At SXSW I attended my friend Eric Rice’s Fray Cafe party. I arrived late, having had the pleasure of eating BBQ at Stubbs with a bunch of interesting people (Steve Garfield, the Blip.tv team, and many others) so when I signed up to tell a story I was the 18th person on the list, after my friend Sarah Dopp in fact.
I signed up not actually having a specific story in mind. I should probably explain, the idea of Fray Cafe (which Eric did not start but has been moderating for many years) is for people to get up on stage and tell a story in under five minutes. Any story – mostly true (at least the evening I was there) and on any topic in any tone they want. Many were amusing, the format lends itself to something akin to standup comedy, but many too were very heartfelt. A few were by people who are clearly practiced in the art of telling stories on stage, complete with visual gestures, sound effects and stage presence. Others were delivered in a simple tone from a stationary, static position. The audience listended to all and reacted appropriately.
Having not had the chance to tell my story live, here is the blog version of what I at the end had decided to talk about, inspired in part by a brief email I had read while watching the Fray Cafe performers.
Today I am going to tell a story about one of the most important books of my life. It is a story of why I have two copies of this book, three if you include my collection of the originals that became the book. It is also the story of how (and perhaps to a degree why) I started organizing events. It involves lots of substances – though not taken by me. It is also very geeky – yet the two main people (not I) were also editors at Playboy.
But first, a bit of a background and explanation to set the scene. It is the late 80’s, 1989 to be precise, and I am in high school. A high school sophomore, extremely geeky – seriously I was the captain of my school’s chess club. At the high school science fiction and fantasy club that year we decided to have a small gaming convention, we pulled it off in the spring but only barely. Held it in one of the high school lunch rooms one Saturday morning and mostly it was just the science fiction and fantasy club and the gaming club (who were mostly the same people) who came and played games.
The next year, however, we decided to hold a full, “real” science fiction convention. I and my friend Dwight Sora did most of the organizing and planning. It was conversation with my father that resulted in the name of the convention – OPCON – still running 19 years later! In the course of organizing this, my second event (and by far the largest thing I had tried to that point) I learned a great deal about how to inspire people to help – and how to coordinate lots of people working on their own goals towards a larger end.
All that aside I also got to meet one of my heros.
That summer I had bought a book which became one of my still all time favorite books. One of the few books I have reread a number of times, and still one of the more impactful books I have encountered.
The book – The Illuminatus Trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson.
Now I’m sure that many of you have read it, but for those who have not (and haven’t yet looked at the wikipedia page), I will explain what the Illuminatus Trilogy is, and why I love it.
It is the penultimate paranoid conspiracy book. It ranges in time and space, from conspiracy to conspiracy, and though written in a stream of consciousness style in many places is also seriously humorous. It freely mixes the real and the pseudo-real, the long rumored and the patently false. It celebrates the 60’s and drug experimentation – yet is written in a way that even a teatotaller such as myself (I’ve since allowed myself to have an occasional cider or glass of wine – but nothing else) can follow and appreciate the experiences.
But most seriously – it is a great book. I think a work of literature – as well as lots and lots of fun to read – and the puzzle – of what is “real” and what is not (each chapter is often preceded by quotes – some from real books, many from non-existent ones). In some ways it echoes Don Delillo’s Mao book – though I believe it was written long before his book.
If you have played the card game Illuminati from Steve Jackson Games – it was inspired by this book.
Anyway, to explain, that summer I read the Illuminatus Trilogy – a thick book of over 1000 pages and promptly suggested it to all my friends as well. We all loved it. I continued by finding and reading the many additional books that Robert Anton Wilson had written as sequels (of a sort) to the book.
While we were planning OPCON, we started researching authors who lived in Illinois. I wanted OPCON to be a “real” science fiction convention (though having not at that point actually attended a science fiction convention – I was mostly going on what I would have wanted to see myself – probably as good a starting point as anything). So this meant that we had to have authors, as well as games. Stores selling stuff, movies for people to view, food to buy and eat etc. And we managed it – lots of local stores selling stuff. Local restaurants selling food, Lots of games for people to play, movies running all throughout the con, a display of things from the library of the club and personal collections, and indeed a track of local authors reading and signing.
Among the authors – Robert Shea.
Turns out he lived just north of Oak Park. We contacted him and he was excited about coming – only problem was that he needed a ride.
So that is how, having read his book and been a great fan, I found myself sitting at his kitchen table, drinking iced tea, and then later talking with him on the drive down to the convention.
It was, perhaps, my first experience of getting to know someone famous, a multiply published author, in a personal, human way. Robert Shea was an inspiration to me – in his life he had been an editor at Playboy (where he met Robert Anton Wilson and where they wrote what became the Illuminatus Trilogy). After that he went on to write a number of other books and to become a leader of the Libertarian Party.
But what I appreciated in that moment, of sitting at his kitchen table, meeting his family, was the human, personal reality of the author – and the respect with which he talked to us – a pair of gangly teenage geeks and fans.
His talk at OPCON that year, as it turns out, led to many other things for Robert Shea. He was invited to speak at the upcoming Worldcon in Chicago (1991) and later to be the master of ceremonies and guest of honor at Capricon a local Chicago convention. In the audience at OPCON were, it turns out, a number of the people running the Worldcon in Chicago. They came because they lived just a few blocks away and had read about OPCON in the local Oak Park community newsletter.
At OPCON I had my copy, well read, of the Illuminatus Trilogy signed, along with a number of other books by Robert Shea, still among my treasured possessions.
Dwight and I were invited to volunteer at the Worldcon in 1991. It was there that I met Robert Anton Wilson. As I have blogged about in the past, I heard a panel at Chicon that included Robert Anton Wilson, Philip Jose Farmer, “some guy from Tor”, Robert Shea, and Timothy Leary. It was on “High Weirdness” – and no, I don’t think the pun on “high” was accidental in the least. Robert Anton Wilson was, perhaps, among the few people to have probably done more experimentation (at least documented) than even Timothy Leary.
After that panel, I got a different copy of the Illuminatus Trilogy signed by Robert Anton Wilson (and yes, now I regret not getting the same copy signed).
I was reminded of this because, after a long struggle, Robert Anton Wilson died on Jan 11 of this year (2007).
Though I was a fan, and I had paid attention to his battle with disease when it was noted by many people online, including BoingBoing, and as a result a lot of money was raised by his many fans to allow him to live out his final days without financial concerns, I had not realized that he had died.
But minutes ago, while I was standing in the back of the cafe, checking my email on my phone, I read an email to a mailing list I am on which noted that today (March 11th 2007) was the 2 month anniversary of Robert Anton Wilson’s death.
I did not make it to the convention where Robert Shea was the guest of honor. A few months later, he died so I missed my final opportunity to talk with him, to get to know him even better.
But the memory of that iced tea in his kitchen lingers on.
As do the stories he told of how they wrote the book – each writing a chapter, trying to write the other into a cliffhanger that couldn’t be written out of, always trying to one-up and top the other. A process that was so back and forth that they could no longer remember who had written which chapters, or created which characters.
For me it was a vital and early lesson about the one on one connections that can be formed, about the humanness of our heroes, about the connectedness of the world (and yes this is a theme conspiracy nuts take to the extreme), about the role (both good and bad) of clubs and organizations, and about the power of ideas and connections to change the world.
I also deeply appreciated the non-Christian, atheistic perspective that pervades the work – and though I am not precisely a Libertarian, I do have some strong sympathy with their politics – and certainly that is part of why.
But mostly it was that glass of iced tea.