The Double-MacGuffin

A lot of stories are based on people competing for something. In many cases, what they are competing for is far less important than the competition — as long as the object of competition is important to them.

It might be a glowing thing in the trunk of a Chevy Malibu or it might be the contents of an ice skate bag. All that matters is that everyone in the story is willing to kill to get it or die trying.

But then there’s the Double-MacGuffin. This is a story where people are competing not for the thing, but for the thing that will tell them what the real thing even is, and perhaps provide access to the actual MacGuffin.

For the record, I just coined Double-MacGuffin, and in the annals of literature, when they discuss Double-MacGuffin stories, they will mention this humble blog episode in the “quaint backstory” part of their analysis.

It would be easy to confuse a race-for-treasure-map story as a double-MacGuffin, but that’s not the case at all. Even if the treasure is vague and MacGuffin-like, the map is not. It’s a competition for a well-defined thing that leads to an undefined thing. That’s a single-MacGuffin plot right there, bunky. To make it a Double-MacGuffin, the map itself has to be something so inscrutable that it can never be defined.

The characters in a Double-MacGuffin story are fighting to find the question, because they know the answer to that question is important.

I’m dancing around a story right now that wants to be a double-MacGuffin. And that’s actually not so hard, until you try to end it.

On Television right now, Lodge 49 is the perfect Double-MacGuffin story. An artifact that may or may not exist but everyone wants can provide access to something… undefinable. While the characters chase the artifact, the “undefinable” isn’t afraid to elbow people in the ribs. It’s beautiful.

Locally, Feeding the Eels has stumbled into that world, and is having a good time. And The Quest For the Important Thing to Defeat the Evil Guy is an archetype of the double-MacGuffin trope.

Yeah, I put my writing into the paragraph right after mentioning one of the best-conceived television shows I’ve ever seen. But Eels has the Double-MacGuffin going, and that’s all right.


Robinson Crusoe Without the Whitewash

My recollections of the 20th-century film adaptations of Robinson Crusoe don’t include slavery. In the source material our hero is on a ship taken by Moorish “pirates” and he is made a slave.

(Pirates in quotes because they’re just doing the same shit as the Europeans.)

But slavery’s not so very bad, right?

While the rest of the crew is sent off God-knows-where, our narrator enjoys a fairly benign period of servitude. He’s technically a slave, but the degradation is absent. It’s just an involuntary job that Robbie executes well, and he is never beaten to an inch of his life, or raped, or humiliated in any of a thousand ways for the pleasure of someone else.

Then there is the escape. A pretty easy escape, really, but let’s just allow that literature was young and even the greats back then leaned on the gullibility of the bad guys. Crusoe escapes with another young slave named Xury who immediately becomes Robbie’s sidekick and biggest fan.

Free! Except of course they are on the open sea in a small boat and that is not sustainable. They have a few adventures along the shore, proving both the power of gunpowder and the stupidity of a hungry European deciding that lions aren’t fit to eat. Xury shows bravery and resourcefulness, and they continue to survive.

More than once, Crusoe said he was heading “south and east”. I checked the map, checked it again, and that just doesn’t work. South and east puts him right ashore. Which is weird, because otherwise Defoe’s descriptions of the geography are accurate.

As Crusoe is heading down the African coast bearing south and west, he reaches a point where Dakar now sits, thrusting out into the ocean. It is here that Robbie and his crew of one spot the sails of a Portuguese (slave) ship. They risk everything to give chase and attract the attention of the men on the ship, and eventually they are rescued.

The Portuguese captain is impressed with Crusoe’s little boat, and offers a nice chunk of cash for it. The captain is also impressed with Crusoe’s sidekick Xury, and offers almost as much for the kid as he did for the boat.

Before I tell you Crusoe’s response to that offer, let’s review. Crusoe has been a slave. He and the kid gained their freedom together, and have struggled together to stay alive. They have been partners, and Xury has shown some moxie in the process. Safe to say, without Xury, Crusoe would have died.

Yeah, you got it. Robbie sells his sidekick — but with a caveat! If the kid accepts Christianity he will only be a slave for ten years.

Well, all right then. I guess that makes it OK.

It was a different time. I get it. Slavery was to maritime trade what porn is to the Internet: The thing no one wants to talk about that funds the rest. But while Robinson Crusoe’s fortunes seem to be rising at this point in the narrative, I just don’t like the guy. Not at all.

I think the writer, Defoe, at a gut level, realized that his main guy was being a complete asshole. Friends don’t sell friends. So in the end Defoe (the writer) compels Xury himself to agree to the terms of the deal, where Crusoe (the character) could not consummate the deal alone without moral compromise. But if it was Xury’s choice, then he should have been the one to get paid.

In my previous episode about this story, I remarked on the lack of visceral detail during the scary times. Perhaps it’s this same detachment that allows Robinson to fucking sell his friend. Perhaps Crusoe doesn’t actually feel anything. That would explain a lot.


In a Word

I thought maybe I’d take a break from mediocre Space Opera and find something more fulfilling to read. One good thing about the modern age is that with a suitable device one has access to countless classics of literature. I’ve read more than one of those.

Robinson Crusoe recently caught my eye. I have vague recollections of a least one movie based on the story, those memories smelling slightly of Disney. Guy gets shipwrecked, has adventures, gets rescued. I think there was a dog, and natives. I have no doubt that the original will be substantially different.

If I can manage to read it. Here’s a sentence from near the beginning:

“In a word, as the sea was returned to its smoothness of surface and settled calmness by the abatement of that storm, so the hurry of my thoughts being over, my fears and apprehensions of being swallowed up by the sea being forgotten, and the current of my former desires returned, I entirely forgot the vows and promises that I made in my distress.”

My eyes were getting blurry by the end of my count, but I came up with a total of sixty-one words to finish a thought that started with “In a word…” But I am in no position to criticize someone for rambling.

There has already been one Interesting Idea (that the happiest people are in the economic center of the spectrum, and that adventuring is not for people who have a chance to be actually happy), but Daniel Defoe spends so much time talking about the people trying to convince Robinson to stay home that he kind of neglects the far more interesting expression of what that desire to roam feels like. There’s nothing visceral in his descriptions; I don’t feel the pull of the sea. Maybe I’m viewing this through a modern lens, but I want to understand his irrational decision from an emotional level, rather than just be presented with it. Other than the weeping of his father (factually presented), there’s not much emotion to be found.

And to be fair, Crusoe is telling this story from the point of view of regret. All those people telling him to stay home were right.

The first storm has come and gone and Crusoe has managed to convey his fear well enough even without any visceral imagery – but it felt flat to me. One sentence stood out, however (yours truly stops to copy sentence, realizes the sentence is easily more than 100 words long and the good part was just a piece of it):

“I expected every wave would have swallowed us up, and that every time the ship fell down, as I thought it did, in the trough or hollow of the sea, we should never rise more; in this agony of mind, I made many vows and resolutions…”

Were I in a writing workshop with Mr. Defoe, I would have advised him to go back and add the groaning of the timbers of his fragile ship, the cursing of the crew, the water washing over the deck, and the feeling in his gut when his little boat slides off the crest of a wave and into the waiting trough, and the juddering in his legs as the boat smashes her bow into the wall of water rising above her, to repeat the cycle.

Although this was a pretty minor storm; maybe Defoe is saving up his descriptive prose for the real thing. That might be an excuse, but you never forget your first storm at sea, I bet. The next day Crusoe’s pal says “that was nothin’!” But wouldn’t Crusoe’s terror be all the more meaningful when reviewed in that context?

I’m pretty sure I could have helped a lot of authors of classics really get over the top with their “great works”. Story idea: I and Michael Bay go back in time to fix a bunch of boring old “literature”.


Would I Understand The Inferno?

I’ve been catching up on classics, and tonight while pursuing a different topic I looked up something Dante said in his famous Inferno. Noodling around the work I started thinking that maybe I should read that thing. It has informed a lot of pop culture; I’d guess more than anything else of that age.

But would I get it? I’ve read that Dante names names. Scandal ensued. Or not, I just hear things. But I won’t know any of those names. I really don’t know much at all about the context surrounding the work, and my understanding is that The Inferno is almost as context-sensitive as satire. Hell, maybe it is satire.

Maybe even if I don’t get it, I’ll be transported by the (translation of) the language. Maybe. But I get the feeling that’s not why people read Dante. If anyone actually does anymore.

Yet this thing has been so influential that I have to wonder. It was on a shelf in my house growing up, since before I can remember (or do I vaguely remember Dad reverently shelving the library of great works for the first time?). But has anyone out there read The Inferno? Or tried to read it and run away screaming? I’d really like to hear what you thought.

The Hunger Games vs. Treasure Island

Recently I’ve read two adventure stories which feature young protagonists thrown into desperate, life-and-death situations. I enjoyed both of them more than a little bit, and in both cases stayed up too late at night to see what happened next.

I finished Treasure Island last night, close on the heels of The Hunger Games and I’ve been contemplating the two stories, and the progress of storytelling in general.

Perhaps the most obvious difference between the two is the complete absence of female characters in the older story. Of course, most of the adventure takes place on a ship, with pirates, and any attempt to insert a female character would have been completely artificial. I don’t think I need to go into detail. Perfectly natural, however, to have an early-teen boy along. That’s how things worked back then.

More interesting than the differences are the similarities. I’ve commented in the past on the obvious-when-you-read-it schism that marks the beginning of “modern literature”. After I set down Treasure Island I realized that adventure stories were already modern, long before literature caught up. But for some language differences, TI: Silver’s Deceit might have been written last year. Bring a mysterious man into an inn, make him ornery, throw a band of assassins at him, get some people killed, and you’re off the the races, story-wise.

Funny how many names I recognized. Long John Silver. Ben Gunn. The parrot that said “Pieces of Eight!”

One thing that Treasure Island did particularly well was to create a compelling bad guy. Long John Silver is crafty, conniving, charismatic, and a consummate liar. The crusty old salt who appeared at the beginning to kick the story off was more afraid of Silver than any other man. Long John was a planner, a saver; while his shipmates of previous escapades had squandered their loot, he had invested carefully. If all the pirates were as smart as he was, this outing would have been no contest. The story does not rely on Classic Bad-Guy Mistakes (which weren’t even classic back then), but rather John Silver has to adapt his plan to appease his impatient cohorts. Totally buyable.

Even with that, the good guys need plenty of luck to win the day. Our narrator, young Jim Hawkins, is the vessel of much of that good fortune. He gets lucky, there’s no doubt about that, but even my twitchy preposterometer was not terribly agitated. The pirates destroyed themselves; Jim was just in the right place to take advantage of it.

It was a lot of fun to read.

Moving ahead a couple of centuries, we have The Hunger Games. In this story we have a post-apocalyptic gladiator contest, fought by children. This is no Road Warrior world, however; there is still a central authority and in the capital at least, technology has not been lost.

The Bad Guy in the story is much more vague than in Treasure Island. Authority, you could call it. The contest is an annual exercise of power the capital inflicts on the outlying districts. The primary tool the rulers use to control the populace is hunger. There’s simply not enough to eat. Our heroine is a poacher, skilled in slipping outside the confines of her district and bringing back food. The local authorities are happy to look the other way.

I had a little problem with the districts set up in this story. Our heroine hails from District Twelve, which numbers some eight thousand souls. In all of North America there are twelve districts, plus the capital. Even with the almost-magic technology possessed by the capital, I can’t see them controlling the population of an entire continent when there is so much out there. If there was uninhabitable wasteland beyond the fences of the districts it might make sense, but there’s a whole damn continent teeming with dangerous-but-edible creatures. I invoke thermodynamics: there’s just too much pent-up need for the plenty of the open continent. That much pressure, you’re going to leak.

Maybe in future episodes we’ll learn about human enclaves outside the districts, and why they haven’t become so populous that they can simply overwhelm the capital. Maybe I’ll even buy it. But the burden of proof is on the writer’s shoulders.

She might pull it off. She’s done a good job so far pulling me in. It’s a really tricky thing, introducing us to a world the characters already know, and it is done pretty well here. The narrator can’t stop to fill us in on how society works; it’s told in first person to a presumed audience who already knows the score. However, there were times I felt like the author was teasing.

The core question of The Hunger Games: What do you do when you are compelled to kill someone you really like, and who likes you even more? The answer to that is the payoff of the story. From a story perspective the big win in Hunger Games is the culture that surrounds the brutal competition – the marketing of the contestants, and the gambling. Outside forces can influence the game, at terrific cost. We get a good feel for this even though our perspective is limited to a single contestant.

Treasure Island doesn’t really have a core question. Doesn’t really need one. It has a situation and some great characters, and it plays from there.

In Games there are also hints that the actions of our single contestant might have an effect on the world outside the arena. There is a piece of bread that is an indicator of something greater. And that’s pretty good writing right there. The sort of writing that is the luxury of the series writer.

A series, done right, provides a sequential set of individually satisfying stories that, taken together, become something much more. Based on the first installment, Hunger Games almost hit that, but at the end devoted an extra chapter or two to setting up not the next story but the spunky-herione-must-have-two-viable-suitors-she-can’t-choose-between crap. Cheese Louise. I was totally along for the ride until I got that open declaration that this was going to devolve into Twilight.

I’ll say this for Games: There were a couple of points where it punched me square in the gut. Good people die in Treasure Island, die hard and die well, but it affected me more in the modern adventure. I have a theory that I won’t expand upon here that our perspective on death has changed dramatically in the last hundred years (penicillin might be the breakpoint), and so we write about death differently. Nobody says “it’s a good day to die” and really means it anymore.

Another difference between modern and older adventure stories for your adults: in more recent stories the young protagonist does everything. Situations are built so the hero does not get support from adults, only from a select handful of peers. Were Treasure Island written today, Jim would not have relinquished control of the treasure map to the local authority figure, and would not have settled for a mere share of the treasure. Bringing in adults makes the subsequent action a lot more believable. Sometimes in modern stories authors kill themselves (and their stories) to keep adults off the “good guy” side of the ledger.

There have been some changes in the art of the adventure story over the last centuries, not all for the better, but by and large an adventure is still an adventure, and good adventures start with action, have action in the middle, and then end with action. I like those.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback. You should also know that if you have an electronic reading device, you can download Treasure Island for free.


Science Fiction Awards

The Caldecott and Newbery winners for literature have been announced… for 2012. The year’s barely under way and they already know who’s going to be the best! Science Fiction in action!

A Literature Question

As one who aspires to the title ‘writer’, it is important that I read. There’s no better teacher than a well-written story. Toward that end I’ve been digging back into books that have stood the test of time, stories that everyone in the world has read except me. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is one I’ve been meaning to get to for a while.

I have a question, though. In this version, Elizabeth Bennett is a young lady from the lower portions of the upper class, and she’s reasonably attractive, quick of wit, and a bit of a snippy bitch (many of her most pointed insults almost got past me, delivered as they were with subtlety and nuance that only upper-crust English can summon). Plus, she’s one hell of a zombie slayer. Her entire brood of sisters are quite accomplished at deanimating the undead.

She has caught the eye of more than one gentleman, but her zombie slaying is considered unladylike by some, and her first marriage proposal comes with the assumption that she will stop slaying zombies. Naturally she rebels at the mere idea.

I never read Pride and Prejudice (some sort of hackneyed subset of the version I’m reading), but I can’t help wondering how much of the zombie content is invented and how much is paraphrasing what was already there in the version Jane Austen did without assistance. Zombie-slaying of course wasn’t in the abridged version, but was there something else instead, something non-zombie-slaying Elizabeth would be loath to give up? Lady Catherine de Bourgh is renowned for her zombie slaying, and so is her daughter. What claim to fame do they have in the first draft?