Discworld and Deus ex Machinas

Cover by Paul Kidby.

Discworld and Deus Ex Machinas; Foreshadowed DEM are still DEM.

So I’ve been reading, well more like re-reading, some of my old Discworld novels recently (ny Terry Pratchett), and something hit me as I reached the book that stopped the manner in which I’ve read them, the onslaught, the flood. The book was Making Money, the second Moist von Lipwig book.
The fact that I’ve read that book reasonably recently probably also had a part in it, as my memory of it was still pretty fresh. But the issue that came up in this book is one that had come up in other Discworld books as well, in a manner at least, but it is in another iteration what makes up for Discworld’s “charm”. The issue is that of Deus Ex Machinas, so to speak.

Discworld books often have iterations and re-iterations of things. We have a specific issue crop up time and time again in a book, and that is part of what makes it “Funny”. Scare-quote funny in parts, genuinely funny in others. Anyway, it is the repetition that gives things power, as we either get the same idea across time and time again in the same manner, or with subtle changes.
The idea that comes up, or the sentence, in The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents, for instance was “He  could to take down a dog,” which is usually applies to rats, so it’s quite some feat. At a certain point in the book we’re told that X was strong enough to take down a dog, but Y was strong/mad enough to take down a wolf. And let me tell you, after we read the same sentence time and time again, in the context that this was posted, it made me all teary-eyed. It hit hard, the way that it was changed.

There are other books where the repetition is also there along with obscure references, in order to build up foreshadowing, and often a clever punch-line. In Pyramids for example we keep seeing the calculations of the best mathematician in the world, which seem quite… bizarre, and later when we find out who the best mathematician in the world is, or rather, what, it all makes sense.

But these two together build up for what we have in say, Guards! Guards!and also Making Money. We have in Guards! Guards! IIRC a constant reference to “One in a million [chances]”, and later it pays up in order for the not-so-brave characters to perform some hijinks in order to come up on top, though I won’t tell you exactly how. Now, the fact that we don’t get told of this principle in the very last moment (if my memory does not deceive me) does not make it any less of a deus ex machina (DEM), or at least it normally would. So we didn’t get told of the principle and then had it sprung on us, it’s still pulling something out of nowhere so to speak. Then again, if you consider where DEM comes from historically, then it was a known convention, so in a way it was not a DEM in the meaning that we ascribe to it today, and only in a literal manner of a djinni or God that comes out of a box to solve all issues that had been raised during the show.

In Making Money though, the issue is different, and here is why. If you read the Witches’ series, which deals with stories, or The Science of Discworld (volume 2, specifically), you learn of Narrativium. Discworld is a world infused with so much ambient magic that stories have power and can affect the world, so things get modified by what the story not only dictates, but demands as the outcome. In a way, all humans have Narrativium within them which causes them to shape what happens to them in the manner of a story that makes sense.
Anyway, “One in a Million” is a well-known principle and after being invoked several times in the story, it is no surprise at all that Narrativium is being exploited by the guards of the Night Watch in order to triumph their ordeal.

The DEM in Making Money is more along the order of the one made in Pyramids. The issue used is one that is actually referenced heavily during the book, and also follows some of the themes of the first book Moist appeared in (Going Postal), but in the end, our hero is in more and more trouble, and more and more intrigue is being revealed and dastardly plans executed, but even though the solution is referenced, and actually brought forth by the actions of a character (who had no real way to know this is what they did), the final solution is pure DEM in its spirit. The hero’s bacon is on the grill, and yet, they come out on top, through their ability to adapt quickly to the “divine providence” of the DEM that had appeared.
A DEM appeared, through actions that it’s not their own, and they were smart enough to capitalize. Which is a bit amusing, as the DEM appeared in the book in order for them to capitalize on it.

This is not the same as what had happened in the first book for instance, where the victory was had through a lucky, bastardly plan the protagonist had concocted on their own. Though in a way, I guess all “reveals” in suspense films such as The Usual Suspects could be seen as such DEM, those “Gotcha!” moments, as only the author could really have known them, and in a very real way, they come out of nowhere.

Truly good “Gotcha!” films merely make you buy into the idea that you could have grokked it on your own beforehand, and thus it wasn’t truly pulled out of left-field, you just weren’t sharp enough to uncover it before the big reveal. Usually, it’s a lie. The trick then is to not have your deus ex machina feel like one.

Here’s an interesting article Zemanta lead me to. While it’s true his heroes are not all-knowing, Terry Pratchett attacks Deus es Machinas in Doctor Who, which I somewhat accuse him of doing here:

It also seems to me that there’s ample more content here, both to talk of more things in Discworld, especially Narrativium, the “Gotcha!” element of suspense media being “Deus ex Machinas” and how “Repetition makes comedy”.

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One comment on “Discworld and Deus ex Machinas

  1. […] In season 4 or 5, first Wilson and then Cuddy comment on the manner in which House works, how from a seemingly random thing that occurs he makes the connection. A deus ex machina of sorts. If this were truly a mystery show, then this would be horrible, as the solutions are such that are not only very remote and unlikely, but the kind that you as the (non-doctor, or even doctor) watcher could never figure out on yourself – which is the opposite of what mystery/suspense shows want – they always want to make you feel as if you’ve got a chance. […]

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