The very real origins of Scott O’Connor’s new novel Half World are almost too terrifying to be true. In a story that Kirkus calls “an invigorating historical thriller that examines the boundaries of man,” the novelist explores the murky world of Project MKULTRA, a highly illegal, deeply invasive experiment by the United States government for over two decades to use potent drugs like LSD as well as social engineering, sensory deprivation and psychological and sexual abuse to learn how to control the behavior of ordinary human beings.
“It was something that fascinated me for a long time because it sounds like science fiction,” says O’Connor from his home in Los Angeles. “When you bring up MKULTRA, people have either heard of it and they want to talk about it, or they haven’t heard about it at all and they don’t believe you when you start explaining what happened. What we know is true is a very small percentage compared to the theories that are out there. Even a cursory search will implicate MKULTRA in just about any act of public violence in the past 50 years, from the Kennedy assassination to the Jonestown Massacre to the Ted Kaczynski bombings.”
Not all aspects of the program were completely secretive. More than 80 research institutions participated in related studies, even producing consequences like novelist Ken Kesey, whose experiences at the Menlo Park Veterans Hospital were eventually translated into One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and the infamous parties portrayed in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. But Half World is instead about those nebulous, off-book efforts by the Central Intelligence Agency to produce specific results, whether their intention was a “Manchurian Candidate” brand of soldier, or simply to hone the most effective forms of interrogation by torture.
“When I was initially researching this book, it was around the time that the Abu Ghraib photographs surfaced in the media,” O’Connor explains. “I just kept thinking about those photographs while everyone was talking about ‘advanced interrogation techniques,’ and I couldn’t believe that most of the people involved in these events—if you went back a year in time—would ever have imagined themselves in these situations. These organizations are not staffed by psychopaths; these are ordinary people who, over the course of a year or two, find themselves in extreme situations or worse, have purposefully sought out these situations. What was interesting to me was how you got to be one of the men in these rooms.”
This is how O’Connor introduces us to CIA analyst Henry March, a mild-mannered family man who professes to earn his living as a photographer. In fact, at Henry’s shop in San Francisco circa 1956, Henry and his partner Jimmy Dorn use LSD, prostitutes and extreme psychological torture on candidates who don’t even know that they are being experimented upon. After a “session’ goes horrifically wrong, it all becomes too much for Henry, who has already suffered an earlier breakdown. So, a third of the way into the book, Henry March disappears.
As Kirkus noted in our review, Half World is a book of halves and so the story picks up again in 1972 as CIA agent Dickie Ashby negotiates a post-Sixties counterculture that has soured in the hangover of the Seventies. When he discovers a link between Henry and an elusive group of revolutionary bank robbers, he also connects the dots to a reclusive science fiction novelist who has been leaving clues about MKULTRA and other government conspiracies in the pages of his pulp novels. Ultimately, Dickie forms a protective friendship with Henry’s daughter, Hannah, who is still searching for the elusive father who left her behind.
“I always envisioned that break in the story,” says O’Connor. “I knew it would be disorienting to some readers and I intended for that jump in time to be disorienting. Reading through the evidence about MKULTRA, you would get these clues here and here. There was this feeling of discovery that gave me the same thrill as a great narrative. I wanted there to be this hole in the middle of the story where readers get to find out what happened during that gap, almost in real time. You’re never really ahead of the characters in most thrillers. I was hoping here to feel like we were discovering the story together, which makes it satisfying in a different way.”
I make the point that there are some historians who believe that programs like MKULTRA actually help to create the counterculture, instead of nullifying it the way some intended. O’Connor agrees.
“You can almost draw a direct line,” he says. “There was a period in the mid-1950s when the United States government was almost the only customer for LSD, which was being manufactured in Europe. Of course, since LSD can be synthesized, all you need is a smart chemistry student and you’re in business. So it becomes a street drug in the 1960s, which helps facilitate the counterculture, which then turns back on the government and starts protesting the Vietnam War and Watergate. An awful lot of the unrest and violence of the 1960s can be traced back to this program. They created their own monster in a way, and that comes into play later in the book.”
The break in the narrative is an intriguing literary twist that gives the last two-thirds of the book an atmospheric gloom that is fascinating to move through. It’s an odd amalgamation of genres but Half World shouldn’t be misinterpreted as a traditional thriller. Yes, there are moments that feel like they’ve been pulled straight out of a John le Carré or Robert Littell novel and still others that feel like a 1970s paranoia movie along the lines of Three Days of the Condor, but more often than not, Half World is a novel about the connections between people and the limits they are willing to go to in order to find out what they need.
“Half World can be seen as a number of different kinds of books but I see it as being about family,” O’Connor explains. “I’m not someone who is well-versed in the genre of espionage thrillers, so if I had attempted to replicate those books, I would be coming at it from a completely different angle. I have always seen this novel as being about family, and by context, an extended family. We’re talking about people who aren’t necessarily related by blood but are connected by experience, or by sharing a government or sharing a philosophy.”
O’Connor started off his writing career as a screenwriter, so it’s fitting that Half World feels very cinematic, a dystopian thriller with a very human heart and an unlimited special effects budget.
“The crux of all conspiracy theories is that there’s no way to disprove them, you know?” O’Connor observes. “That’s what everyone eventually runs into in Half World. You might not be able to prove it but it’s impossible to show someone that an event did not happen. Fortunately, most readers I’ve spoken with have said they came to Half World not knowing anything about MKULTRA but shared that they still had a moving experience in some way. To me, that’s what’s most rewarding.”
Clayton Moore is a freelance writer, journalist, book critic, and prolific interviewer of other writers. His work appears in numerous newspapers, magazines, websites and other media. He is based in Boulder, Colorado.