non-fiction. It's in a quantum "maybe" state as far as I'm concerned.
Were you a Lovecraft fan before you got into Illuminatus?
I was a Lovecraft fan since I was about 12. I think it was when I was 12 I heard "The Dunwich Horror" with Ronald Coleman as the narrator. It impressed the hell out of me. I started looking for Lovecraft and I couldn't find any Lovecraft books, but I found a few short stories by him in anthologies. Then when I was 14 I found a whole book of Lovecraft, edited by August Derleth. So Lovecraft has been a passion with me most of my life. I like the way he uses techniques that make you think, "Gee, maybe this isn't fiction." That fascinates me, because doubt lasts longer than faith and provokes thought rather than discouraging it.
Surrealism fascinates me, too. The first Surrealist show, people had to come in through a garden where there was a taxicab, and it was raining inside the taxicab but not outside. When the audience — or victims — got past that, the first thing they saw in the building was a big sign that Andre Breton had hung up that said, "Dada is not dead! Watch your overcoat!" At that point the distinction between art and life had been completely obliterated. I aim for that in all my books.
I like happenings, I like that game I was telling you about earlier. I like to blur the distinctions, because most of what we think is perception is actually projection anyway. I like to make people more aware that they are creating the reality they inhabit. Lovecraft taught me a lot about how to do that, in a literary way.
My favorite of all my books is The Widow's Son because I think I created uncertainty better there than anywhere else. I don't think there's anybody in the world who can tell how much of that book is real and how much is fiction. Including me. I don't absolutely know how much to trust my sources.
--- and how much you made up may have been true.
I've had that happen, too. In Illuminatus I made Beethoven a member of the Illuminati. That was a parody of the Christian Crusade in Oklahoma — they were claiming the Beatles were Communist agents. I decided to put it back 200 years and make Beethoven an Illuminati agent. And, my God, that was just a joke, but it's true! Beethoven either belonged to the Illuminati or was certainly a fellow traveler. He was very closely associated with them. I had no idea that was true when I wrote it.
What other SF writers have influenced you?
Robert Heinlein. Some people say Heinlein's later stuff isn't as good as his earlier stuff. There are weaknesses in his later books but there are good things in his later books too. In some ways I think he's gotten worse, and in some ways he's gotten better. But his books are all interesting. They're certainly provocative.
Some people regard books as a narcotic. I regard books as a stimulant. If they don't stimulate me, to hell with them. Same thing with movies. I don't want soothing, sedative movies. I want provocative, challenging movies.
The next science fiction writer who's been a major influence on me is Olaf Stapledon. I think he's the greatest science fiction writer who ever lived, and a greater philosopher than Bertrand Russell or Sartre.
Phil Dick is another of my favorites. In fact there's a lot of synchronicities between Phil and me. Phil and I had a lot of the same sort of paranormal experiences at around the same time. Phil was just as agnostic about it as I am. Cosmic Trigger and VALIS were statements for that time. I'm still mulling over a lot of those things, and Phil would be mulling too, if he were here.
What kind of a person is Timothy Leary?
That's a hard one. Tim says there are 24 Timothy Learys, and which one you contact is a measure of your own intelligence. I guess I've encountered about 18 of them. He continually astounds me. I find him admirable, at times. He's certainly brilliant. He's very funny. At times I find him annoying. He can be very cold and inhuman, and he can be very warm and sympathetic. There are so many facets to Leary that anything you say about him is untrue. He's just too complicated for anybody to summarize him briefly.
Visiting Tim in prison was a really major influence on me. Seeing how he kept himself high and cheerful under those conditions convinced me it can be done.
Have you done any short fiction?
I had a few short stories published, but I sort of stopped writing short fiction when I started getting books published.
Do you have a favorite of your own works?
I like all my books. [Laughs.] If you don't enjoy your work, you might as well give up. Frank Lloyd Wright was a witness in a court trial once, and he was asked, "What is your profession?" and he said, "Architect." The next question was, "What is your standing in your field?" and he said, "I am the world's greatest architect." His friends told him later, "Frank, you carry this arrogance too far sometimes." He said, "What could I do? I was under oath."
You must feel you've had some kind of growth.
I don't think I'm moving towards becoming a Platonic Ideal Writer. I think my style has improved over the years. I think I'm more versatile with certain types of dialog, styles of dialog for different types of characters. And the conversational tone--I'm getting better at that, without getting sloppy, or losing such intelligence as I possess. I think my style has developed, and I'd like to go on developing it.
I want to write a whole book about Joyce someday. I have a lot of ideas for books. One of them is The Truth About Sex. I probably will never do this one; that's why I talk about it so much. I'd like somebody to rip the idea off, so I don't have to do it. There was a book that was a bestseller, ten or 15 years ago, Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex But You Were Afraid To Ask Your Doctor, and it was in question and answer form. I thought the author was one of the stupidest people I'd ever read. I decided to do the book correctly. It'd be in question and answer form, but instead of one answer to each question there would be four or five, or maybe even a dozen, all from leading authorities, and all contradicting one another. The idea of the book was to show that the authorities don't know what the hell they're talking about. It's an area full of prejudice. There's no real science of sexology yet; it's all various people expressing their personal prejudices and disguising it as psychology or sociology. So I thought, take a question like, "What causes homosexuality?" and give twelve different answers just to show how much the scientific community really knows; they can't even agree about a simple thing like that. "What causes heterosexuality," for that matter? "What is the difference between vaginal and clitoral orgasm?" I'd get about 24 different opinions on that, in the literature.
The reason I'll probably never do that book is getting the permissions from all these authors is a Herculean task, which publishers always dump on the writer. And once they found out what they had agreed to, the experts would all be furious because they'd all look like idiots, because they're all overly dogmatic. They'd be very furious and god knows what they'd do about it. So I hope somebody else does that book and I don't have to do it.
I'd also like to write a book about Pearl Harbor. The revisionist historians have been thoroughly slandered and are mostly out of print. I wouldn't be adding much original; I think everything worth saying has been said by Charles Beard and Harry Elmer Barnes and James J. Martin and a few others. But their books are out of print or hard to find. My book would be just one more effort against what Barnes called "the historical blackout." One more effort to put the facts on record.
Or, I'd like to do a book of eight essays on eight things that everybody believes about history that can be clearly proven to be dubious at best and probably untrue. That the arrack on Pearl Harbor was a surprise. Or the common image of Christopher Columbus. It's pretty well documented that he was a Jewish homosexual, but that's not what we're taught in school. And the genocide of the American Indians. Americans all assume genocide was invented by Hitler. I'd like to document that. Hitler was just copying the example of this country.
I'd like to do an essay on the case against Earl Warren. I remember getting into an argument with Ralph Ginsberg, and he said "I believe the Warren Report, because I believe Earl Warren was a great liberal and an honest man." So I'd like to do a whole review on Warren's record, beginning with putting' the Japanese in concentration camps during World War II, and show what a great liberal Warren really was.
Another book that I am doing, as a matter of fact, when I get the time--I've already discussed it with Falcon press--is New Age, Sewage. I just did a book, The New Inquisition, which was on the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. As usual, when you start writing a polemic, you get carried away by your own rhetoric. I figure I gave them such a drubbing that people are going to think I'm entirely on the opposite side--this being an Aristotelian culture where people think in either/or terms. So I figure I ought to give the New Age a drubbing too, to show what my true position is: agnostic, against all dumb dogma. I especially want to do a chapter on Ramtha, demonstrating that you can be dead 40,000 years and still be a bore.
Have you ever been tempted to pull an L. Ron Hubbard, and start your own religion?
Oddly enough, I've never been seriously tempted, although I think I could get away with it. It reminds me of a conversation I had with one of my daughters recently. She asked if she could borrow some money to pay her auto insurance, and I said, "Sure," and I sent her the money. She called back a few days later to say she got the money and thank me, and I said, "Would you agree there are 20 million cars in California, at least?" And she said, "Oh, at least 20 million." I said, "The lowest insurance you can get is $400." She said, "Yeah." So that's eight billion dollars a year the insurance companies are making, in one state. Eighty billion in ten years. So that was worth spending at least ten million on bribing legislators--maybe a hundred million--to get a law like that through. So I said, "Why don't we start our own insurance company." And she said, "I'm afraid that would be bad karma." And that's why I haven't started my own religion. It's bad karma to swindle people.
What's your opinion on pornography?
I agree with Magnus Magnusson. He's the host of an English quiz show called Mastermind, that's a very--not intellectual, but erudite quiz show. The contestants are all experts in some rare field of knowledge, like German history from 1872 to 1886, or Irish poetry of the 7th and 8th centuries--things like that. The winner is the person who can answer the most questions in one minute.
Anyway, Magnus Magnusson was on an Irish television show and somehow the subject of pornography came up and he said, "I'm absolutely against all censorship." And the host said, "That's on the usual Libertarian grounds?" And Magnusson said, "Of course. But I also like pornography." And I thought, my god, that's the first time I ever I heard that. Everybody else who defends it, they argue on these abstract things, the First Amendment or whatever--in England they quote John Stewart Mill. Magnusson was the first person honest enough to say, "I like it, you know." I like a lot of it. I'm not only against censorship, but I feel the damn people who want to ban it are interfering with my right to enjoy myself.
Kiddie porn is a different issue--that's nothing to do with censorship, that has to do with abusing children.
There's a lot of bad pornography around, but there's a lot of bad detective stories, a lot of bad science fiction. One of the things that fascinates me is, the best pornography I've seen recently is by women, and it's on the Playboy channel. There's a company called Femme Productions. They make very good soft-core porn, very artistic and very sensitive.
The issue that bothers me, where my libertarianism starts to break down, is not pornography, but the exploitation of violence in films. There's growing clinical evidence that it does tend to produce more violence, and that scares the hell out of me. It's caused me a long, painful reexamination of my principles, from which I have not yet emerged; I'm still working on it.
It was right up in the center of my attention in the last few weeks in LA because of this movie Colors, in which Hopper used the actual jackets of actual LA gangs. I can see why he did it, artistically, it makes the film more vivid and real. But the upshot is a lot of the community is in hysterics that this will inspire the gangs and it has already. There's been one shooting, The guy was waiting on line to see the film.
That is a hard one. Hopper is a serious artist, there's no doubt about that. But that's a very hard one and I don't have the answer. I don't believe it's necessary to have the answer all the time. It's better to think a while.
People need to use their creativity to come up with nonviolent solutions.
You know who's urging that? Colonel Jim Channon. He's retired, but he's still a consultant for the Pentagon. He keeps writing proposals for non-violent solutions to problems. He suggested we need a class of Buddhist soldiers. He's a really far-out guy and so far he's had no major influence on American policy.
Has he published?
He has, and he's been widely interviewed. His proposals on hijackers have been used a couple of times. His proposal is they should be given maximum media coverage and allowed to talk to television as much as they want--hours and hours on end if they want to. He says what motivates terrorists is their feeling that nobody in the world is listening. If they feel that everybody is listening, then it's easier to negotiate with them. Where that has been tried, it has tended to work. He's got a lot of other ideas, about the Army going into third world nations where there are anti-Capitalist revolutions brewing and instead of trying to kill the anti-Capitalists, go in and build dams and bring modern technology in, and give the people a better life.
The Sandanistas originally wanted help from the US and we wouldn't give it.
Ho Chi Minh's constitution for North Vietnam , began, "We hold these truths to be self evident: that all men ... " It begins like the Declaration of Independence. He was very influenced by Jefferson. But this country supported the French against them, and when the French couldn't fight anymore, JFK sent American troops in, so Ho became more and more anti-American.
While we're on this subject--I was saying some favorable things about Heinlein a while ago. The thing that irritates me most about Heinlein is his constant pro-war propaganda. What irritates me is not only that I disagree with him, but that it's inconsistent with his basic position. Heinlein's basic position is "never trust the government." They're a bunch of thieves, liars, and looters, they're out to rob us and deceive us and gull us and abuse us all the time, except when they say, "Hey, we want you to go kill a bunch of people on another continent." Then we must believe them, and we're traitors if we have any doubts whatsoever. That is such a thumping, enormous contradiction. How do these crooked, stupid bureaucrats suddenly become honest people we should believe once they declare war?
The only people who are pro-war who make sense are the people who believe the government is divine all the time. I wanted to get this into some science fiction magazine--thank you for giving me the opportunity. I hope Heinlein sees it. [In fact Heinlein died before this interview was transcribed.] Oh, well, if a few people who've been influenced by Heinlein notice this, and notice that contradiction in his thinking, then it's worth saying.
Any final thoughts?
I'd like to see people get a lot smarter, a lot kinder, a lot less gullible, a lot more skeptical, and a lot less paranoid, and a lot more optimistic. I'd follow Leary's basic rule: TFYQA. Think for yourself, question authority.