Way back in the last century as a gesture of social benevolence, and following a tradition dating to antiquity, local councils would fund entire buildings dedicated to books. Room after room, floor upon floor of widely varying titles; all of them available to anyone with a special pass known as a library card. My grandparents had the habit of frequenting one such treasure palace, leaving me fascinated by their ever-changing selection of hardback volumes; always united by a uniformity of style. My grandmother favouring the pink and blue covers, denoting romance or history - but my grandfather, with an eye on future mysteries would favour the lurid yellow covers with the letters SF stamped on their spine.
And I swear the following statement is true: one morning, as I was investigating their book choices, a small spider with angular black legs, red eyes and visible fangs leaped from the book pile onto my hand. I can’t guarantee it bit me, or that it was radioactive; but looking back, this is probably the moment I became infected by the promise of otherworldly day-glo fiction…
Decades later, my girlfriend and I sometimes disagree about the value of SF. It’s the same discussion we always have, prompted by an underperforming film or book; and we always agree to disagree. She contends science fiction is a flawed concept, because the author can allow anything to happen in order to resolve the narrative conflict; and if anything is allowed to happen, it undermines any credibility the story might have.
I counter this by reminding her there is good and bad in every style. And that in good science fiction, the parameters of the fantasy / future / other worlds are always established early in the plot, so that some fanciful thing, some unexpected power or event cannot just happen to save a hopelessly impossible situation.
It’s the same in any form of literature. Using an act of god, or deus-ex-machina, to save the story is poor writing; the protagonist must always live or die by their own volition, by their own inherent skills and depth of character.
It must be tempting though, especially in SF where the author is creator of an alternate universe, to flex this omnipotence and vanquish evil by the sudden introduction of rabid mutant space-wolves, mind-melding mermaids, or shape-changing nanobots. We know the monsters that dwell in our favourite author’s imagination are exciting. It’s why we read their books. But random acts of god should never be considered as a last-minute solution.
In story telling, an act of god refers to an easy improbable fix. The phrase is derived from ancient classical drama when a god would literally be introduced from the heavens in order to resolve some impossible plot twist finale.
The words deus-ex-machina translate as god from the machine, referring to the actual machinery used to lower these god-characters onto the stage. It’s worth remembering that audiences back then held a strong belief in the intervention of the gods, and so the sudden appearance of a higher power was a genuine possibility in their own day-to-day lives.
In our more rational times we need our stories to be resolved through the decisive efforts of the individual. Our hope lies in the strength of ordinary people caught in extra-ordinary situations. We want to believe that characters like ourselves can triumph over forces of iniquity, restore the status quo, and find love...
Or we might crave a post-apocalyptical vision, with the hero forsaking personal gratification for the good of the greater cause; but whichever way it ends, hopeful or bleak, the resolution must be due to the direct actions of the protagonist. We live vicariously through the hero, and need to know the outcome is in our hands.
The original deus ex machina symbolises this outmoded plot device: a cumbersome machine of rope and wood; a mechanical tangle of pulleys, levers and interlocking cogs. A behemoth operated by a team of indentured stage hands, groaning and cursing under its weight. The strain of human toil, the stretching of the ropes; the sweat and hot breath of slaves... No matter how slick the operation, the appearance of all-powerful story-gods would have been as clunky as the plot device itself.
I love good science fiction; not so much for the cops-and-robbers-in-space stories, but for the potential to discuss large philosophical ideas that might seem too laboured or worthy in earth-bound fiction. I also love my girlfriend, and it would be amazing if she could embrace the SF classics that have formed my literary past. But she can’t overcome her conviction that SF is somehow fundamentally flawed.
The irony is that to bring her on board I need the intervention of the gods. I need a high octane, purpose built deus-ex-machina to blow her mind. I’m imagining a four dimensional holographic vision appearing from a distant thundercloud, accompanied by lightening flashes, heralding a god she couldn’t refuse, like a reincarnation of Steve McQueen riding four black stallions from the hell-gates of a distant Valhalla…
But this would undermine my own argument. What I need to do is practice voodoo brain control: my thoughts emerging like telepathic mist, enveloping her, changing her DNA, subtly tweaking her literary expectations, resetting her literary credulity to accept any form of future world possibility – because this wouldn’t be a surprise-from-the-gods outcome: she already knows my own metabolism was once irrevocably altered by a radioactive science-fiction library spider.