Plot, plotting, plotline
I just finished reading Ken Wharton’s DIVINE INTERVENTION, the first of my ‘contract’ books. Relatively unknown but recent (published in 2001), the novel made its way on to my list after doing a search online for a science fiction story that included issues of quantum mechanics, politics and time travel. I wanted something that was in line with what I hope to accomplish with Critical Past.
Having finished the book, I feel a bit cheated since it barely toys with these concepts and its milieu is more of a space colonization meets artificial intelligence type. Still, it was a worthwhile read as I am having to do a bit of ‘time travel’ myself to get my head out of classic 50’s - 80’s writing styles (Asimov, Herbert, Heinlein) and in to the present day of writing popular science fiction. Grrr - not an easy task, I might add.
There are three plotlines running through DIVINE INTERVENTION, hooking up in a somewhat sudden turn come the second half of the book. The fact that it had an A, B and C plot reminded me very much of television writing on shows like Star Trek and M*A*S*H. Effective but a tad bit predictable. There were frequent times, when reading the book, that I felt like I was watching a film or a television show because of the plotting techniques as well as the stylization (which I’ll get into in another blog entry).
The plot was certainly straightforward, and I suspect that’s part of what most readers prefer. Still, I have personally come to prefer stories where the characters move the plot and not vice versa. Some of the best books I’ve read have been about character growth which in turns AFFECTS the plot. In literature, no one does this better - IMHO - than Marion Zimmer Bradley. In television, Joss Whedon’s Buffy/Angel series come the closest to accomplishing this.
I hope to figure out a way to coalesce the linear plotting with character driven plotlines in my own novel. That really is my primary goal as a writer right now. And it seems to be what causes occasional cases of stupification - but more on that later. I want to walk through DIVINE INTERVENTION’s plotline here and try and get a handle on what makes it work (or not, as the case may be). It must be working at least somewhat; the book is rated as 184,473 on Amazon.com which means it must be at least partially successful.
The A plot focuses on an extrasolar earth colony named Mandala. Some three hundred years ago a sleep colony ship, after a few harrowing experiences, picks Mandala as the place to settle down. The writer establishes early and simply, through the eyes of a young boy named Drew, that everyone works, has a home and is fed. Except for Burnouts. Self-exiled, the Burnouts ingest a local hallucinogenic plant called fana which makes them want to turn on, drop out and leave this idyllic Walden Pond II experiment and head for the hills where they live off the throwaways from the general society. Neither group likes the other yet we get the impression that the main group, I’ll call them the colonials since Wharton never really names them, ignore the Burnout problem most of the time. The colonials have more important things to worry about - another colony ship is on its way from Earth, due in the fall, and they have much to do to get ready.
And that’s where the Prime Minister fits in. He’s not interested in sharing power with the new Earthies and so concocts a plot to destroy the ship and its 30,000 colonists as soon as the ship parks orbit but before the flight crew starts waking up everyone up. When the Mayflower shows up 6 months early, the Prime Minister keeps it a secret so he can ‘hatch’ his plans in private. Or so he thinks he can.
On to the B plot which is a new twist on Deus Ex Machina. And a very literal one at that. Drew is deaf and communicates through a high tech occipital transmission/receiver hardware whose base is surgically implanted in his brain. He wears an external speaker so people can hear him ‘think’ his dialogue. His mother suffers from the same problem and the two, thanks to Dad whose an engineer turned preacher, can communicate over long distances by using an antenna set. A practical technology for dealing with deafness.
A side note though I intend to write about character in another day’s blog: Drew’s Dad (Paul) is a preacher of Science as religion because God wants his worshippers to always seek the truth (yeah, I kind of liked that too - an interesting turn on the two main characters exploring Science vs. God in CONTACT.)
This technology in turn is what connects young Drew to a voice he speaks with that he believes to be God. At certain times of the day, Drew can point his antenna in a specific direction and ‘pray’ to God, the conversations mostly companionable in tone without any ‘earth shattering’ religious overtones. And unlike his father the preacher (and pretty much everyone else), it’s a two way conversation. Once engineer turned preacher Dad finds out his son is claiming to talk to God, he’s not particularly happy. Until Drew is abducted by the Prime Minister for knowing (thanks to a conversation with God) that the Mayflower has shown up early. That’s when Paul uses his wife’s equipment to try and find his son and ends up talking to God as well.
Plot C involves the Captain of the Walt Disney and his thoughts regarding the journey, science, religion and even quantum mechanics. The beginning of each chapter of DIVINE INTERVENTION begins with a Captain’s Log - logs that have become holy scriptures in the new world of Mandala. The Captain gives some details into what accidents happen along the way to push the crew to choose Mandala as their new home. At one point early on, he discusses sending out a probe to one of the planets - Hades - in search of a breathable environment. The probe ‘dies’ upon landing on the planet due to the naturally occurring electrical currents running through the planet’s outer crust.
As the three plots merge for the second half of the book, the reader begins to realize, along with Paul, that God is in fact a machine. Or rather, it is an intelligence born out of the electrical currents running amok on Hades that have married with the probe. The probe, having taken on consciousness, rises from Hades and accidentally ‘meets’ Drew who naively refers to him as God.
As the second half of the book unfolds, Drew’s parents locate their son, thanks to God and learn about the government’s plot to destroy the incoming Mayflower. With the help of God and the Burnouts, they combat the Prime Minister’s machinations in a series of ground battles as well as a space fight where God truly comes in handy, saving Paul from sudden decompression in an antique rocket ship of the Burnouts that is sent to save the Mayflower.
God from a machine, indeed.
A clever twist on a character/plot device but one that leaves me with the impression that the writer (whose apparently a physicist - figures, scientists seem to be making up a good portion of the current sci fi writers at the moment) got lazy. Having a machine with divine abilities keeps him from focusing on the characters quite often including their arcs in appropriate turning points in the story. For instance, the death of the Prime Minister (Channing) during the space battle is hardly mentioned yet here was one of our key antagonists of the entire book. Channing kidnapped Drew. Channing lied to the colonialists about the incoming Mayflower. Channing led a war against the Burnouts, causing the deaths of many secondary characters. Yet all we get is a casual mention at the end of the book that he’s gone because of an accidental decompression. We don’t get to experience the incident. And what’s even more unsatisfying is that there is never a final confrontation between Channing and Paul and, if I had my way, God.
Here’s the bottom line though: this book got published. And it’s doing fairly well (I think). Plot was clean, a little bit obvious, but always moved forward. Each scene is another step or beat in the story and propels the plot forward.
If nothing else, reading DIVINE INTERVENTION has been helpful for recognizing a weakness of my own: ill prepared plotting. I have almost the opposite problem of Ken Wharton in that I get so caught up in my characters that I am constantly loosing the plotline. Though I have worked out a skeleton outline, I can see the need to dig a bit deeper - at least on a chapter by chapter basis - so I can not worry about the direction and focus on what I feel is important: character.
Off to plot my plotline.