Most people know Umberto Eco as the author of The Name of the Rose (pictured above), a Medieval detective story that caused a sensation. But the postmodern author, who died this week, published a slew of novels that questioned the nature of belief and truth.
Eco wasn’t really known as a science fiction author, although he wrote a couple of children’s books in the 1960s about aliens, astronauts and other adventures. But as the Science Fiction Encyclopedia notes, “His adult fiction shares with much of the best of the genre a central concern with both the nature of ideas and the moral significance of the methods by which we determine what is true.” His novel Foucault’s Pendulum involves three intellectuals who decide to invent their own conspiracy theory, venturing into territory mined by Pynchon and Robert Anton Wilson, only to find that their made-up theory is too convincing. More recently, he wrote a novel about the growth of anti-Semitism, also rooted in weird conspiracy theories and mythologies.
But Eco was also well known as a theorist and semiotician, who wrote extensively about pop culture. His essays on comics are still taught in universities everywhere. They include a highly influential analysis of Superman called (in English) “The Myth of Superman“, which explores why the Man of Steel needs Kryptonite and what exactly Superman’s adventures mean. He was fascinated by the lack of tight continuity between 1960s Superman stories and the proliferation of imaginary “what if” stories about the Man of Steel marrying Lois Lane and so on. In the end, he concluded that Kal-El has enough power to take over the world if he chose, but that his use of powers is instead an exploration of the question, “What is good?”
Even if you never read Umberto Eco’s work, his explorations of the nature of truth, and our uses of mythology and conspiracy theories, have played an essential role in shaping all of your favourite narratives.