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God from the machine

April 5, 2009

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.

Paul is not normally this sensitive about criticism of TV shows that aren’t on his favourite list, but when a demon, an angel and a golem walk into a bar isn’t just the set up to a joke, but is the set up to a scene in his novel, then he gets a little touchy if you call it lazy…
  1. April 5, 2009 9:54 am

    For me, stories come in many forms, and I think its pretentious to call another writer’s work ‘lazy’ if it entertains. Great post!

  2. April 5, 2009 12:07 pm

    I never watched BSG, so can’t comment, though I’m certainly willing to take your word for how the ending worked.

    There _is_ a certain amount of fantasy that takes magical and religious elements strictly as plot device and just plain ignores the metaphysical and spiritual implications, and I would characterize that as lazy writing. Tolkien, as you point out, is not one of those writers. Neither are some of the very fine new authors like R. Scott Bakker, Jacqueline Carey, Greg Keyes. Plus we have a tradition of fantasy that treats magic as if it were another technology, with different rules from science but equally rigorous, starting with Heinlein’s classic “Magic, Incorporated”: these stories don’t necessarily treat magic as having religious aspects.

    So I’m afraid the comments you quote are revealing their ignorance of the field more than anything else.

  3. April 6, 2009 5:53 am

    Well we all know where the soap box disappeared to this week.

    Anyone who has written sci-fi or fantasy and had to go through the laborious task of “world building” knows that neither genre is for the lazy writer. I have to admit having dabbled writing some sci-fi in the last six month – it is bloody hard, it’s time consuming and requires amazing amounts of brain power. You’re not just plucking things from reality – that already work, that are already known and part of the readers understanding of the world. A sci-fi or fantasy writer has to guide the reader on that journey AT THE SAME TIME AS telling the story, creating conflict , characters etc etc.

    I had no idea what a deus ex machina was (thank for the wiki link) and still didn’t get it until I got to the bit about Dallas. That particular plot twist happened when I was about eight but I remember the absolute uproar that it created – and yes, viewers casual or hardcord felt very cheated and lied to!

    It is one thing to call a spade a spade – it sounds like BSG deserved it on one level – but to extrapolate outwards as it appears they have done – that is really callous, cheap and undeserving.

    Thanks for getting on the box this week Paul!

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