Who among us has not been betrayed by the failure of a simple plan that should have worked? One of them sets out to collect firewood, but suffers a concussion; one tries to kill time with a card trick, only to crush four of one’s own phalanges; we seek the comfort of a refreshing sleep, we only wake up with a mysterious incision deep in the abdomen. It’s not just me – it seems to be a perverse trend of the universe: I see it in the news and I see it in what I read. Consider these five SFF tales in which plans are thwarted, foiled, and frustrated by circumstance…
Clark Ashton Smith’s “Evil Devotee” (1933)
The plan? Let me let our audacious visionary do the talking:
“You saw and felt it, then?” he asked – “that vague, imperfect manifestation of perfect evil that exists somewhere in the cosmos?” I will still evoke it in its entirety and know the black, infinite and inverted raptures which accompany its epiphany.
Result: he succeeds wonderfully. However, it turns out that direct contact with the very essence of pure, undiluted evil is not an experience one survives intact.
Mattress topper by Thorne Smith (1926)
The Plan: Tired of his stilted, constrained routine, Cosmo Topper sets out to prove he’s not the boring, conventional, middle-aged man everyone takes him for. He buys a flashy motor vehicle that was previously owned by the late George and Marion Kerby.
Result: not only does his wife think he looks silly in his misfit automobile, but it turns out that Topper’s new car has features not mentioned in the sales pitch. It hosts the shadows of George and Marion, who died discovering the inconveniences of a joyous DUI. A ghost tour would be quite alarming. It’s even worse when Marion, who believes her marriage ended with her death, sets her course for Topper. As flattering as it may sound, George firmly believes that since death did not separate him from Marion, the Kerbys are still married. Not a man to control his impulses, George’s fury centers on the too deadly Cosmo Topper.
And having written by Donald R. Bensen (1978)
The Plan: Having narrowly escaped death when their spacecraft crash-landed on Earth, alien explorers Dark, Ari, Raf and Valmis try to speed up in the early 20andtechnological advancement of Earth in the last century by convincing the crowned heads of Europe to start the horrible world war that extraterrestrial metahistorical analysis considers inevitable. It should arrive ASAP!
The bottom line: The alien plan depends on human beings, especially their monarchs, being rational. The extraterrestrials are sure that rational beings would understand that war is inevitable and necessary. Too bad for their plans that the kings lose their enthusiasm for martial matters when they grasp the horrors that war would bring. The company is focusing its efforts elsewhere.
Although human spacecraft are advanced enough to send aliens on their way to the 1930s, aliens can only think that humans would have been even more advanced if the alien plan had worked.
A civil campaign by Lois McMaster Bujold (1999)
Miles Vorkosigan has earned a distinguished military career and a very special place in the top secret files of ImpSec spy chief Simon Illyan. It’s partly a coincidence: Miles tends to be in the right place at the right time to affect important events. In large part, that’s because Miles has a prodigious ability to improvise complex schemes on the fly and sell them with bafflegab.
When romance, in the person of recently widowed Ekaterin Vorsoisson, arises, why not apply the same talent to wooing Ekaterin? After all, the alternative – to speak frankly with her – is unthinkable.
It turns out that the more complicated, more ornate his cunning plans are, the greater the risk of a hilarious and humiliating disaster. It also turns out that many potential romantic partners would actually prefer the direct conversation option to covert manipulation.
unsung heroine by Sarah Kuhn (2019)
Multi-talented Lucy, Martial Artist! karaoke singer! lover ! – succeeded in many things but failed in the one that mattered most to her. Determined to woo Rose Rorick, Lucy pretended to be the person she thought Rose wanted. So far, she’s only managed to convince Rose that Lucy is a good friend.
Lucy, thwarted, decides that if she can’t win over Rose, she must crush her own infatuation. How? ‘Or’ What? By finding Rose a better match. Once Rose is caught, Lucy’s obsession will fade. Because that’s totally how feelings work.
It might be a tragedy, but it’s a romantic comedy. The novel’s frame sequence makes it clear that Lucy and Rose reunite, so readers can relax knowing that everything will be fine. Lucy tells her friends how she feels about Rose; Rose is not long in the dark. So what…
This section offers a target-rich environment. You undoubtedly have your favorite examples of the best-laid plans gone horribly wrong. Comments are, as always, below.
In the words of the TexasAndroid Wikipedia editorprolific and lively literary critic Darwin Award Nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability”. Her work has been published in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on her own websites, Reviews of James Nicoll and Aurora finalist Young people read the old SFF (where he is assisted by the editor Karen Lofstrom and internet user Adrienne L. Travis). He’s a four-time finalist for the Hugo Best Fan Writer Award, is eligible to be nominated again this year, and is surprisingly fiery.