This interview contains spoilers for “The Conspiracy Museum.” Read the story here.
“The Conspiracy Museum,” a new short story by Robin Sloan, appears as part of “Shadowland,” The Atlantic’s project about conspiracy thinking in America. To mark its publication, Sloan and Ellen Cushing, the special-projects editor at the magazine, discussed the story over email. Their conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
Ellen Cushing: The piece is written in the form of an address—notes and all—for a fictional museum opening, two decades into the future. What about that format, as opposed to a more traditional narrative, appealed to you?
Robin Sloan: I always think short fiction suffers a bit, in newspapers and magazines, because of the “cold start” problem. Fiction requires from its readers a kind of dream state. That surrender is freely given when you sit down to read a novel or a book of short stories, but I think readers are a little stingier in the context of a magazine package or, you know, the entire internet. Of course, it’s possible to overcome this: You can write an incredibly powerful, seductive opening! Or, you can hack it, which is what I did here: You slip in, disguised as something (anything) other than “a short story.”
Cushing: One of the things you and I discussed when we were first talking about this project was the limitations of speculative fiction, which can sometimes be a bit keening, a bit solemn, a bit overliteral. Were there certain tropes you were consciously trying to avoid with this story?
Sloan: I don’t know if that’s a limitation of speculative fiction as much as a trap that many writers and publishers fall into, especially when they’re trying to make it “useful.” I think you need to tread lightly, and really disguise your intentions—even to yourself, if possible—or you end up producing a sci-fi after-school special, the “moral of the story” written in towering letters of flame.
Midway into drafting this piece, I was still wary of that trap, and I sort of stumbled into the idea of depicting a project, an idea, that had failed. I think irony and melancholy are both useful antidotes to after-school-special-ism, and you can get both by recounting a thwarted dream.
Cushing: One of my favorite lines in the piece is when you, via a character, describe conspiracy theories as “the third great American art form, alongside jazz and superhero comics.” To what extent do you agree with that assessment?
Sloan: I definitely think jazz and superhero comics are two of the three great American art forms. As for the third … well, better to leave that undefined, for others to fill in.
Cushing: A central simile running through the piece is between kayfabe—a term from wrestling that refers to the willful suspension of disbelief—and conspiracy thinking. Talk to me about where that came from. Are you a wrestling fan?
Sloan: I am an entry-level fan—not as serious as this piece’s narrator—but I absorbed the foundation of my knowledge in a way that’s actually perfect for this piece and its subject. One of my great friends in high school was (a) an avid WWF fan, who (b) had a car, and, on our innumerable drives to and from band practice, he took it upon himself to educate me, recounting the tales of the ring: the alliances and betrayals, the evolutions and resurrections, the drama. I heard a whole decade’s worth of wrestling lore sitting in the passenger seat of that car, and, honestly, it was awesome—a rich and riveting oral history.
Cushing: The piece ends on an empty lot, with a plea from the story’s protagonist to “recognize the collective creativity of a great American art form, and to consider how it might change.” We live in a moment where conspiracism has become undeniably frightening, and the narrative surrounding it is commensurately grave. But this story seems to be an argument for, well, thinking about conspiracy thinking—for examining it as a sort of American folklore. What do you think we lose when we dismiss conspiracy thinking out of hand—refuse to build the proverbial museum?
Sloan: For me, it was important to address that gravity head-on in the piece. In fact, it was important to have the museum’s opponents triumph; I would not have ended this piece with the Smithsonian Museum of American Conspiracy opening its doors. At the same time, I wanted so badly to make the case for it! Are those two feelings contradictory? I don’t think so. This is one of the great strengths of fiction: to identify a question that’s vexing, go spelunking, and sort of … hang out.