Bewildering Stories

Challenge 113

Dei ex machinas

In the ancient theater, plots might be resolved by lowering a god onto the stage by means of a crane, hence the deus ex machina. Molière used the device for all it’s worth: many of his comedies seem hell-bent for tragedy until an unlikely messenger arrives — in Tartuffe, from the king himself, who was sitting royally in the audience — with an implausible story that saves the day.

We don’t do that sort of thing any more. Or do we? At least modern writers seem to have rung a lot of changes on the general principle. What are supernatural beings or aliens from outer space if not dei ex machinas? Sometimes they arrive traditionally, at the end of the story; sometimes they appear at the beginning, which would seem to turn the original idea upside down. What does the external intervention consist of, and what purposes does it serve in:

You might say that Byron Bailey’s “An Impasse of Arms” is all dei (of a sort) and no machinae. And yet... wait for the conclusion: Byron will put at least one humorous twist on that time-honored device.

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