Thursday, 9 July 2009


There are some mild spoilers in this article for the ending of Steven Erikson's novel Gardens of the Moon, the movie The Return of the King, Peter F. Hamilton's novel The Naked God and the Deep Space Nine episode Sacrifice of Angels. So be forewarned!

Deus ex machina.

In Greek and Roman drama, a god lowered by stage machinery to resolve a plot or extricate the protagonist from a difficult situation.

An unexpected, artificial, or improbable character, device, or event introduced suddenly in a work of fiction or drama to resolve a situation or untangle a plot.

A person or event that provides a sudden and unexpected solution to a difficulty.

A deus ex machina (pronounced /ˈdeɪ.əs ɛks ˈmɑːkinə/ or /ˈdiː.əs ɛks ˈmækɨnə/, literally "god from the machine") is a plot device in which a person or thing appears "out of the blue" to help a character to overcome a seemingly insolvable difficulty.

SF&F examples of DEM:

1. In the movie version of The Return of the King an invincible, hitherto-unmentioned Army of the Dead is suddenly revealed to be recruitable by Aragon and saves the day (in the book they are still a bit of a DEM but at least don't resolve the entire storyline on Aragorn's behalf as in the movie). The movie actually suffers from a total logic failure since, having established the Army of the Dead can save the day with no problems whatsoever, Aragorn gets rid of them instead of having them hang around for another week to defeat Sauron in totality as well (as is often the case, Gimli was right all along).

2. At the end of Gardens of the Moon a rampaging aeons-old entity is smashing up a major city when he gets randomly imprisoned by a magic house that materialises suddenly nearby with zero forewarning whatsoever. Later he starts to enjoy staying there and gets a cat. There's quite a few additional Erikson examples of this which I will forebear from mentioning.

Things that are not DEM but are often called as such, to the annoyance of this critic.

1. The Deep Space Nine episode where a the Prophets destroy/displace a Dominion fleet of two thousand ships passing through the wormhole at Sisko's request. A particularly mind-numbing misuse of the term since the Prophets, their mastery of the wormhole, their sheer power and their odd respect for Sisko had been established over the course of no less than 130 previous episodes. Also, since the Federation had already fought its way through over 1,200 Dominion ships (in the biggest single battle in Star Trek's history, before or after) to reach the wormhole in the first place, it couldn't entirely be described as anti-climatic either. This is a logical use of a long-established existing plot point to conclude a dramatic storyline.

2. The conclusion to Peter F. Hamilton's Night's Dawn Trilogy. This one represents a particularly ridiculous use of the term. In Book 1 our heroes learn of the existence of a device in deep space that has enormous powers over space/time manipulation which could be used to resolve the crisis. In Book 2 this information is processed, analysed and discussed at length. In Book 3 our heroes deliberately go in search of this device, spending enormous resources and time tracking it down. When they find it, they discover that, shockingly, it can be used to resolve the crisis, and employ it for this purpose. Again, this is a logical use of a plot point established no less than about 2,600 pages earlier to logically conclude a dramatic storyline. The use of this device also has significant consequences, as it is not in the slightest a 'reset' button which makes all the problems generated by the crisis just go away. It is a tad on the anti-climatic side with reference to several storylines (most notably the events in London that are in progress at the time) but it is not a DEM ending by any definition.


Anonymous said...

Not sure about the Erickson one, taken within the context of just the Gardens of the moon, perhaps, but when viewed within the series the apearance of the Azath is the readers first introduction of a powerful entity, one which crops up again and again thoughout the books, however i do agree that Erickson is guilty of overuse of the DEM, the random Bear god of War in Toll of the Hounds being a prime example. The Hamilton one again is interesting, I think its the ease with which the character uses the long sought after object the causes people to label it DEM, its been a while since i read the books but i'm pretty sure that after wading through a few thousand pages of mystery and danger the main character solves the whole thing within a couple of paragraphs, might be wrong about this though, as i said its been a while. Good article (as usual), its an often misused term particuarly within speculative fiction reviews and discussions


Mathias Johansson said...

Finally! (As Horace Engdahl would say)

I have to agree with Warren though, Erikson have a lot of it, but the Azath seen in the context of the entire series is not the best example (one would think the Dajurhistanii would be a little more upset over the powerful entity fighting the soultaken dragon in their city. So in the things that it does not change much, there is some to that atleast.)

Well, because of it's nature it is pretty easy for Joshua to use. And why shouldn't it be?

Adam Whitehead said...

The Erikson one is written from the perspective of reading GotM for the first time. The term 'Azath House' isn't used until about a second before it appears and the existence of a race/object which can imprison even the most powerful beings in the universe came from out of left field. On re-reads yet, it makes more sense and the ending of GotM sets up all the other appearances of the Azath later in the series.

The Naked God is a plot device, certainly, but it's not as bad as people often make out. The damage from the crisis still needs to be dealt with, hundreds of millions of people are badly injured or ill because of the events and millions more are dead. It doesn't reverse or take away those problems. The Confederation is also left in a very different state to where it was at the start of the books.

I was going to add something from God of Clocks to the piece as well, but I think I'll hold off until more people have read the book. The ending is...excruciatingly disappointing.

Jebus said...

Actually I find that GotM is more of a "OK here is everything you need to know about this world" kind of introductory novel, then the _actual_ series gets started with book 2. GotM just has so much stuff I didn't understand until later in the series, it almost feels like a prequel written after the fact of the other novels - does that make any sense? It almost assumes you have prior knowledge of everything it contains and it's really just fleshing out a few scenes or plot points mentioned in later novels.

Detested the LotR DEM, it was just so ridiculous!

Confession time: I avidly watched DS9, my favourite ST series, for years but then gave up half way through the final season. Can't remember why but I think I just detested the Dominion story arc. Gonna have to re-watch the last two seasons as I love all those big space battles and the fairly good character development.

Jebus said...

BTW - you're right about the anti-climatic situations, there's really bugger all weather in space. ;-P

Adam Whitehead said...

Are you sure it wasn't because about a third of Season 7 was slightly tedious side-stories they stuck in to save money for the final ten-episode arc? The ten-parter makes up for it though.

James said...

Agree on both accounts in terms of GOTM and LOTR: ROTK.

The GOTM example isn't too bad - it doesn't undermine the story, and perhaps makes sense the further you delve into the series, but it does come totally out of leftfield. I've read GOTM twice, and both times I found myself thinking "What exactly is this thing and where did it come from?" rather than "OMG DEUS EX MACHINA FOR THE LOSE." So from my point of view, a little more exposition beforehand somewhere would have been welcome.

The LOTR example is a joke. It does't ruin what is a very, very good film, but it does undermine the sacrifice by the Rohirrim (sp?), and Aragorn's decision to release them before the final confrontation with Sauron's forces is nothing short of ridiculous. He could have demanded that they fight the rest of Sauron's forces, because if memory serves he never specified which enemy he wanted them to defeat as part of the bargain. This deus ex machina could have been avoided, by adding the simple premise that they could only spend a certain amount of time away from their mountain hideout, and therefore wouldn't have the time to face the rest of Sauron's forces (although that of course raises further questions).

I always saw the Eagles' rescue of Sam and Frodo as a bit of a deus ex machina, simply because it seems rather cheap and raises the question of why they didn't just use the eagles to fly to Mordor in the first place.

Adam Whitehead said...

Agreed. The book makes more sense, that the Army of the Dead just have to fulfil 'one' more service for Gondor and then can vanish, so after helping them take the boats their job is done.

MarkCN said...

Well if it worked for Euripides... :)

I always think it's tricky to tell in epic fantasy - especially Erikson - given the vast scale of things, what can seem a bit DEM can often be part of a much grander plan that was always there in the details.