god loves ugly

A quick one to start us off: my favorite workout at the gym – to observe, not to perform – is the desultory chin-up. That’s when a guy walks up to the bar and does one chin-up, maybe two, before remembering how hard they were. Then he drops to the mat and walks off like he has something else in mind.

Now to talk about how much reading sucks: I’m glad that the fantasy story trope of “your wish comes true, but it’s twisted” gets less play these days. You know the one I mean: I wish for a million dollars, but it comes in the form of a life insurance payment when my wife dies. Or I wish for time to read in peace and quiet, but I only get it after a nuclear bomb wipes out civilization. Also known as the “monkey’s paw” conceit, after the 1902 short story which spawned it, this slapdash shortcut has been worn into a faceless grit through overuse. Holy hell, it’s annoying.

For one thing: if horror is really just a form of Gothic moralizing (the prince who taunts the Red Death plague gets infected; the girls who sleep around get their throats slashed; etc), then what lesson should the reader learn from this story? “If you get the chance to make a wish, phrase it very carefully”? Great lesson; I’m sure it’ll stick with me in the wish-filled future I anticipate. “Getting what you want without hard work will curse you with sorrow”? I can see that – kind of the Protestant work ethic with slick urban styling – but maybe there’s a better way to phrase it. Really, I see nothing but downsides to telling generations of impressionable children that “getting what you want will ruin your life.”

For another: note that the magical malefactor always picks a particularly ironic way to fulfill the wish. Irony requires intelligence – recognizing a pattern that matches in some ways but differs in others – so we have to presume that the monkey’s paw has, I dunno, some evil genie watching it and waiting to screw over the life of whoever holds it. Because if I had to grant evil wishes, and I felt particularly lazy, I wouldn’t be very creative about it:

Rube: I wish my boss hadn’t fired me.
Genie: Fine! Now your boss hasn’t fired you, or anyone else – because he’s dead!
Rube: I wish I looked just like this for the rest of my life.
Genie: Mwah-ha-ha! You’ll look exactly the same for the rest of your life if I kill you in five seconds!
Rube: So you’re not exactly granting my wishes as much as looking for an excuse to murder people, are you?
Genie: Just for that, I’m going to murder Jeff Probst! Ha ha ha ha ha!

And so forth.

Fortunately, sci-fi / fantasy is a great and terrible beast that eats its young and pits them against each other. Every trope worth naming in the genre has been established, re-hashed, deconstructed and reassembled in the 20th Century alone. Take time travel for instance. Ray Bradbury gave us the notion of the fragile past in “A Sound of Thunder,” in which stepping on a butterfly in the prehistoric past causes the entirety of Western Civilization to be rewritten. Fritz Leiber riffed on this concept, presenting a past that stubbornly resisted time travellers’ attempts to change it in “Try and Change the Past.” Alfred Bester did the same, but with a bit more style, in “The Men Who Murdered Mohammed.” Rather than telling the same tedious story over and over again, sci-fi turned time travel into an open-ended source of inspiration.

Let’s do the same thing with “wishes.” Instead of a wish that twists the speaker’s words, how about a world where every wish comes true – a constantly fungible reality, alien and nightmarish, subject to the most recent whims of the greatest number? Or how about a world where warring nations use Monkey Paws like weapons? Drop a Monkey’s Paw in an enemy garrison, let opposing soldiers start screwing up their own lives until they run out of wishes, then send a black ops team in to mop up the chaos? I picture a hazmat team in full chem-gear, stalking through an outpost filled with titanium statues in tortured poses, carrying out a glowing orb in a lead container. “Let me guess – I’ll bet they wished to be bulletproof. Or maybe to live forever. Gets ’em every time. Who’s paying for the beer, anyhow?”

In an unrelated closing observation: have you ever noticed how the questions “can you do me a tiny favor?” and “can you do me a huge favor?” mean almost exactly the same thing in requested effort?

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16 Responses

  1. Also known as the “monkey’s paw” conceit,

    Or the “1st Edition AD&D wish spell.” The rules told DMs to actively try to screw players who cast it, unless they were using it for an inconsequential result.

  2. I debated over which would be the less obscure reference – AD&D or a short story most people only know through a Simpsons episode – and ended up going with the latter. But – yeah, there seems to be an understanding (in most editions of D&D) that a player’s wish needs to be carefully shepherded.

  3. The original monkey’s paw seemed to do the least amount of work possible to change reality in a psychopathic way. Everything else is “wish gone wrong.”

  4. The power of The Twilight Zone to place most of these tropes vividly in the public consciousness cannot be underestimated. Burgess Meredith in the episode All The Time In The World is probably the best-known example of a non-magical “monkey’s paw.”

  5. Herb – Not sure I see the distinction.

    Tom – You mean Time Enough At Last? Yeah, that’s the one I referenced above. That’s a profoundly unsettling episode for me and I have a real hard time dealing with it.

  6. Yes, Time Enough At Last. For some reason, I missed that sentence on my first read. And yeah, one of the great sucker-punches in television history.

  7. It’s like Charlie Brown getting to heaven and God taking away the football.

  8. Sounds like a fun new way to turnabout the wishing trope! We deamnd literary backup of this notion. 🙂

  9. I think the distinction Herb’s drawing is one between path-of-least-resistance and deliberately-twisted-intent. The Monkey’s Paw isn’t *trying* to fuck you over, it’s just lazy.

  10. I don’t think “your son fell in the thresher; here’s 200 quid” is the path of least resistance. Maybe I’m just being too literal.

  11. “Time Enough At Least” is the one TZ episode that I have trouble watching. It hurts from heart from start to finish. Even thinking about pulls up such sadness. That poor, poor man, who absolutely did not deserve his fate.

  12. I know! Rod Serling seems unforgivably smug as he talks that last one out.

  13. He’s apparently so misanthropic that the annihilation of humanity doesn’t give him undue pause, and he finds a library full of books to be just compensation for the loss of humanity.

    He’s not completely undeserving of his fate.

  14. Instead of a wish that twists the speaker’s words, how about a world where every wish comes true – a constantly fungible reality, alien and nightmarish, subject to the most recent whims of the greatest number?

    This reminded me of a book I read as a teenager called Of Two Minds. One of the characters has essentially this power if I recall correctly. It and its sequel were actually fairly original works.

  15. If you’re only capable of performing a couple of full chin-ups at a time, how can you work out in a non-desultory manner?

  16. Being incredibly awesome, I wouldn’t know. I’d guess, however, it’d be by focusing on certain muscle groups to the exclusion of overall core fitness. Chin-ups work a couple of different muscle groups at once.

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