Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Robert Shea: An inside look

Shea's literary executor and son answers questions about the author of Illuminatus and other books

I recently re-read ILLUMINATUS! by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson for the nth time, and then discovered the official Shea site, maintained and run by his son, Mike Shea. The site includes downloads of Robert Shea's out of print novel, ALL THINGS ARE LIGHTS, released under the Creative Commons license.

I asked Mike Shea if I could interview him via e-mail, and he graciously agreed. In honor of his father's former employment at Playboy magazine, where his father met his mother (see below), let's call it a candid conversation:

1. Why did you choose to make ALL THINGS ARE LIGHTS the title that you released free for personal use under the Creative Commons license?

Having my father's books available to the widest audience is most important to me. I still get royalty checks for his work, enough to get a nice set of speakers once in a while, but having his thoughts available to everyone is my goal.

I've spent a lot of time reading up on Creative Commons licenses and how they affect publishing. There seems to be a rift between older writers who feel that control of their work is paramount and new age web-friendly writers who realize that the works belong to everyone -- not just in a consumer role but in a creative role. When you sit back and imagine the city described in LIGHTS, you build that city yourself, not the author.

I'm always bothered when I hear about publishers going after people writing fan fiction or spawning off new stories on the pillar created by another. Sometimes I just think its publishers doing what publishers do to protect their interests but while some artists realize that their work is greater than themselves, others do not.

That said, I have a full time job and I'm not trying to get my kids through college on royalty checks so my perspective is skewed. Ask me again when the ILLUMINATUS movie gets made and I'm burning hundreds to light candles.

Shameless plug. I write my own fiction and release everything under a Creative Commons License. I would love to find out that one of my four readers decided to write their own story based off of the worlds I create.

If you care to read any of my fiction, you can find a self-published book of short stories available in HTML at:


2. What is the best Robert Shea novel for fans of "Illuminatus!' to try?

All of them! But if I had to pick one I'd say SHAMAN. SHIKE would be a close second. None of his works ever fit the mold of ILLUMINATUS again. When it came to writing, RAW and my dad didn't really see eye-to-eye after Illuminatus got published. RAW continued to expand the theories outlined in Illuminatus into new directions while my dad became a quiet Chicago Suburbanite. His books fit this as well. He switched from ILLUMINATUS to historical fiction. Still, the reviews have always been good. People loved his stuff.

Though Wilson and my dad didn't see eye to eye on all things as the years rolled on, they always remained very close friends. When my father died, Wilson came to Chicago to his memorial service. He was dressed in black with about four tough looking guys joining him. It looked a little like Morphius and his crew exiting the brick building in the Matrix. I was more than a little intimidated. RAW didn't speak -- he couldn't according to a friend of ours. He mourned my father's death for a long time. We all did. We all do.

3. The appendix to "Illuminatus" says that eight appendices were "censored." Are they still around, and are there any plans to publish them?

I've never heard of them. The whole thing was written long before computers so it's not likely they're still around. If I could get ahold of them, I'd publish them in a second.

4. The appendix refers to a sequel, "The Homing Pigeons." Was there any work actually done on an ILLUMINATUS sequel?

There was a joint work on a book called "Bride of Illuminatus" that was due to be released. Unfortunately the publishers didn't think it would do very well since Wilson had already written a bunch of post-Illuminatus books that didn't do very well (Gods bless the publishing industry...). I don't know if there's an outline or a copy of the work anywhere. My father died before they could get started. I remember the first scene started with a sex scene between two gods.

My father was just about finished with another book, Lady Yang, which was never published. I have three copies of it around. One of them is with a friend of mine getting scanned and OCRed so I can publish it. The other one sits in the trunk of my car and the third in my home.
When I get that digitized I'll publish it on the web like ALL THINGS ARE LIGHTS and make a print-on-demand version.

5. May I clarify one point? When you say that Lady Yang is "almost finished,"do you mean that it needed to be polished a little bit? Or do you mean that it is missing the ending?

It is complete, just not fully edited.

6. Your web site says that Shea and his friend and collaborator, Robert Anton Wilson, had "philosophical and political disagreements" and that these disagreements enriched ILLUMINATUS! Can you give me a couple of examples of their disagreements?

A lot of the words on my site came from other sources on the net. I've never written much myself about my dad. That's one of the reasons I'm so happy for this opportunity. Honestly I don't know much about the philosophical differences and neither does my mom. I'd say the only differences I knew about came after I was born and my dad moved to more mainstream fiction.

7. Which of Robert Shea's books are currently in print?

ILLUMINATUS is the only book currently in mainstream print in the US. It's available everywhere. I like to go into big book stores, pull it out, and stick it on an endcap.

SHIKE, SHAMAN, and THE SARACEN are still in print in other countries. My father's books always did well overseas. I don't have a list of which countries, however, but I have a beautiful hardback version of SHIKE in Spanish that I love a lot.

I republished ALL THINGS ARE LIGHTS on Lulu.com so its technically in print. For about $18 you can get a nice trade paperback copy with a pretty boring cover but all of the original text.

8. As I mentioned in my blog posting, the synopses in the second and third ILLUMINATUS! books are not reprinted in the omnibus edition. Are there any plans to reprint them, perhaps on the Internet?

I just put down a bid for the three original Illuminatus covers. I'll get them and, assuming they aren't too long and I can find the time, I'll retype them and publish them on my website. I might get in a little trouble for it, but I tend to doubt it. I'll just do it and see what happens. I currently own the rights to all of my father's original work but that doesn't include ILLUMINATUS. That one still belongs to myself and Wilson's heirs, so we'd have to get together todecide if publishing the whole work is ok or not. For synposes written in 1980, though, I can't imagine I'll get any heat for that.

I'll make it happen.

9. I only got to meet your father once, at a World Science Fiction Convention in Boston. It was a big thrill, and he was very nice to me. Is there anything about what your father was like or about his interests that you think his fans might want to know?

After reading "Zen and the Art of Writing" by Ray Bradbury, a wonderful book by the way, he got into Eastern philosophy in a big way. When he was writing SHIKE he bought an authentic samurai sword at a local show. It's about 500 years old hand hammered by a guy named Yuki Hisa whose name is etched on the sword's tang. I still have it.

He meditated every day for about fifteen minutes as well. The Zen philosophy sort of sunk into me and has even further over the years.

He was a huge fan of Buck Rogers comics and when he found out they were all being reprinted, he went out to a comic book shop on Clark Street. He wouldn't read them all at once. He knew they were a treasure to be doled out over long years.

Like most authors, he read all the time. He loved his routines. After writing over a long day he'd sit back in our living room in a big chair and read whatever book struck his fancy. I remember seeing the racy cover of FRIDAY by Heinlein and even Robert Jordan's EYE OF THE WORLD in his hand. I only remember those because of how the covers of them struck me.

He also liked to sketch and paint. I have a couple of his paintings hanging in my house now.

10. Do you happen to know which of your father's books was his personal

I think SHAMAN. He was really into that book. It was a book that let him really dig into the history, drive all over the country, and learn about the subject matter. He never got to do that with his other historical books.

11. Supposedly the idea for ILLUMINATUS! came from when your father and Robert Anton Wilson were sitting in a bar after work in Chicago, and your father suggested that it would be funny to write a novel that took seriously all the various crackpot conspiracy theories that were sent in to the Playboy Forum, which your father edited. Did your father ever give you his version of this story?

Yep, a lot of the themes in ILLUMINATUS came from when RAW and he worked at Playboy on the adviser. All of the crazy conspiracy theories gave them the idea to write a book that tied them all together. He never gave me his side of the story, really, but he didn't believe in all the conspiracy theories. He was pretty practical. He never trusted the government, however (who can blame him?), so he wouldn't put something past them like the Kennedy assassination, but he never really got too bent about it all. He was very scientific in his thought and believed in Occam's razor: the simplest explanation is likely the right one.

12. Did your father ever tell you any stories about what it was like working for "Playboy"? Did he ever hang out at the Playboy Mansion sipping cocktails with Hef?

No, but I'll share a story my mother told me that I liked a lot. I posted it to my blog here:



RESOURCES: The Robert Shea site features information about Shea's writings and includes downloads of the novel ALL THINGS ARE LIGHTS. The site is maintained by Mike Shea. To learn more about Robert Shea, see the biography on Wikipedia, which also has an article on ILLUMINATUS.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Reading Lovecraft for Halloween

I've gotten into the habit of reading a spooky book during the Halloween season. I was really pleased with SALEM'S LOT by Stephen King when I read it about three years ago; THE HILL OF DREAMS by Arthur Machen disappointed me a little bit. I'm now reading the Library of America's TALES of H.P. Lovecraft, and so far it's an ideal Halloween tome.

Library of America's decision to publish a Philip K. Dick book has gotten lots of attention. (Apparently the publisher chose to skip to the fashionable author rather than considering Robert Heinlein, Harlan Ellison, Jack Vance and other obvious choices.) But I had missed the fact that there was an H.P. Lovecraft volume. Very cool. It's edited by Peter Straub, who also did the notes.

Monday, October 15, 2007

The alternate Nobel prizes

"I had a hunch a woman writer living in England would win the Nobel Prize in Literature this year. But I still wasn't prepared for the thrill I experienced when I learned that J.K. Rowling had won the coveted prize. After all, who has done more for the cause of reading in recent decades?" asks Renaissance man and critic Ted Gioia.

Gioia's brilliant alternate universe Nobel Prize for Literature corrects most of the obvious injustices of the award, i.e., he awards Nobel prizes to almost all of my favorite writers who deserve them, including Vladimir Nabokov, Philip K. Dick, J.R.R. Tolkien, and to all of the writers who by almost any measure got screwed, such as Mark Twain and James Joyce. My only gripe is that he takes away Sinclair Lewis' Nobel and gives it to F. Scott Fitzgerald. Not that Fitzgerald doesn't merit one, but why take away Lewis' award? Science fiction writers awarded Nobels include also include Stanislaw Lem, Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury. How about the Strugatsky brothers, Brian Aldiss and Gene Wolfe? Iain Banks, Bruce Sterling and Neal Stephenson also are deserving but are still too young.

Gioia's 100 Greatest Novels of All Time also is worth a close look. His Dostoevsky fetish alarms me, and I'm completely appalled to see THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS on the list. But there's also many great novels mentioned, including some pleasant surprises that delighted me, such as MONEY by Martin Amis, PALE FIRE by Vladimir Nabokov, THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES by Arthur Conan Doyle (I like THE SIGN OF FOUR better), and THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS by Robert Heinlein. NEUROMANCER is a surprise, too, although not a pleasant one; ISLANDS IN THE NET by Bruce Sterling is a much better book. (Of course, I love many of the obvious choices, too, such as PRIDE AND PREJUDICE.)

Here are four novels that would fit nicely on Gioia's "Top 100" list: CRYPTONOMICON, Neal Stephenson; THE GOLD BUG VARIATIONS, Richard Powers; ILLUMINATUS!, Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson, THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS, Ursula K. LeGuin.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

My Robert Shea anecdote

As I mentioned in a previous post, I've been re-reading the "Illuminatus!" trilogy of Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson. (I'm in the second book, "The Golden Apple," right now.)

I never got to meet Wilson, and a fan letter sent to the address listed on his web site, mailed a few months before his death, came back to me.

But I did get to meet Shea once before he died. As I recall, it was at the 1989 Worldcon in Boston, at a party for members of a libertarian amateur press association, and it was great to be able to meet him and tell him how much I liked "Illuminatus!"

I had noticed that the omnibus edition of the work which reprints the three novels in one volume left out the synopses which began the second and third books in the original Dell mass market paperbacks. That bothered me, because the synopses have good material which isn't found in the novels proper (for example, the synopsis for the second book explains the self-destructing mynah birds, birds taught to say "Here, kitty kitty kitty" and turned loose in New York City.)

Shea told me he and Wilson wanted to keep the synopses but were unable to convince the publisher they were little literary works in themselves.

The official Shea web site, maintained by his son Mike Shea, is here.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Just an old book

I've been re-reading Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea's "The Eye in the Pyramid," the first book of their "Illuminatus!" trilogy. The book was published in 1975, so the pop culture and technology are of the novel's time, but the political black humor unfortunately hasn't dated at all. Here's a passage about an unnamed U.S. President:

"What the hell is this desert door project?" the President had asked once, scrutinizing the budget. "Germ warfare," an aide explained helpfully. "They started with something called Anthrax Delta and now they've worked their way up to something called Anthrax Mu and ..." His voice was drowned out by the rumble of paper shredders in the next room. The President recognized the characteristic sound of the "cesspool cleaners" hard at work. "Never mind," he said. "Those things make me nervous." He scribbled a quick "OK" next to the item and went on to "Deprived Children," which made him feel better. "Here," he said. "This is something we can cut." (Page 25 of the Dell paperback original.)

I showed the paragraph to my wife, and she asked, "This was written in the 1970s?"