Sitting on a panel at a recent Midwestern science fiction convention, best-selling writer F. Paul Wilson told his audience that his wife once accused him of being the most skeptical person alive. His response?
"I doubt it."
Aside from providing fodder for an amusing anecdote, this exchange provides insight to the theme of Wilson's latest foray into the universe of the Adversary Cycle, The Haunted Air. In this intriguing novel, readers are again treated to the adventures of Wilson's best known character, Repairman Jack. The current story chronologically follows close on the heels of the tales related in Conspiracies, All the Rage, and Hosts.
At the beginning of The Haunted Air, Jack is recovering from the death of his sister at the hands of the "Otherness," that chaotic force determined to destroy, not only mankind, but nature itself. Emotionally drained from losing Kate after so briefly reconnecting with her, Jack has avoided taking on any new jobs. Given what he has lost, his work -- "repairing" situations best kept hidden from the attention of normal societal organizations such as the police -- holds little appeal to him.
When his girlfriend, Gia Westphalen, takes Jack to a party hosted by garish and ostentatious artists, she sets off a chain of events that eventually threatens all Jack holds most precious.
A missing bracelet propels Jack, Gia, artist Junie Moon -- frantic owner of the jewelry -- and two other partygoers to Queens. At the Menelaus Manor, they are greeted by the psychic, Ifasen, and his silent companion, Kehinde. An earthquake, however, sends everyone scurrying for the street.
At first, the trembling earth appears to be nothing more than a rare geologic event. For Jack, however, there are "no more coincidences" as he heads towards the apocalyptic pandemonium detailed in Nightworld. Gradually, frighteningly, the malign nature of this ominous portent reveals its shadowy nature and its toxic intent.
Despite Jack's initial disdain of the "psychic" shenanigans of Ifasen and his cohort, Gia's intervention induces Jack to take on the pair as clients. He learns that Ifasen is really Lyle Kenton from Dearborn, Michigan, and that his assistant, Kehinde, is Lyle's brother, Charlie. Rival psychics are jealous of the interlopers stealing their business and take matters into their own hands to scare off the competition. As Jack applies the reverse of that old saying, "You can't cheat an honest man," to curtail these assaults, he comes to like -- perhaps even to admire -- Lyle and Charlie, con men though they are.
Revitalized by the battle of wits with Lyle and Charlie's enemies, Jack takes on another, seemingly simple job. Asked to keep an eye on a Soho antique dealer, Eli Bellitto, by Eli's brother, Jack rapidly learns that the Otherness-spun web ensnaring him is not easily avoided. Appearances shift again as they do throughout The Haunted Air. Jack's initial outrage at what he believes are Eli's noxious activities pales when he eventually unearths the full depravity of the goals sought by Bellitto and his monstrously large partner, Adrian Minkel.
Even more appalling are the threads drawing Bellitto, Jack, and the Kenton brothers into the black heart of Menelaus Manor, a baleful abomination linking The Haunted Air to the story that began this epic quest into the soul of malevolence, The Keep. The creeping horror of inexorable errors in judgment piling one upon another draws the reader towards a shuddering and venomous climax in which Gia and her offspring face the ultimate in sinister danger.
An involving and even more detailed story than recent Repairman Jack novels, The Haunted Air explores a field rarely touched upon in fiction: epistemology.
Epistemology -- or the study of how we know what we know -- might seem remote from the more political asides of Wilson's Hosts (self-defense issues), Deep as the Marrow (the Drug War), or The Select and Implant (health care). In a very critical sense, though, The Haunted Air explores important and fundamental issues that underpin all the various aspects of liberty that Wilson has touched upon in previous works.
As Ayn Rand emphasized time and again, one cannot pick and choose from reality. The world is all of one piece. A particular theory of knowledge implies a particular theory of ethics that leads to a particular kind of economics and the political structure that governs those social relationships. Weaken or destroy any one of those pillars -- and especially the more foundational ones -- and the whole structure becomes unsteady and untrustworthy.
Rand said that we should always ask two questions when discussing the world around us:
"What do we know?" and "How do we know it?"
The answers to the first question provide rich veins for disagreement and argument. The answers to the latter have led to violence and wholesale slaughter of those who dare dissent from the majority view.
The Haunted Air begins with Jack and Gia at that party of artists. At first blush, a discussion about art hardly sounds promising as a lead-in to Jack's fierce focus on freedom. Gia tells Jack about the "performance art" of one Harry Adamski [readers familiar with UFO literature will recognize that last name]. This "artist" specializes in "stool art...a very personal form of sculpture..." (p. 5)
Astounded, Jack asks, "...is there anything out there that can't claim it's an art?" (p. 5)
Try to defend the claim that it is, indeed, possible to define, that is, limit, "art," and you will find yourself assailed by people denying that such a pursuit is even possible. Perhaps they claim that "art" is whatever you want it to be. Or maybe that "you know art when you see it." But to be so arrogant or close-minded as to believe you can actually define "art"...well... Such hubris is beyond the pale.
Yet to deny that it is possible to define a particular concept -- or even that the very attempt to do so is undesirable -- is to declare implicit war on knowledge itself and the ability of the human mind to understand the world. As Rand discussed in her Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, a concept is an abstract classification of some aspect of reality; its meaning is those things it groups together or classifies. If someone is unable to properly define a concept, then that individual does not really grasp that concept. That idea becomes a "floating abstraction" unconnected to reality, to those objects, actions, or experiences we seek to know. People who act based upon a vague sense of what they "feel" reality is are inviting disaster, both for themselves and for those who interact with them.
If a concept can mean whatever someone wants it to mean, divorced from reality, then communication itself becomes impossible. For a prime example of this, listen to any modern-day politician as he praises "freedom" and "choice" and "morality." Obfuscation -- not clarity -- is his goal, because intellectual fuzziness helps him to fool most of the people most of the time. Mental murkiness provides a perfect medium for brewing the modern variety of "benign" tyranny, one that relies upon the ignorance of citizens to achieve its foul ends. From questioning the definition of "art" and asking what the meaning of "is" is, it is a small step to claiming that "freedom is servitude" and "security is submission." Examining this kind of "smoke and mirrors" leaves us with a wispy vapor of deceit that vanishes whenever it is subjected to the harsh light of reason.
In their own ways, Lyle and his brother, Charlie, explore a landscape similar to that of the political charlatans who are trying to blind us today with that magic word, "terrorism." As do our political leaders, Lyle relies upon the willing participation of those he dupes.
"The will to believe, Jack thought... Never underestimate the will to believe." (p. 144) Whether rich socialites in The Haunted Air trying to reach "the other side" or recipients of government subsidies attempting to rationalize their stolen wealth as "good for the country," the mistake is the same: that something is true simply because you believe or want it to be true.
The flipside of this error is refusing to believe something you don't want to believe, that is, ignoring evidence that is readily available to you. (Charlie accuses Lyle of this when his brother refuses to accept what is happening at Menelaus Manor: "...You a compulsive non-believer! If it don't fit with how you want things, you deny it, even when it smacks you upside the head!" [p. 155])
Both of these situations are examples of the "subjectivist fallacy." If mere belief were sufficient to prove one's case -- if "X" were true because that is what one believed -- then one could never be wrong! Yet I have never met an infallible person. Nor do those who cling desperately to their warped views of "truth" have any defense for their subjectivist mindsets when another "believer" believes just the opposite. Two contradictory and mutually exclusive beliefs that are each "true"?
The evasions required to maintain such a view are mind boggling. They are, however, no different in essence from those practiced by people who maintain that we live in a "free" society; that taxation is "voluntary" and "moral"; that State-run education is not founded on censorship; or that Medicare, student loans, welfare, and subsidies are not stealing.
Even Jack must outwardly (and consciously) "fake reality."
Consider the fact that Jack -- the ultimate individualist -- must conform to survive in an increasingly collectivistic society. In order not to be noticed by those who would control him, he must choose his clothes, his baseball cap, his very appearance to blend in. Jack's existence is a fictional demonstration that in a statist society, it is impossible to act morally, that is, to act fully and freely (and non-coercively) according to one's own rational judgment.
Gia illustrates this fact when she considers some differences between her and Jack: "She was a tax-paying, law-abiding citizen; he was not...he definitely lived outside the law. She couldn't imagine how many laws he'd broken and continued to break every day. But strangely he was the most moral man...that she'd ever met." (p. 38)
But Jack's morality is a hidden, a masked variety: to act openly on his moral beliefs would either land him in jail or in a cemetery. The price he pays to cling to his cherished autonomy becomes more burdensome with each passing year.
Still, relying on one's independent judgment is a necessity for staying in touch with reality, that is, for practicing a proper epistemology. Just as Jack is an outcast -- an "oddball" -- in terms of his lifestyle, so, too, is he "unusual" in the way his mind functions.
He dislikes "faking" reality and, even more so, those who eagerly engage in such a practice. In discussing with Gia the outlandish phonies at the art party, Jack says, "Pseudo-weirdoes crank me off..." (p. 3) The weird people he normally deals with "...are different. They wake up weird... My weirdoes don't belong; these people seem to want desperately to belong, but don't want anyone to know, so they try to outdo each other to look like outsiders." (p. 3) He is disgusted "...watching pretensions collide with affectations." (p. 3)
These "second-handers" or "social metaphysicians" as Rand and Nathaniel Branden characterize them are the antithesis of individualists. They are reminiscent of many who were growing up in the Sixties: "do your own thing" but dress and talk and act like all the other students you see. Now, those second-handers of my generation are moving into positions of power in politics and academia. We can only too readily observe the results.
These "social leaders" tout their own brand of subjectivism, whether in artistic tastes or the latest in social causes. But, as Gia points out in regard to popular art, "Big difference between hot and good..." (p. 6) Jack concurs: "...it rankled Jack to see the crap that hung in the galleries and exhibits [Gia] was always dragging him to, while her own canvases remained stacked in her studio." (p. 6) Gia's "commercial" art -- art that pays her bills -- is sneered at by the artistic establishment. (Compare this to the ideas on art and how it is viewed as developed in The Fountainhead.)
In a political parallel, the "good" principles of capitalism and freedom stay "stacked in the studio" while the "hot" trends of mercantilism and interventionism are praised by the media and blindly followed by the populace. In a rigged game, bad ideas crowd out good ones.
Too many people in our society fear their own minds. In The Haunted Air, Junie Moon -- who sets in motion the entire plot -- refuses to credit her own work or talent for her success. Instead, she shifts the credit -- and the responsibility -- to her lost bracelet: "It's the whole reason for my success." (p. 7) Superstition rules her life.
She is not alone.
As Abe, the proprietor of Isher Sports Shop, says, "The dumbing of America: government-accredited schools of astrology, school boards deciding to teach creationism in science classes, people paying hundreds of dollars for vials of water because someone labeled it 'Vitamin O,' the return of homeopathic cures...magic crystals, feng shui... I'm losing hope." (p. 63)
Abe has company...
Even Gia is prey to this disturbing malady. At first she says, "So Ifasen's a fake psychic." Wryly, Jack observes, "That's redundant." (p. 36)
But she later argues that many people derive comfort from believing in psychics. "And peace of mind...is priceless." (p. 39) (Compare this to attitudes towards religion -- as Wilson does throughout The Haunted Air.)
"Even if it's built on a lie?" Jack asks.
"If a placebo cures your headache, you're rid of your pain, aren't you?" Gia says. (p. 39)
When Gia contacts Ifasen (a.k.a. Lyle) for another session, she thinks, "But what could it hurt?" (p. 78)
But by definition, a lie is a deliberate misrepresentation of reality designed to deceive someone. While acting on the basis of a lie may "help" in the short-term to avoid or evade an unpleasantry, over the longer haul, belief in the supernatural, the irrational, can -- and will -- hurt.
A belief in the non-real undercuts the sanctity of your own mind. A dependence on non-sense weakens your understanding of reality. A reliance on the non-objective, the non-existent creates conditions ripe for a slippery slope reaction: the acceptance of one fantasy readies your mind to swallow more and more rubbish until you lose contact with what is real and what is not.
Oddly enough, the one character other than Jack who is most in touch with what is real is the prime purveyor of what is not: Lyle.
As Jack points out, there are two kinds of mediums: "The closed mediums really believe in the spirit world and what they're doing... Open mediums...are all show. They're con men who know it's a scam... They knowingly sell lies." (p. 39)
In an argument with his brother, Charlie says about the former: "...they believe in what they're doing. You don't."
Lyle responds: "Still a game... both deliver the same bill of goods." (p. 89) Whether dealing with psychics and the "other side" or religion and "True Believers" like Charlie -- whether fraud or delusion -- the distortion of reality is no different. Yet those who actually believe in the "game" may, in fact, be worse off. If you are interacting with someone who is a fraud, you can more easily discover your mistake and correct it.
But the biggest fools are those who fool themselves.
Lyle is fully aware of that fact. As he explains, "...I've encountered a number of phenomena for which I have no rational explanation... But that doesn't mean that no rational explanation exists. It simply means that I haven't the information to explain them... Surrender to irrationality? Never." (p. 282)
In his own way, Lyle is a scientist. He accepts the ideals of science and defends them. Science is "A process of theories, edging toward truth. That's why creationism, even when tarted up as 'intelligent design' or 'creation science' -- an oxymoron if I ever heard one -- can never be a science... A science must make room for new evidence as it arises. If the new evidence passes muster, it's incorporated into the theory. A process... Creationism has no process. It's static, dead -- fossilized... -- because its supporters think they already have all the answers." (p. 385 - 386.) Science is "...flexible, without an agenda beyond knowledge and understanding of the world around us...." (p. 387)
Here again is an example of epistemology: how we know what we know.
Unfortunately, Lyle's confidence in science is too frequently betrayed when politics inverts the pyramid of knowledge and becomes more important than the epistemological standards upon which it depends. For a plethora of examples, consider the lies and distortions attendant upon modern environmentalism or medical research that touches on self-defense, tobacco, or illicit drugs. When political considerations and agenda outweigh a search for the truth, for reality, destruction to freedom is bound to follow. (See my "The Resurrection of Lysenko" for more on this issue.)
Overall, though, Gia knows better. "The values by which she guided her life were not weather vanes... they were the bedrock on which she'd grown up... She didn't care to impose them on anyone else, and conversely, didn't want anyone else telling her how to raise her child." (p. 114) In this, she echoes Jack's own attitudes. Unfortunately for them both, before the end of The Haunted Air, those very values of hers will be used against her in a particularly nasty and chilling fashion...
The Haunted Air is the best Repairman Jack novel since Legacies...and that's saying something. In Jack, F. Paul Wilson has created one of the most memorable -- and most admirable -- characters in modern fiction. Jack's unwavering dedication to his own life, his jealous defense of his liberty, and his commitment to value-for-value relationships in both economic and personal transactions elevate him high above the typical "anti-heroes" who are barely a step removed from the scum they oppose.
In The Haunted Air, Eli Bellitto tells us that "...in these increasingly Big Brotherish times, he needed their power and influence to safeguard..." his despicable activities. (p. 373 - 374) The "they" to whom he refers are agents of the State: police, judges, and lawyers who trade their influence, their protection for their own personal gain.
In the real world of legal extortion and ruthless political control, however, there is no "repairman" to whom we can appeal to save us. For that, we have to look to ourselves. Before it is too late, before we lose the last remnants of our freedom to that vicious "Otherness" slowly closing its tentacles around us, we will all have to become a bit like "Jack."