The Enigma Strain, by Nick Thacker (14:30)

IOD-The_Enigma_Strain.jpgToday we meet a problem that I call the flashmob of disbelief.

What I gleaned about the story: Nikolai Alexei and his band of merry explorers are seeking their fortunes in the unexplored forests of the pre-Canadian North West Territories. And what do they stumble upon, but a huge cache of finely crafted European-style silver coins. They’re rich! Now all they have to do is drag this fabulous treasure out of the forest, across the mountains and over the sea, back to some place where such things actually have any value.

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Note: Oddly, the second chapter continues on from very the point at which chapter one ended. No POV or time change. No apparent cadence to mark the end of the first. This may just be my own stylistic preference, but to me, the pacing of a story works better if each scene or chapter ends at a point that feels like an ending, or at least a pregnant pause.

WTF #1: Echoing headwords

Analysis: There have been a few isolated echoes, but nothing distracting until midway into the second chapter, where I ran into a dense sequence of “He”-headed sentences. And true to the pattern I’ve noticed over the last few months, this again happens within a series of physical movements. He twisted the lid…. He saw what was inside… He waved the dust away… He turned the basket over… They weren’t all jammed one after the other—they were broken into two sequences, with a different kind of sentence between them—but the fact that the rest of the prose has been particularly trouble-free made this one cluster stand out quite sharply.

WTF #2: Echoing headwords

Analysis: Another dense section of “He” sentences. Two together. Then four. Then three. All within the space of two paragraphs. I suspect the author may be deaf to this particular problem.

WTF #3: Flashmob of disbelief

Analysis: At first I was just peeved by the luck. These guys are wandering around the woods of northern Canada in the early 1700s, searching for some sort of economically exploitable plunder they can take back to Mother Russia. So after setting up camp, our fearless leader heads off into the woods alone, where he finds a cave. He goes in, and what does he see? Baskets of grave goods, filled with silver coins. Dozens of baskets, hundreds, maybe thousands of coins. I’m not far enough into the story yet to know if there will be some sort of fantasy or SF angle to explain why native tribes in 1704 would bury their dead with baskets of finely crafted European-style coins, so I decided I was willing to suspend my disbelief on that for the moment. But to walk straight into the cave of riches on his first try? That rails against my in-built story sense that wants any riches to come only after a struggle. Even if they’re going to turn out to be cursed or something. Unearned rewards completely undermine my sympathies for the protagonist, just as nobody likes it when a deadbeat wins the lottery.

Then, as I began to write this up, I started unpacking other disbeliefs that were hidden in that moment. Count them along with me:

  1. These explorers apparently crossed north-western Canada on foot. Even though they were charting a major river, all the descriptions are of crossing mountains, valleys, plains, tundra, plateaus, etc., and the only method discussed is walking.
  2. They chose to attempt this derring-do exploration in winter. Apparently, they decided this even knowing that they would be doing it on foot.
  3. Upon establishing a base camp to begin mapping this new area, the leader strikes off on his own, finds a cave, enters it, and literally trips over an enormous burial treasure. No struggle. Just—Bam!—even before he’s had dinner. “Hey guys, you know that treasure we had hoped to find?”
  4. The treasure is a cache of coins. Silver coins. Buried in a cave at least 1,000 km from the nearest known European settlement in that year (1704).
  5. The coins are so well crafted that even subtle details (wisps of wind behind the carved face) are visible in the pitch black of a cave, by the light of a flickering hand-held torch.
  6. In all the long weeks of their adventure prior to this moment, they haven’t encountered a single native. Even while hunting day after day with explosively loud rifles in a pristine wilderness that has never before heard the sound of gunfire, not a single Cree, Salish, Haida, or Dene elder asked, “What the hell was that? Somebody go check it out.”

That’s an awful lot of noses to hold while waiting for some explanations. In my experience, a reader will let you get away with—at most—two unexplained unlikelihoods. And even then, there had better be some compelling reasons for the story to appear to need them.

Take the Pepsi Challenge: Want to know if my own writing measures up? Download one of these free short stories, in the format of your choice, and decide for yourself.

Loss of Reason, by Miles A. Maxwell (8:15)
Monsters & Demons, by Brian Rella (1:33)

About the author

Jefferson Smith is a Canadian fantasy author, as well as the founder, chief editor and resident proctologist of ImmerseOrDie. With a PhD in Computer Science and Creativity Systems compounded by a life spent exploring most art forms for fun and profit, he is uniquely unqualified in just about everything. That's why he writes.