God from the machine
Are you a lazy writer? Are you a writer with no sense of plot, no respect for their readership, who ruins a story by resorting to the use of a deus ex machina?
Chances are that if you write about magic or fantasy, or have “godly” characters in your story, then yes, you are. Lazy, disrespectful and a poor author.
At least, that appears to be the opinion if you look at some of the reaction to the final episode of Battlestar Galactica aired recently in the US.
As an urban fantasy writer who’s stories feature demons, angels, monsters and gods, I’m a little insulted by the insinuation that I’m lazy and disrespectful.
For those who have not yet seen the final episode of BSG, the ending has upset more than a few fans, both casual and hardcore, who have viewed it as a betrayal of the high quality writing and storylines that had been the hallmark of the series.
One of the criticisms levelled at it, is that after so much build up, it quickly resolved the plot points by resorting to a quite literal deus ex machina. Now, resorting to a deus ex machina is (rightly in my opinion) criticised as a sign of weak writing.
But the criticisms of the final episode of BSG have gone beyond that. They don’t just criticise the specific plot resolutions. Some commentators have decried the use of religion, deities, magic, and by extension fantasy as cheating. That if you can make up the rules of how your world works, then somehow that is lazy and doesn’t respect your readership.
Excuse me? Tolkien, a lazy writer? I think not. Whilst I agree that if you paint yourself into a corner with your plot, then it is lazy to suddenly produce a magic item that resolves all difficulties. But if you create a fantasy world that presupposes the fantastical and the magical as an actual reality, then to rely on these elements to drive the plot is no more “lazy” than to rely on emotions and motivations in any other story, so long as you remain consistent to the internal logic of the story or world you have created. That is what separates a deus ex machina from a more acceptable, albeit fantastical ending – the extraordinary event or item is in-keeping with, and respects the reality created.
It is highly uncharitable to dismiss the fantastic as lazy and disrespectful. To do so is to dismiss the work of hundreds of writers who’s work relies on the supernatural, the religious, the magical. Yes, there can be lazy writers, lazy endings – but these are problems that affect all writing, and are not peculiar to the genre.
Maybe the criticism is the explicitly spiritual ending to a previously hard sci-fi story. Again, this doesn’t wash with me – Star Wars took a highly spiritual and mystical element and wove it in with unashamedly hard sci-fi. BSG is steeped in biblical references, and so the religious nature of the ending should have been no surprise to those who spotted the references, particularly for those who remember the original series.
It may have been disappointing. It may have been unexpected. It may even have been a lazy deus ex machina. But to dismiss the entire corpus of horror, fantasy and spirituality because one prime time show disappointed is just lazy criticism.