Thursday, May 14, 2015

3 Helpful Machines Or Tools (That Turn Out To Be Completely Useless)

This is a guest post from Briane Pagel...

“This, my son, is the one thing you need to complete your quest. Treasure it. Take care. Do not let Ultrax The Verminous know you have it.”

“What is it?”

“It is the XRFHTIG.”

“What does it do?”

“You will have to discover that for yourself. NOW OFF WITH YOU THERE’S NO TIME.”

Literally every fantasy or science fiction story ever.

As I make the rounds promoting my new book, Codes, published by Golden Fleece Press (see below for links where to buy), I am also doing a lot of reading of sci-fi, and a little of fantasy, and I've started to more and more notice something author Andrew Leon pointed out a while back: most of the ‘heroes’ of these stories get very little in the way of help. Mentors give cryptic clues, artifacts have to be figured out by someone who’s only just learned all this stuff even exists, and even the things that are specifically designed to be helpful are, ultimately, not.

It’s a trope of speculative fiction, of course; you can't make the quest too easy or you haven’t got a story. “What, you found a ring, Bilbo? Hop with me on this eagle’s back to go drop it into a pit of fire in order to avoid a war that will kill thousands.” Isn't that what every wizard would've done with any ring of power found hidden under a mountain wrecking a frog’s mind?

For my part, I was determined not to do that, not to have any helpful devices that were not helpful at all. I tried so hard, and then realized that I'd failed, because while I avoided computers, talking animals, rings of power, or the Sceptre Of Fellworthy (I’m assuming that’s a GoT thing), I ended up with a bunch of props who are unhelpful to the main character: the other characters.

In Codes, the main character is Robbie, who very early on thinks he’s getting a visit from a gorgeous blonde only to become immediately ‘arrested’ for murder by the security force of the corporation the blonde works for. It turns out the company and the blonde aren't the only ones looking for Robbie; there’s a whole insurgent (is that term trademarked yet for use in terrible movies/YA fiction? Can I use it) insurgent force that also wants to get Robbie. The problem is: none of them really know why. Robbie, they think, is very powerful and the key to winning the fight over whether there will be “codes,” human clones implanted with programmable personalities, and how they will exist. They just don’t know how Robbie can help them.

In my case, telling people what Robbie’s deal is would’ve spoiled some of the suspense, as most of the story involves Robbie himself trying to figure out what’s going on. So that’s my excuse for making the leader of the countergroup, the security forces, and the corporation themselves completely unable to explain why Robbie important. Robbie is my McGuffin, as well as the protagonist.
Other authors may have their own excuse. I’ve got five of them here; if you think of more leave them in the comments.

1. The Elithiometer, His Dark Materials. (Phililp Pullman). 
The “Elithiometer” is a curious device that supposedly tells the truth, including about the future. It is very difficult to read – most people need a book, or set of books, and hours to ask a simple question of this device. Lyra, the 12-year-old star of the books, almost immediately figures out how to read it, and does so so well that by the second book she’s able to converse with it, even though the Elithiometer uses needles spinning on its face to point at symbols, each of which has a different meaning. The thing about the Elithiometer is how unhelpful it actually is. Asked how a scouting expedition will turn out, it says death, and almost immediately the scouts show up, ready to die. It can tell Lyra that there’s a “ghost boy” near a site being used by the bad guys, but can’t in any detail explain how the ‘ghost boy’ is created.

Then, too, how they use it is suspect. Why not ask for strategy? Lyra’s group is going to try to free a group of tortured children, in a heavily guarded camp run by the Church. Do they ask the Elithiometer the best way to attack? Of course not. They ask it whether the Tartars are serious about invading Kamchatka, though, so the device would obviously be helpful in a game of Risk.

If you had a truth-telling device that could see the future, why would you not constantly be asking it what to do? I would consult it first thing every morning, even before I checked to see which new plants had grown on Plants vs. Zombies 2 (or “Zoms,” as Sweetie likes to call it.) What should I do today? What’s the best traffic route to work? If I have Raisin Bran for breakfast will I later wish I’d had a Pop Tart.

Finally, the Elithiometer’s advice is, of course, limited and circumspect. “Don’t lie to the scholar,” it warns Lyra, without telling her why or what she should say. What if the scholar was wearing a particularly unflattering dress to go on a first date but it was clear she liked it?

2. Doc Brown’s Time Machine: Back to The Future Series.
I never saw the 2nd or 3d of this series, which is probably why I've always felt somewhat incomplete, a hollowness inside me that can’t be filled even by pizza. But anyway, Wikipedia exists, and I read up on them to confirm what I’d suspected: the time machine was useless. After nearly destroying his own future, Marty narrowly managed to make his dad moderately more successful, and Bif less so, but Marty’s own future was awful. I couldn't gather whether this awful-to-come was because of messing with the time stream, or just because Marty himself was kind of a loser, but either way, they went to fix it, only to mess up further and have to go back and change the present by changing the past again, going further back into the past, where 1885 Doc Brown was able to convert a locomotive into a time machine, and it can fly now. Doc Brown introduces Marty to his old-timey wife and kids, announces that nobody should be changing the future or some drivel, and flies away, taking the time machine with them. Marty is presumably too much of a doof to be able to locate another scientist and explain the general concept to him or he.

This ending undercuts Ryan North’s Dinosaur Comics’ theory that introducing great technology to earlier generations would results in ever-faster technological progress (if cavemen had cellphones, we presumably could alter our bodies using microrobots or something), because by the 3rd installment, Old West guys had time travel technology but people were still listening to Huey Lewis on Walkmans.

But more importantly, what’s the net result of man inventing a time machine? A lonely crazy scientist gets laid; the rest of us get… Huey Lewis. No avoiding 9/11 or ending World War II earlier or introducing penicillin in 1800 or stopping the massacre of Indians, or the creation of CFCs and the destruction of the ozone. Just: An old dude scores. Apparently, denying progress to the rest of humanity so you can make out is the TRUE power of love.

3. Artoo-Detoo: Star Wars, etc. 
I know I will probably make some enemies with this one, but I would rather have an all Jar-Jar/Ewok Star Wars sequel than see 3 seconds of this annoying little toaster on screen. WHAT GOOD IS ARTOO? Let’s begin with Episode IV, just like George Lucas did: Artoo gets the secret plans and has to take them to Old Ben Kenobi. Does he explain this to C-3PO? NOPE. Supposedly they are friends and are part of the rebellion and have somehow been together 20 years (as I pointed out a long time ago, Artoo and 3PO are 20-year-old technology. In 1995, the average computer had 8mb memory. In 2015, it’s 400 times that. Processors in 1995 ran at 33mHz, a number I don’t understand. But now that inexplicable number is 4,000mHZ, which is a lot higher. Artoo is basically a slide rule at the start of A New Hope.

A stubborn, secretive slide rule. He won’t tell even his rebel buddy, C-3PO, what their real mission is, and is unhelpful with Luke, who seems nice and might have been convinced to help them, sneaking off on his own and needing rescuing.

In Empire, Artoo openly, and petulantly, fights with a Jedi Master, and the only one remaining. If Artoo was able to plug into computers and figure things out on Sky City, why not warn Luke that Vader was waiting for him.

And my memories of Return Of The Jedi is that Artoo went back to fighting with everyone and got trapped a lot, too, on the jungle planet.

In the prequels, he was either unhelpful, or demonstrated the degree to which he could have helped people in the future. Remember those jets he unleashed in one of those movies? Think that might’ve been helpful on a swamp planet, or when getting across gaps in the Death Star? Or in a cloud city? 

Thanks for holding out, Artoo.

Even in his basic job, Artoo sucks. In one of the prequels, Obi-Wan and Anakin are in the battle over Coruscant, and a “buzz droid” lands on Obi-Wan’s ship. Anakin flips it onto his wing, and then Artoo has to fight it, presumably one of the things you bring a sentient droid on board for. But Artoo – even though at that point he’s pretty advanced tech, 20 years earlier – can’t figure out how to fight the thing. Obi-Wan has to give him a cheat code: Hit it in the middle eye he yells.

If I were Luke, I’d trade Artoo in for a new cell phone. Can’t be any worse, and you’d probably get a good rebate.

I’m sure there are people who love one of these things (and they are wrong to do so) or who have their own useless tech. Leave a comment on it! And don’t forget to buy Codes, available at:
My blog: Thinking The Lions (
Golden Fleece Press:
Amazon: (there’s a kindle version, too.)
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