Monday, August 17, 2009

The Fiction of the Unknown and avoiding “Amazing Bullshit”

A writer and their readers operate on an assumed set of rules. The writer, in particular, has to play fair. There’s even a name for the art of cheating your audience – it’s called deus ex machina, which translates as “god in the machine.” It used to be literally used in Greek plays, when a “god” character would be lowered from the heavens on a rope, or pushed up through a trap door in the stage, in order to solve some seemingly impossible problem for the main character. Horace and Aristotle warned writers against using this mechanism. In modern writing, deus ex machina is viewed by readers and authors alike as weak writing unless used very deliberately and cleverly (which, some would argue, invalidates its classification as deus ex machina which, by definition, is hardly clever).

In writing fiction, then, there are rules that the writer must obey. Generally, the reader owes nothing to nobody. A certain suspension of disbelief is helpful if the reader is to enjoy the work, and it’s assumed that the reader will “give it a chance” by not flinging the story across the room after the first paragraph, but it’s his or her nickel and the reader is free to fling away if the mood strikes them. The rules apply to the storyteller.

Certain fictional elements lend themselves to breaking the rules, and authors must take care with them. Magic is one such element. If the writer resorts to “it’s magic” to solve their problem whenever they write themselves into a tough corner, it gets old for the reader pretty quickly. It’s impossible to build any suspense, for instance, if the reader knows that a favorite character is certain to be spared from serious harm by what an old friend of mine used to call “amazing bullshit.” A newer friend, Ron, wisely cautions that magic should be used as minimally as necessary in any story, so as not to risk exactly this reaction.

Physiology can also serve as deus ex machina. A good example of this is the old Star Trek episode “Operation: Annihilate,” where Spock submits to a treatment to rid himself of a parasite. The treatment involves a flash of light that damages his optic nerve, leaving him blind. By the end of the show, McCoy realizes that only certain wavelengths of invisible light are needed to cure the infestation, but the damage, for Spock, is done. This noble character is doomed to an early retirement from Starfleet. Except for the special Vulcan “inner eyelid,” that we learn in the final minutes of the show instinctively shielded his eyes and preserved his vision. All’s well that ends well, except that the eyelid is “amazing bullshit.” It’s cheating – why? Because the reader (or viewer, in this case) was never given the information to predict the outcome on their own. That’s part of the deal – a well-written work challenges the reader to predict what’s going to happen, gives them all the necessary info, but does it so well that the reader either doesn’t see the end coming or is so engrossed that they don’t even think about it. But it’s important that the reader be able to go back and say “Ahh, I should have figured that was going to happen because of A and B and C, which were clearly right there for me to put together.” This eyelid business didn’t follow A or B or C – it just appeared as Z all on its own, which is cheating. But nobody knows the physiology of a Vulcan or a dragon or an elf or an alien, so it’s tempting for writers to get themselves stuck in a corner, then pull a physiological solution out of their ass to save the day. “Umm, poison doesn’t work on elves!” “ Orcs have their hearts in a different place!” “Dragons have redundant spines.” That last one was actually used as further amazing bullshit to save Worf in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

A third conceit that lends itself to this temptation is a catch-all category that I’ll call “technology.” Whether it’s shields or cloaking devices or teleportation or hyperspeed, it’s all too easy for the writer to bend or break the rules to fit an immediate need in the story. Need a quick escape? Whoosh – warp-drive, baby! Facing an enemy that’s immune to your weaponry? Hell, just reverse the polarity on the anti-matter emitters. Naw, it won’t overload and blow your whole weapons system right out the stern, instead it will magically make your plasmic discharge 10x more powerful than originally designed by, presumably, a team of top engineers and physicists working for years in laboratories, computer simulations, and field testing. They no doubt faced a multitude of failures, but the story’s brilliant chief engineer can do it just by crossing a couple of wires. It was used as a ridiculous plot device so often in Star Trek: TNG that Engineer Geordi LaForge should just have installed a “reverse polarity” switch and gotten it over with.

What’s interesting is that you can still write a good story even by breaking the rules. Some of the best stories break the rules on purpose, and some are just good enough that they work despite messing around with the reader. Star Trek and its successors were, in general, pretty good shows, even though they shattered these rules on an almost weekly basis. Heck, people still study Euripides’ plays like Medea, and he may well have invented the concept of deus ex machina.

But as a writer preparing to create original works of sci-fi and fantasy, I need to deal with this issue and I need to deal with it up front. I need to create rules for things and concepts that don’t exist in reality. These things don’t exist in everyday life for a reason – they’re either impossible according to natural law or they’re implausible given current technology or they’re just plain imaginary. Each writer who tells a tale using these conceits has to put some thought into how they work.

So, I’ve taken some time to think about all the different ways that, for instance, I’ve seen magic work. I’m writing an essay about that – haven’t decided what to do with it when it’s finished, but it may be worth publishing if I put enough effort into it. I’m also giving thought to how I might want to handle faster-than-light travel for another story. One thing I’d like to avoid there is to mimic David Weber in the Honor Harrington books. I’ve only read the first one so far, and I liked it a lot. What I didn’t like was that during a climactic space battle, he pauses for about two pages to give a fairly dry physics lecture on the history and function of faster-than-light travel in his universe. DURING THE CLIMACTIC SPACE BATTLE, DAVID?!? You couldn’t find a better place in your entire novel to slip on your physics professor mortar board and robe? Sigh. Anyway, I also only understood about a third of David’s lecture there, so I’m hoping to come up with something that doesn’t stretch credulity too far (within the bounds of something that Einstein theorizes is patently impossible), but is reasonably accessible to the reader. However I decide to do it, I’ll want to be sure to write the rules down, share them with my reader as appropriate, and then obey them.

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