Deus X-Files

Deus ex post facto: plot twists and other dilemmas …

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In classical drama, the term deus ex machina refers to a plot device wherein a plot problem is suddenly solved by the arrival of a previously unannounced character who supplies the answer or solution. “But don’t you know? That’s your brother!” would be a line delivered by a deus ex machina character, thus helping our hero avert or defeat a troublesome situation.

When a playwright or a novelist needs to fix an intractable plot puzzle, he or she might resort to the tool, which is Latin for “god from the machine,” or “you couldn’t figure it out for yourself with the characters you’d created, so you punted,” but audiences since ancient times have tended to see through the fix. “Where did HE come from?” More often than not nowadays, it is used ironically, but when you find yourself reading a book and seeing lines delivered by a character that you do not remember being introduced to, your inattentive reading is not to blame. That character really was not there 20 pages earlier.

A more restrained writer might use a deus ex machina-type character to do something simpler than solve everything; the character might supply background information. Or another character might do something like get a character who knows a secret drunk to spill the story, turning that character into the god-machine. In vino veritas, the Latin expression declares, and I do not think anyone needs it translated here.

Any deus ex machina fixes that you might encounter in real life are better referred to as surprises. Anyone who reveals something that they claim to have known about all along is either a busybody or a breaker of confidences, and you ought to do everything in your imagination to make sure they get stuck with the bill for every lunch for the next year. Surprise!

But what if you could learn something secret from one of your friends by administering some sort of truth serum? (I would hope, for all of our sakes, that if we could learn what our friends truly think of us that we would learn they hold us in higher esteem than we think they do. Nothing worse. One hopes one’s friendships are that open-faced and honest.)

There is in fact a drug that some consider a truth serum. It is sodium thiopental, better known by its Abbott Laboratories brand name of Sodium Pentothal, and it is a barbiturate that is used as a general anesthetic. Because it is such a strong anesthetic, it is more frequently administered to induce a coma than it is to knock someone out for a tooth extraction; further, it is usually the first drug injected into the arm of a condemned prisoner as he or she is being put to death. In other words, it is a wee little bit stronger an anesthetic than it was intended to be.

On and off for many decades, police in certain countries (including this one) have administered this not-so-wonderful wonder drug to get prisoners to talk, to spill the beans, to yack away the location of whatever it is the police are looking for but can not find. Nothing would help in crime solving or crime prevention more than a real-life deus ex machina, and in sodium thiopental veritas goes the thinking.

More often than not, however, the beans that are spilled under the effects of the drug are almost one-hundred percent of the time hallucinations and dreams and probably more revealing of a psyche under duress and being put to unwanted sleep than the location of an un-apprehended evildoer’s lair. It is usually useless. Surprise!

But police forces keep searching: for bad guys and evildoers as well as for the perfect drug that would get the apprehended bad guys to talk and thus create a real life deus ex machina. For them, Steven Spielberg’s film of Philip K. Dick’s story Minority Report is a depiction of one man’s unnecessary interference with a splendid legal system rather than the dramatic end of dystopian nightmare.

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This first appeared two years ago and then one year ago. It has been edited to approach perfection.

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