DEUS EX MACHINA: WHY MY GF HATES SF
When I was a little kid, sometime last century, we followed a particularly ancient tradition in which, as a gesture of social benevolence, 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 code for one such treasure palace, bringing home an ever-changing selection of hardback volumes, rebound in plain covers. My grandmother, reinforcing gender stereotypes, favoured the green and blue of romance and historical-romance; and my grandfather was fixated by the lurid chrome-yellow covers of science fiction.
And I swear the following statement is true: one morning, as I was checking out their reading choices, a small spider with red eyes and visible fangs leaped from the book pile onto my hand. It didn’t bite so I can’t guarantee it was radioactive, but I know that was the moment I became infected by science fiction.
My girlfriend was never blessed with such an auspicious introduction. She can’t settle into science fiction because (she contends) the genre is flawed, in that the author can allow anything to happen to resolve the narrative conflict; and if anything is allowed to happen, it undermines any credibility the story might have.
I argue there’s good and bad in every style; and in good science fiction the parameters of ‘other worlds’ are always established early in the plot, so some fanciful thing cannot just happen to resolve the action.
But she’s worried that all science fiction will be ‘bad’ science fiction; and she can’t relax into it, expecting an act of god (some fanciful plot twist) to be invoked, and ruin the credibility of the story.
I argue that the best SF stories are resolved through the decisive efforts of the individual; through the strength of ordinary people caught in extra-ordinary situations; characters like ourselves who finally triumph, or characters who forsake their personal need for the greater cause.
It’s the same in any good fiction: the plot resolution must be directly in the hands of the protagonist, and the plot must be resolved through their decisive action. We live vicariously through the efforts of our literary heroes, and we need to trust our outcome is safely in their control. But due to the ‘other worldliness’ of science fiction my girlfriend keeps expecting some cheap-fix ‘act of god’ to be invoked and undermine the story. In spite of all my explanations, she can’t trust the form.
Back in classical theatre there was a convention known as deus ex machina, which means ‘god from the machine’. It referred to the actual ropes-and-pulleys machinery that allowed a god-effigy to be lowered on to the stage in order to resolve the narrative conflict. The deus ex machina (as a theatrical device) would have been as clunky as the literary device is now. Yet it was never considered a surprise fix because back then, the sudden appearance of a celestial power wasn’t a hack writing option, it was a genuine possibility within the audiences’ actual lives. But times change; the Ancient Greeks were way more gullible than my girlfriend.
No matter how outrageous our science fiction ‘other worlds’ appear, they must adhere to their own rules. They must have the elements of resolution embedded into the narrative early on, so while the outcome might seem surprising, or unexpected, it still remains within the scope of the created ‘other world’. So occasionally, at my insistence, we trawl old bookshops; with me on the lookout for another radioactive library spider, because ironically a science fiction act-of-god is the only thing that might learn her.
My own debut novel THE KARMA FARMERS (a dark, cinematic, post-modern mystery of love, murder and quantum theory) is published by Unbound, and available from Amazon as an e-book or paperback.