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Secret Masters

Entry updated 13 May 2024. Tagged: Theme.

A familiar aspect of sf Paranoia is the sense that small, anonymous and unreasonably powerful cabals – sometimes individuals (see Godgame) – secretly control or manipulate the world. Seemingly omnipotent groups of Villains are commonplace in both conspiracy theories and sf, the most famous instance being the Bavarian Illuminati whose alleged influence is deliriously recomplicated in Robert Shea's and Robert Anton Wilson's Illuminatus! trilogy beginning with The Eye in the Pyramid (1975), and also in the game Illuminati. The conspirators of Jorge Luis Borges's Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius (May 1940 Sur; trans James E Irby 1983 chap) have invented a world, Tlön, so weirdly seductive that its imaginary history seems destined to overwhelm reality. Cathar cultists insert Subliminal anti-Sex propaganda into movies in Theodore Roszak's Flicker (1991). Further examples include the Underground "deros" of Richard S Shaver's 1945-1947 Shaver Mystery stories; John Crowley's Noisy Bridge Rod and Gun Club, secret masters of the USA in Little, Big (1981); the sinister Immortals of Lawrence Norfolk's Lempriere's Dictionary (1991; cut 1992); and, in several of Tom Holt's comic fantasies, the former British Milk Marketing Board.

Often in sf, the world's secret masters prove to be Aliens, as in Wilson Tucker's The Time Masters (1953; rev 1971), Philip E High's Twin Planets (1967) and Invader on My Back (1968), Jack Vance's Emphyrio (1969), Douglas Adams's The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy (1979) – whose alien masters are Mice – and Peter F Hamilton's Pandora's Star (2004) and Judas Unchained (2005). A film with this theme is They Live (1988). Long before Douglas Adams and his mice, William F Temple had suggested to semi-comic effect in "The Smile of the Sphinx" (Autumn 1938 Tales of Wonder) that Cats come from the Moon and are the secret masters of humanity, while the more polished humorist Eric Frank Russell opted for camels in "Homo Saps" (December 1941 Astounding) and Dogs in "Into Your Tent I'll Creep" (September 1957 Astounding). Fredric Brown's "Come and Go Mad" (July 1949 Weird Tales) uncomically reveals Earth's hidden rulers to be the ants, and one sequence in Rick & Morty (2013-current) points the finger at squirrels.

Secret Masters may of course be benevolent and in this role are often termed Secret Guardians. The purported secret history of the world revealed in Madame Blavatsky's influential expositions of Theosophy was supposedly communicated to her by Hidden Masters or Secret Brothers based in Tibet. Examples in sf are the community of adepts with Psi Powers lurking within Mount Shasta in Robert A Heinlein's "Lost Legacy" (November 1941 Super Science Stories as "Lost Legion" by Lyle Monroe; vt in Assignment in Eternity, coll 1953); the defenders of Logres (the heart of Britain) against caricatured scientism in C S Lewis's That Hideous Strength (1945); the concealed Second Foundation in Isaac Asimov's Foundation sequence, who in Second Foundation (January 1948 and November 1949-January 1950 Astounding; fixup 1953; vt 2nd Foundation: Galactic Empire 1958) are partially exposed and hunted as a Pariah Elite but by subterfuge and sacrifice regain secret-master status; the watchful revenants of Eric Frank Russell's Sentinels from Space (November 1951 Startling as "The Star Watchers"; exp 1953; vt Sentinels of Space 1954 dos); the Magids of Diana Wynne Jones's Science Fantasy Deep Secret (1997); and the History Monks in Terry Pratchett's Thief of Time (2001) and Night Watch (2002) – the last being a kind of Time Police (which see for further examples in that area). Theoretically benevolent Secret Masters may still be aloof and reluctant to intervene, like the eponyms of Avram Davidson's Masters of the Maze (1965). More unusually, in C M Kornbluth's sardonic "The Marching Morons" (April 1951 Galaxy), the intellectual few who laboriously tend a vast moronic population are corrupted by twentieth-century influence and adopt the Final Solution to end their labours.

Several works of sf feature multiple Secret Masters with their own defined territories. The best-known example is E E Smith's Lensman sequence, in whose immense Time Abyss of back-story the good Arisians – eventually part-revealed to a select group, the Lensmen – have long opposed the evil Eddorians, who operate through multiple layers of minions and conceal their existence even from Kim Kinnison and the Lensmen until the final episode of the main storyline, when Kinnison's children discover the secret. Also eternally opposed are the Spiders and Snakes of Fritz Leiber's Change War series (see Changewar), with the significant difference that neither side is here unambiguously good or bad. R A Lafferty posits several distinct controlling groups in Fourth Mansions (1969) and again in "About a Secret Crocodile" (August 1970 Galaxy), while in Diana Wynne Jones's Archer's Goon (1984) the various aspects of a UK town's operation – the Arts, banking (see Money), Crime and Punishment, sewers and other utilities, Transportation, and so on – are each secretly "farmed" by a different member of one peculiar family. For aeons the Anchorites and Horologists, who appear again and again throughout David Mitchell's career-encompassing "Über-book", have vied for control of the world. The Parallel-Worlds-hopping action of Iain Banks's Transition (2009) is driven by rival factions within the "Concern" that seeks to control the Multiverse.

Individual Secret Masters of particular note are the anarchist leader Sunday in G K Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare (1908) and the Weapon Shops' founder Robert Hedrock in A E van Vogt's Weapon Shops diptych. These share the unusual feature of wielding Secret Mastery over two opposed factions: Sunday is also the anonymous "man in the dark room" who recruits anti-anarchist police, while the Immortal Hedrock established and periodically marries into the Imperial dynastic line whose excesses his Weapon Shops were created to curb. Another such Janus-like character plays a major role in Illuminatus!, while the final episode of The Prisoner (1967-1968) suggests that Number Six, the Prisoner, is identical with his mysterious gaoler Number One. In Philip José Farmer's World of Tiers sequence, it is assumed that Earth is a natural world in contrast to the bizarre, artificial Pocket Universes created and ruled by warring Lords: but the punchline of the third volume, A Private Cosmos (1968; rev 1981), is "Red Orc is the secret Lord of Earth!" Further individuals who more or less run the world include the title characters of Roger Zelazny's This Immortal (October-November 1965 F&SF as "... And Call Me Conrad"; exp 1966); Jack Vance's The Anome (February-March 1971 F&SF as "The Faceless Man"; 1973; vt The Faceless Man 1978); and Algis Budrys's Michaelmas (August-September 1976 F&SF; exp 1977), the latter assisted by an AI of his own creation. William Tenn's "The Servant Problem" (April 1955 Galaxy) sardonically spoofs the concept of Secret Master as power behind the throne, by introducing a literally endless succession of powers behind powers; Jorge Luis Borges's "La secta del Fénix" ["The Sect of the Phoenix"] (September 1952 Sur) jests with the notion in another way as it emerges that the secretive titular cult includes the entire human race. [DRL]

see also: The Adjustment Bureau; Clive Cussler; Forerunners; David Meltzer; Parasitism and Symbiosis; Vladimir Sorokin.

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