by Keith Morrison
©2005 Keith Morrison -- all rights reserved
A while back I was asked if I would contribute to these pages. Foolishly, given precedent that we won't dwell on, I said 'yes'. More foolishly, someone agreed to let me. Since this is the first column, I suppose I should lay down the ground rules so that people will not have false expectations of what will issue forth.
Rule 1: These are opinions. While I am of course fully sympathetic to the view that I possess omniscient understanding of universal truth, I must regretfully inform you all that this is not, in fact, the case. So if I write something you disagree with, do not assume the universe is crashing around you because I have destroyed whatever self-worth you possessed as an individual.
Rule 2: This is not a writing class. I'm giving criticism from my point of view, not step-by-step instructions on becoming a better writer.
Rule 3: I'll be honest. If the things good about the fiction are outweighed by the things that suck, the fiction sucks. I like the ship designs from Starship Troopers, but that doesn't raise the film from the cesspool of suckitude into the category of good film. It just means it's a terrible film with good SFX. And plasma-farting bugs.
Rule 4: I assume a certain level of maturity among the readership. Therefore, no fancy euphemisms if the context requires a certain level of language and discussion.
Rule 5: There is no Rule 5.
One thing to bear in mind is that it will probably seem I won't be totally appreciative about any story that appears here. There is a reason for this, a very personal and selfish motivation: I hate wasting my time on crap. Now don't get me wrong, I read (and watch) as much really awful fiction for my own amusement as the next person. My collection of bad movie DVDs is renowned. That sort of awfulness, however, is something I appreciate in its proper context. I know it's terrible so I can (mentally or not) heckle my way through it as a form of amusement. It's when I read a story that I don't know about beforehand -- or have confident expectations of what's there -- and the damn thing ends with me wondering how to get that period of my life back, that's what I hate. And quite often it's the same stupid things that I've seen countless times before.
So consider Rule 2 like this: I'm not going to tell you what works. I'm going to tell you what certainly doesn't.
And boy, does this lead off with something that doesn't work.
The title: Experiment Eleven by Walter Ego, found at Fictionmania. Be warned that it is rated X. The following contains spoilers to the end of the story.
For those with an insufficient literary or classical education, the phrase deus ex machina originated in a trope that took place in some Greek or Roman plays: at the end, an actor portraying a deity would descend (literally: they were lowered to the stage) and wave his hands and everything would turn out peachy-keen. All plot problems solved, guilty punished, good rewarded, yadda yadda yadda. 'God from the machine' -- the machine being the mechanism used to lower the actor -- therefore became shorthand for "the author wrote himself into a corner and doesn't know how to get out of it without divine intervention."
In a modern context it's become the shorthand for something that comes from out of nowhere to miraculously save the day. It could be knowledge, a person, or a previously unrevealed skill that the protagonist suddenly wields to defeat the antagonist or otherwise save the day. Generally speaking, a deus ex machina isn't appreciated by the modern reader or watcher of fiction. We prefer to use Chekhov's gun on the mantelpiece, something that can save the day but that we've at least been made aware of or have seen used (in a minor form) previously.
Be that as it may, I don't want to discuss the God From the Machine. I want to talk about the Crap From the Machine. This is the last-minute revelation that doesn't save the plot but mangles it -- and does so for no reason whatsoever. The author could have completely left it out and been left with a reasonable story. Instead, there's this utterly ridiculous plot twist, that completely changes everything, for which there was zero hint previously.
"Aha!" says someone, "but what about the good stories where that happens? What about them, huh?"
And I say, "Name one."
And they reply, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. Jacob's Ladder. The Sixth Sense."
And then I point out they don't know what they are talking about. Let's look at all three (well, really two, since the second is based on the first).
In Bierce's short story the setup is that Farquhar is about to be hung, miraculously escapes, gets home to his wife and surprise! He's still on the bridge. But look closer: Before the execution he's thinking about escape, how he'll do it, and get back to his wife and kids. And lo, it seems he does it, but it's only a delusion in the second before his death. All the pieces are there on the table at the start. Jacob's Ladder is a little more sophisticated. Sure, we find out it's the delusion of a dying man in Vietnam, but all through the film the character knows that something happened to him and his unit in the war and part of the story is a quest to find out what it was. And if you look at the film, the sets and props used, they subtly hint that something is up. For a story set in 1990 or so, everything is sort of retro in design. As if it were being imagined by someone in the late '60s/early '70s. Since a lot of things hadn't changed, it isn't obvious unless you are paying close attention.
As for The Sixth Sense, anyone who makes the claim has clearly ignored the last five minutes of the film where Shyamalan stuck in the montage of all the hints through the film that the character is dead.
No, what I'm talking about is if at the end of Moby Dick, as Ishmael is clutching the coffin Queequeq had made, the great white whale had surfaced beside him... and the aliens driving the massive camouflaged robot popped the hatch and waved down, happy that their plan to kill Starbuck by driving Ahab nuts had worked.
Yeah, I'd go "Wha..?" too. Imagine if Melville had stuck in something lame like that (or as best he could manage before the age of modern SF and robots and aliens). It changes a great novel to a piece of crap.
There are too many amateur (and probably professional) writers who imagine that said sort of thing is clever. Exhibit number one: Experiment Eleven.
As far as it goes, this is one of your "aliens abduct humans, start changing sex" stories that have been in the genre for some time. Our protagonist is the captain of a small ship sent to investigate the mysterious disappearance of asteroid miners. Cue typical "alien induced disaster". Lone female crewmember dies as a result of an accident, leaving the captain and four other men. Captain wakes up in the SF alien abduction small room, with the unseen aliens. As questioning goes on, the aliens are interested in sexual reproduction, as apparently humans are the only ones who do it they've discovered who have made it into space. Interesting, and I'll get back to this, at one point they explain the reason they are carrying out experiments on the humans is because the humans couldn't stop them, or at least make a reasonable attempt. The captain is offended at this 'might makes right' principle.
Yes, I know it's predictable what happens next, but this is on Fictionmania so it is a requirement. First crewmember comes in sporting a different set of secondary sexual characteristics. Nothing happens because neither she nor the captain have changed mentally. Next time she arrives, she's been mentally tweaked while he's had some slight medications unknowingly made and they make out like a pair of rabbits suffering from nymphomania and satyriasis. Well, not tweaked so much because she offs herself offscreen after the encounter.
Next run involves two marines changed into twin cheerleaders. Doesn't go over well, since the captain refuses to play. They get shipped off to be breeding stock with the trapped miners. Third try, far more successful. Captain falls in love with beautiful woman and vice versa, they do the horizontal mambo, but aliens disappointed because there are no babies. So, captain enters the mysterious off-screen gender change tech and she and her former lover are now playtoys for a misogynistic miner. Assorted sex and abuse later, she kills him.
The aliens disappear at this point. Captain recovers the surviving crew and the trapped miners, they find a ship and sail off into the alien sunset, captain has accepted being a woman and looks forward to her new life, et cetera.
And then, at the very end of the story, is a note indicating the whole thing was an induced hallucination. See, the 'captain' was really a psychopath and was turned into a woman by purely human science. The whole situation was fake, setting up a scenario where the protagonist had a 'reasonable' explanation for the mental and physical changes she'd gone through.
Here's my problem: the last paragraph is not necessary to the story at all, but is a perfect example of crappa ex machina. The captain is really a psychopath and the whole thing is simulated experience forming part of the treatment? If there'd been some hint, some minimal hint of that earlier in the depiction of the character I could buy it. The problem is that the captain, as we get to know him, seems like a perfectly respectable and good person.
Take the 'might makes right' conversation I mentioned. That mindset almost perfectly describes the thinking of a psychopath. "If they can't stop me, that's their problem." This was a blown chance to get into the mind of the protagonist and show that this was no Captain Kirk. Have some form of internal mental debate on the issue. But there wasn't, so there's no reason for the reader to start wondering about what was going on. If there'd been a minor hint that something in the setting didn't make sense, anything, it might have held up the suspension of disbelief. If that last paragraph had simply not been there, the plot would have been perfectly fine. Instead, blech.
And it was a perfectly acceptable story right up to that last damn paragraph!
I'd give this hint to authors: if you want to try something like that, a simple test is to give the story to someone without the 'twist' ending and ask their opinion. If they are puzzled about something that doesn't make sense but is explained in the part you left out, then you're doing alright. But if they don't have a problem with the story, then you have a problem.
Well, actually you don't have a problem at all. Polish off the story and dump the 'surprise ending'.