Review: The Illuminatus! Trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson

First, an admission: I read this book a long time ago. But it stuck in my mind as probably the strangest thing I’ve ever picked up, so I think it makes a good opening salvo for the proper weirdness section of the site.
Trying to describe this novel is next to impossible. There are a boatload of characters, the narrative switches from first person to third and spirals across time, conspiracy theories abound, there’s lots of sex and drug use, certain sections contradict each other, a gigantic sea creature falls in love with an AI called Fuckup, and many of the characters clue in to the fact that they’re fictional. It’s also a massive book when read in its omnibus form, and on top of that was co-written by two authors with notably different styles.

Published in 1975, Illuminatus! has a strong counter culture vibe. Some of the themes are actually quite serious and complex, but everything is coated in such a heavy layer of absurdity that it’s hard to tell. I remember almost giving up on the book multiple times, without ever being able to quite kick the habit.

The plot revolves (very) loosely around the ongoing battle between the Discordians and the Illuminati: two opposing secret societies. Their respective mandates now escape me (and may have done at the time as well) but the Discordians win for me due to their penchant for cruising the globe’s oceans in a golden submarine. Oh, and they visit Atlantis along the way, which is always a good idea in my opinion.

Aside from all that, Illuminatus! is just good fun. Despite not making much sense, the adventure is high (as are the characters) and the action can be stupendous and imaginative. And maybe the most interesting aspect of the entire experience is that I walked away with little concept of the authors’ core intent. It feels like there should be some prevailing socio-political message underlying the text, but if there is I’ll be damned if I know what it might be.

So if you like the plain old weird, or are a sucker for free-love era nostalgia, then this is the book for you. I might just have to reread it myself.

Prose: B

Plot: N/A

Characterisation: C

Originality: A

Weird factor: A+

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ODDNOVELS is a book review blog that I write just for the hell of it. If it's weird or wildly speculative, you will find it here.