Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Associate Editor


How to Build the Perfect Woman
by Timothy Mudie

Sound of Chartreuse
by Nancy S.M. Waldman

Finding New Roads
by Allen Demir

Smart Home Blues
by Mark Ayling

Drone Dreams
by Hayden Trenholm

Game Changer
by Iain Ishbel

Safe Bet to Appelane
by Derrick Boden

Aquilonia, My Zelky
by Barton Paul Levenson

Shorter Stories

Princess Zenla and the Encyclopedia on Mars
by George S. Walker

See No Evil
by K.S. O’Neill

QSFT7mk2.7853 Has a Name
by Kurt Hunt


God From the Machine
by KJ Hannah Greenberg

And Bugs on the Menu
by Carol Kean



Comic Strips




God From the Machine

By KJ Hannah Greenberg

OVER AND AGAIN, SPECULATIVE FICTION writers construct insufficiently discriminating texts. A particularly exasperating example of this creative inertia is the employment of unforeseen, illogically appearing remedies, i.e. deus ex machina, to settle plots. Such artistic sloth leaves us short in several respects. First, deus ex machina is, in general, a poor tool for securing unwieldly scenarios. Second, deus ex machina is at epistemic odds, specifically, with representative creative writing. Third, deus ex machine minimalizes author credibility. Fourth, deus ex machina disrespects readers’ intelligence. Fifth, deus ex machina excuses social responsibility.

First, there exists sound as well as spurious ways to end a story. The application of deus ex machina almost always falls into the latter category. It’s misleading, deceptive, and specious for an author to wiggle fingers at an impediment and then to straightaway solve it. Readers exert themselves to follow a story’s evolution. They’re not helped by outlandish outcomes.

For instance, H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds” might have been less disappointing if Wells had not abruptly caused native bacteria to kill his invading Martians. Readers were left wondering why a race capable of interplanetary travel couldn’t identify lethal pathogens. Similarly, perhaps Philip K. Dick’s “Time out of Joint” would have been more broadly embraced if Dick hadn’t tasked his audiences to accept the instantaneous reconciling of his main character’s dance between neurosis and good mental health upon the character comprehending that his world constructs had been planted, by his government, in his head. In both cases, sudden plot changes, at books’ conclusions, confounded readers.

Compare the aforementioned tales to Edwin Abbott’s “Flatland” and to “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” segment of Walt Disney’s “Fantasia.” In “Flatland,” the book’s chief personality endured challenges in several domains, yet was able to appreciate the phantasms with whom he interacted; he needed no rescue by geometric deities. Sphere was his teacher, not his savior. In the same way, when, in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” Mickey Mouse implemented supernatural means to animate a mop, his supervising wizard scolded him, flung him out of the wizard’s cave, and then made him redo his chores without anthropomorphized help. Legerdemain could not serve, literally or figuratively, the likes of Disney. As with Abbott’s work, there would be no squaring of problems via contrivances. Abbott’s and Disney’s narratives might constitute weird science, but they stayed reliant on fundamental sensibilities.

What’s more, though many types of sticky plot endings exist, deus ex machina is not among the reputable ones. In contrast to god-in-a-box, to waving hands over matters gone south, a cliffhanger might seem more fatuous, but is actually causally stouter. “War of the Worlds” would have been a stronger story if, let’s say, the alien-fueling red weed not only nourished the invaders, but also devastated local agriculture. Imagine if Wells had ended his tale with his protagonists hurling an untested herbicide at those plants instead of with the aliens, themselves, dying without notice.

In a like manner, an incomplete finish, one that hints at changes to be made after a book’s final paragraphs, is preferable to a hasty, unexpected disentangling of a protagonist’s difficulties. Weigh how much improved “Time out of Joint” would have been had Dick subjected his champion, at the story’s end, to psychotherapy (to sort out illusion from reality), instead of rocketing him to the moon to campaign for peace between earthlings and colonists. There are many ingenious alternatives to deus ex machina for locking down plots and they need to be used.

Second, such devices must especially be tapped in hard-core science fiction. While literary appliances that surmount obstacles by using palpably artificial tactics had a significant role in ancient Greek literature, and in mid-seventeenth century fairy tales, and have a significant role in twenty-first century biopunk, paranormal romance, slipstream, and related absurdist forms of writing, they’re shoddy vehicles for hard science fiction diegeses. Plausibility powers science-based make-believe. Aficionados of organized bodies of facts find it uncomfortable to accept observed miracles or kindred residuals of epistemologies that have been grounded in hermeneutics. Stories whose event strings get revised in a blink are antithetical to inquiry that insists on questions, investigations, hypotheses, assessments, analyses, deductions, and reporting.

Ponder the foolishness inherent in the affairs of an illiterate janitor, who, after making a surprising appearance in a lab, becomes instantly keen to sophisticated biochemistry. Reflect on the ridiculousness of an uneducated hatcheck girl who can, out of the blue, avail herself of the physics needed to remove herself from fierce cyborgs’ clutches. Correspondingly, appraise the inanity of an unforeseen lightning storm that makes malevolent aliens’ ray guns inoperative. Those moments, for a logic-loving audience, are as slippery as is a well-waxed, two-headed wildebeest.

Both Robert L. Forward’s “Martian Rainbow” and Poul Anderson’s “Tau Zero” served up that sort of folly. In Forward’s novel, the lead’s eleventh hour discovery of and alliance with an ancient alien, automaton civilization was statistically improbable. In Anderson’s work, for no precise reason, the primary figures’ starship somehow survived the collapse of the universe when the ship’s exponentially increasing velocity ought to have, instead, prevented it from flying to its sought after, material-dense spot within a space vacuum. In situations like those, the relationships among processes have no foothold in the laws of nature.

Additionally, in Andy Weir’s “The Martian,” it’s preposterous that, at the story’s end, Hermes, the rescue ship, was able to transport the main character home by dint of a gravitational momentum slingshot flight technique. Although that character’s own application of math for repurposing his possessions into a space-worthy capsule, too, was unbelievable, unlike the Hermes’ machinations, his adaptations were so far afield of engineering know-how as to be regarded as substantial fabrication, not as awe-inspiring salvage. In other words, the main character’s efforts were transparent fabulation, but his peers’ nonsensical labors remained an uncomfortable imposter of “fact.”

When stories emphasize methodical accuracy, they ought to mirror accepted elucidations about time and space. Whereas sociobiology, sexuality, alienation, cosmology, and moral fruition in machines are as prone to show up in mundane science fiction and in speculative evolution as in steampunk and transrealism, science-loving audiences don’t fancy the hurried manifestations of wormholes-as-escape-routes, or the rushed appearance of outworlders intent on choreographing good results in bad situations vis-à-vis faster-than-light travel. Readers enamored of Big Science and of Timely Tech require endings that honor the axioms of life sciences, materials sciences, and physical sciences.

Third, when writers apply deus ex machina, they hurt their reputations. Perceptibly manufactured modifications to stories’ endings, which expose their viscera to their readers, ruin authors’ credibility. Allowing the underpinnings of plots to become visible puts readers in awkward positions. It’s akin to them seeing underwear protruding from their fellow bus riders’ pants or to noticing fixes among competitive sports teams. Ugly secrets are best left invisible. When writers exploit shortcuts in their cause-and-effect sequencing, hence demystifying stories’ ordinarily enigmatic quality, they bungle readers’ trust.

Regard “The Truman Show” by Andrew Niccol and “The Matrix” by Andy and Lana Wachowski. Those chronicles, respectively, of a failed multimedia immersion, and of a failed computer-simulated life, revealed their behind the scenes veracities scarcely before reaching their last pages. In Niccol’s book, the protagonist belatedly discovered the built nature of his world. Thereafter, he literally punctured the divide between that world and the here the matrix and now, and fled through his subsequently created opening. In “The Matrix,” likewise, the soundness of the protagonist’s corporeal revival, late in the plot, by means of his lover’s kiss, was suspect. [See at right.] That “Sleeping Beauty” remedy is a transparent awkwardness in a story otherwise constructed on systemic enterprises of knowledge. It’s one thing for a writer to allow one or more characters to break the fourth wall, but something else altogether to allow them to do so just to tie up loose bits in a plot.

Analogously, Michael Crichton would have been held in higher regard if, in his “The Andromeda Strain,” the dangerous extraterrestrial virus had wreaked physiological havoc and collective mayhem instead of mutating into a harmless germ. Even though a comparable departure from Crichton’s ending would have been at odds with his proffered ideas about the advantages of computers and the dangers of atomic weapons, such an ending would have efficaciously reinforced his themes of heroism and of commonsense.

It’s tough to esteem writers who rely on god-bearing contraptions. Like cheap electronic apparatuses marketed to help individuals overcome addiction or to stymie affective disorders’ impact, yet which operate through automated pulses, electronic tones, or other fanciful bells and whistles, writing that exercises deus ex machina does little to build admiration for its creators. No matter authors’ excuses, their jerking of episode progressions vilifies their work.

Fourth, writing that conveys a far-fetched ending affronts its readers. Consumers get insulted by pablum. There’s little call for forcing audiences to pretend that they don’t see obvious and indolent manipulations. Evident prestidigitation, no matter the proficiency of its practitioners, is discourteous entertainment.

Consider reader exasperation with the dénouement of Frederick Pohl’s “The Tunnel under the World.” In that tale, the writer’s end game maneuvering didn’t fit with antecedent plot moments. It felt discourteous to be informed, at that manuscript’s conclusion, that all along the characters had been reanimated robotic versions of dead people. As was true with Pamela’s notorious Dallas dream, Pohl’s readers’ suppositions about the entirety of his narrative, got invalidated. His audience would have been better honored had it been left guessing why the book’s circumstances had gotten skewed.

Contrast Pohl’s work with Christopher Nolan’s “Inception.” In “Inception,” the continuous switcheroo between surreal and existent was laid open from the get-go. Audiences could maintain their normal suspension of belief alongside their need for a scientifically appropriate relationship between cause and effect in that masterpiece of conjecture-driven writing. Readers were not forced to view the hidden compartments, per se, in the hat of the magician hired to enthrall them. The platform is built from the readers. It’s unwise to discount their cleverness.

Fifth, using deus ex machina reduces public accountability. Failure is as much a part of the human condition as is success, maybe even more so. Asking audiences to accept the legitimacy of prevailing over impasses by means of ex nihilio answers leaves society wanting. It’s daft to excuse peculiar forms of resolving struggles as being within literary license. Writers’ dependence on handy ways of neutralizing problems stymies collectives—fiction teaches values. It’s ethically chancy for authors to lead readers to indifference toward, or neglect of, cultural messes. Supernatural solutions don’t drop out of the sky in life, nuclear disasters excepted.

Think about the spaceship in Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Aurora” and about the monolith TMA-2 in Arthur C. Clarke’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” In Robinson’s telling, the artificial intelligence-driven engine, surprisingly, acquired enough self-awareness during a time of crises among its masters, to compel it to engage in diplomatic negotiations. Similarly, in Clarke’s book, the monolith hazarded to transform the protagonist into an immortal starchild just when that character was dying. Snap of a finger, flutter of coincidence, and all was set right, no matter how ostensibly fallacious were the solutions. Readers learn nothing about coping with death, about dealing with interpersonal conflict, or about looking within to unscramble complications when they’re shown the “utility” of deus ex machina.

Inventiveness that shortcuts linking stories’ conditions contributes to the present dearth of communal culpability. Although it’s known that stories are fakery, are merely means to try on identities and beliefs, it’s also known that stories mold us. Playacting necessarily leans audiences along moral routes. When writers precipitously turn sorry states of affairs into temporal fluxes that get easily treated in chemistry test centers, they teach the magicking away of predicaments, not critical and creative thinking or any lesser, but useful, ways of grappling with life’s kerfuffles.

Overall, fiction that generates points of understanding, that validates bodily experiences, empowers. Contrariwise, impulsive writing impairs. Prodigious responses to setbacks, principally those occurring at the end of a tale, are awful. Authors who: muck with connectedness, transform narratives into smoke and mirrors, i.e. who drop deus ex machina into their works, make themselves, their audiences, and their societies suffer. Impenetrable solutions, stuck at plots’ ends, have no place in hard science fiction. It rots for everyone when writers become grudging in exerting themselves when closing causal chains. END

KJ Hannah Greenberg lives and writes in Jerusalem. She earned her terminal degree from U. Mass, and was a National Endowments for the Humanities Summer Scholar at Princeton. She has been nominated three times for the Pushcart Prize.



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