For The Love Of Deus Ex Machina
Words, Non-Fiction
2018—11      
Denver, CO

FOR THE LOVE OF DEUS EX MACHINA

It’s kind of odd how authors today are able to admiringly draw from the Greek tragedies of old and the mythologies that fueled them, but then draw a very strict line when it comes to the use of Deus Ex Machina, a device all too prevalent in Ancient Greece. Literally translating to “God from the Machine”, Deus Ex Machina was exactly that: an actual crane-like machine used to lower actors (typically playing gods) from a second story down onto the main stage. The term is now however strictly used in reference to poor story resolutions, whereby a story’s “internal logic” is cast aside in favor of a highly unlikely resolution often deemed too much an “act of God”.

Modern examples of this include:

1) Raiders of the Lost Ark: Indiana Jones and Marion are tied to a pole, and the Nazis now have the Ark. They open the Ark, unleashing its power which kills them all. All except Indy and Marion. It does burn their rope off though and sets them free.

2) Lord of the Flies: Some consider the book’s ending to be something of a Deus Ex Machina, wherein the conflict between the children is brought to a halt as a result of the arrival of a naval ship full of British officers. Personally, I don’t think this one counts given that the occurrence is far from inconceivable and is an integral part of the book’s “statement”.

3) War of the Worlds: Arguably the king of Deus Ex Machinas is having an entire alien invasion come to an end as a result of Earthly bacteria. No “heroic” intervention necessary.

While I have no intention of making up excuses for less than inspired plotting, especially when it comes to a story’s climax, I think it’s rather unfair to confuse that with the Greek concept of Deus Ex Machina, especially given our understanding of the world today.

We now know, for example, that relentless uprisings in Egypt’s Ptolemaic era may have been directly linked to volcanic eruptions halfway across the world. Eruptions which suppressed the monsoons in East Africa necessary for the annual flooding of the Nile in Egypt. Flooding without which Egyptians could not grow enough food. And lack of food is always a good cause for riot.

We also know that industrialization alone was not the cause of England’s Luddite revolts between 1811-1813. A freakishly cold summer, followed by an unusually warm autumn did not help the harvest of 1811. Furthermore, a great deal of what little harvest there was was used to feed the 30,000 troops sent to fight Napoleon’s army in Portugal. This, not to mention, after the majority of England’s public woodlands was lost to enclosures and privatization in the decades prior. If one or two of these events did not occur, the Luddite revolts may not have happened at all, and the English language may not have gained a new word as result.

We also know that a certain casino owner may not have been elected president of the United States in 2016 had it not been for the utilization of a social network built by a college dropout in 2004 largely because he wasn’t popular enough to get any pussy.

So: rather than look at Deus Ex Machina as a literal “hand of God”, what if we instead saw it as it was constructed by the Greeks? An actual second story operating on a somewhat more influential plane than the very limited lives of the presumably core cast of characters in the “primary” story. Instead of Gods up in that second story, what if they are politicians? After all, certain decisions taken by said politicians may very well influence the type of gun a “lower-level” character has access to and why. Or perhaps someone robbing a house in Southern California will get stuck in a blazing forest fire caused by rising temperatures and the idiotic encasing of the bed of the LA River in concrete some 70 years prior. Maybe that house robber is the grandson of someone in the Army Corps who worked on the river. Maybe the house being robbed belongs to the heir of an oil baron who never in a million years would’ve thought the very source of their wealth would be cause of their offspring’s property destruction.

Tying the fate of seemingly minuscule actions to greater events is not entirely absent from fiction. It can be found in the ambitious works of visionary novelists like Don DeLilo, Umberto Eco, Thomas Pynchon, and [sometimes] Ursula K. Le Guin. In an article for the Guardian, Damien Walter grouped all these authors works under the banner “Systems Fiction”, taking his cue from Tom LeClair’s 1988 book, IN THE LOOP: DON DELILO AND THE SYSTEMS NOVEL.

“The systems novel is ultimately a space for ambitious thinkers, the ones who want to weave complex thoughts into a tastier parcel than some impenetrable academic tome. The dramatic kick in a systems novel is usually found in the points where the different systems overlap: tackling climate change isn’t all about physics, it also about unpicking the economics of a carbon-driven economy, for example.”

Essentially, what the Systems Novel truly is, is a utilization of the original Deus Ex Machina apparatus of old but with a better understanding of the world we live in. An understanding that takes into account that no person is an island and that we are all part of a very intricate ecosystem spread not only across vast space, but vast time as well.

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