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[personal profile] ejne7
Thanks to my esteemed colleagues at Hive Mind Comics, I've started reading Ex Machina. As a big Wildstorm and BKV nerd this is an embarrassing admission in October of 2010. I've been busy, all right? Vaughan hits a lot of my comics-should-be-good hot buttons - characters who are likeable while still being high-functioning assholes; characters who have actual friends - and why is this so rare in all fiction?; storylines that open with mayoral elections. (I read too much James Ellroy at too impressionable an age. As far as I'm concerned, you only really got a story if you're in a grimy alleyway papered with faded campaign posters and paved with even-more-faded dreams. And crack.) But the thing I want to talk about here's the way he delivers one of my all-time favourite fiction tropes: the ambiguous event.

The trouble with the Twilight Zone
What do I mean by an ambiguous event? By way of explanation, a roundabout confessional. Here's another embarrassing admission for a nerd of any stripe: I don't read scifi. Well, all right. "Don't" is too debutantey a phrasing - like "I don't drive". "I don't drive" is a graceful little euphemism - truth is I can't drive. Never learnt. But phrasing that deficiency as "Dahhhling, I don't"? I like to think it gives my failing this debutante, elective glamour, as though driving is something faintly to be sniffed at, something with which a certain sort of upper-crust soul wouldn't sully itself. (I'm very upper crust, of course. I don't even know the word "settee".) That's the same deal with me and scifi. The scifi section in Borders (or whatever you call that shop that isn't The Internet now) makes my inner hipster choke on her Tab Clear in horror. Oh, the Wizards of the Coast incense smell of it all! Oh, the legion bookcovers all purple and teal, the authors' names in fat silver caps at full page width, the titles littered with made-up proper nouns calculated for maximum scoring potential in Scrabble! 1 Now, I know that stuff's prejudice and a load of rubbish. I'm a comic book geek. If I can haul my butt every week into the infinitely more olfactorily-challenging Forbidden Planet and come out with floppies that look like this, I know I can stroll out of Waterstones with a fat China Mieville tucked under my arm. But there's a tier beyond it, a preconception that I have about scifi, that also stops me in my tracks. It's my belief that scifi doesn't go in for the ambiguous event.

A lot of stuff I've dabbled with takes one of two paths: the Twilight Zone route, or the Titan route. The Twilight Zone route is that formula where you start out in a perfectly ordinary, familiar world, and shade by shade watch it skew weirder. Eventually the horrible truth is revealed: they were all robots! He was dead to begin with! They're trapped inside a little plastic snowglobe! Or whatever. In the Titan route, you're dumped straight off the bat into a totally alien world. It may well be played for analogy with our world, but our world it is not. That's set up and that's quite clear. (I think the Twilight Zone name is close enough to apt, but am fully aware that the aforementioned "not reading scifi" problem means there's probably a better example than John Varley's Titan and sequels of what I'm on about here.)

Both of those methods have their virtues, but they have their downsides too. I find it hard sometimes to convince myself that a Titan world is worth my time. (As you can tell, I'm very busy.) The made-up-ness of it all crashes in on me too hard, because it takes so much pleasure in its escapism and otherness. The Twilight Zone route too throws me out of the groove: because it's a formula, because you expect that amping-up of the weird, it's impossible not to regard everything with suspicion. You're never truly unsettled, because you know the rules of the game and thus never take anything at face value for long enough for its subversion to set your skin crawling. So what I love, what always hits my buttons, is the alternative to both these routes: the ambiguous event.

Are we in our world? Are those evil robots, or are they men in costume? Is our hero haunted, or is it all a projection of his breaking-down mind? Is that chica just paranoid, or are they out to get her? I love a story that actively sustains multiple possibilities for as long as possible, and Brian K Vaughan writes some of the best examples of that I've ever seen.

Ambiguous what-now?
Vaughan does this partly by inverting the Twilight Zone formula. Instead of insinuating a hint of the weird, instead of slightly destabilizing an otherwise normal event - instead of going for the full-fat creeping-horror feel - he starts with a big, wham-bam, out-of-the-ordinary scenario, treats it in a matter-of-fact way that oozes panache and confidence, and then when you're fully absorbed in this weird and wonderful world he sets up a constant interplay between the possibility that it all has a quite quotidian explanation.

A guy acquires alien-tech superpowers and is elected mayor of New York.

Every single male creature on earth drops dead - except for him and his monkey.

The premises are way out there, but reality keeps creeping back in. Does Mitchell Hundred's tech tune him in to dead radio stations playing unrecorded songs? Or is he just bullshitting a date? Will Yorick Brown succumb to the man-killing plague when he removes the amulet he's been wearing for a gag? Or has he just picked up botulism from a dented food can?

I love, love, love this dynamic. Another place it grabbed my guts was in Battlestar Galactica - because the prospect that this fully-realized and self-sufficient world had a kinship to our own was played the same way, as an occasional hook and tease. When "All Along the Watchtower" started playing it hit this note bang on the head: it felt outlandish and spinetingling precisely because it was familiar and of-our-world.

The key to pulling this off, I believe, is to have your long-term plan banked well before you start. You need a coherent backstory (or multiple competing explanations, each one fully worked through and each one equally satisfying). Even if you never reveal these in full, they dictate a set of rules to give the ambiguity structure. The lack of same killed Lost for me (I chucked it late in season two; I gather it improved. BECAUSE THEY HIRED BKV). Ambiguity conjured up to cover for plot holes or lack of plan is about as sophisticated as yelling "Look over there!" to a cop before you scarper. Ambiguity built in from the get-go lifts a cracking story to the level of a mind-expander. Life of Pi's as good an example of this as I can name: that plot rattles along like it's got Errol Flynn under the hood, until the penultimate chapter opens up the horizon like a pop-up book.

So right now I'm reading Ex Machina super slowly, with popcorn, and letting the shivers run down my spine.

1This makes no sense, because I read comics and am profoundly unfazed by covers like this and this and this. But there it is. Maybe it's because comics have that patina of camp that scifi doesn't? On scifi, it all seems too earnest for someone with hipster pretentions to pick up. Booster Gold grappling with tentacles is never going to meet anyone's definition of "earnest".
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