The Big Idea: E.C. Myers
Posted on March 7, 2012 Posted by John Scalzi 16 Comments
Fair Coin, the debut novel is from E.C. Myers, is about wishes, and the complications that come from getting your wishes granted. This is interestingly coincidental for me because just the other day I was talking to my daughter about “The Monkey’s Paw,” the short story in which one’s wishes are granted… badly. I was trying to explain to her that wishes have consequences. She looked at me like I was speaking Martian. Fortunately for you, E.C. Myers is somewhat better at explaining this concept.
“After a time, you may find that having is not so pleasing a thing, after all, as wanting. It is not logical, but it is often true.” – Spock, “Amok Time”
I’ve always been fascinated with stories about characters finding a magical item that grants their wishes. My favorite Disney movie is Aladdin. One of the most memorable books from my childhood is E. Nesbit’s Five Children and It, in which “it” is a Psammead, a fairy who grudgingly doles out a wish a day from his sand pit. And I’m a huge fan of The Twilight Zone, which is largely populated by hapless souls who strike deals with devils/djinn/angels/shopkeepers to get what they’ve always wanted.
Wish fulfillment stories are often predicated on the idea that you can’t get something for nothing, and they often feature surprising twists, even outside the far-reaching borders of the Twilight Zone. In Nesbit’s book, wishes only last until sunset, which is fortunate because they never turn out quite the way the children expected. Edward Eager’s Half Magic is about a coin that only grants wishes halfway. In stories like W.W. Jacobs’ “The Monkey’s Paw,” wishes come true in a dark and tragic way. If you wish you can turn invisible, as a guy did in one episode of The X-Files, you might get hit by a truck. Basically, you were probably better off before you made the wish.
These stories are cautionary tales about… What, exactly? The danger of wanting things? It’s not inherently bad to want something, but the point seems to be that everything has a price, and the going rate for wishes is pretty steep. Though most of these stories end in similar, even predictable ways, we continue to be fascinated by magic lamps, magic coins, wishing wells, shooting stars, angels, demons, wishbones, creepy wishing machines at amusement parks, and so on.
If a character is lucky enough to survive an experience with a wishing fill-in-the-blank, it’s likely because he or she realizes that lasting change only comes from within. The experience of getting what you wanted, living with it for a bit, and then losing or giving it up is better than having had the thing. You can go somewhere over the rainbow for a little while, but there’s no place like home.
In Fair Coin, the coin that Ephraim finds is just as tricky as you’d imagine. When he makes a wish and flips it, his wish comes true. If the coin lands on heads, his life becomes puppies and unicorns. But if it comes up tails, those puppies and unicorns bite. And they might have rabies.
But unlike wishes granted by the Psammead, the intended and unintended effects of Ephraim’s choices don’t go away at the end of the day. The conflict isn’t that he wishes for himself to change, but that the coin seems to be changing other people and the world around him to conform to his wishes. At first it seems harmless enough to wish that his crush likes him back, but soon Ephraim wonders: Is it wrong to alter other people’s lives this way? What kind of person does it make him? Ephraim struggles between his growing sense of responsibility and the unlimited possibilities the coin offers, as the differences mount and his problems spiral out of control.
The real danger in using an unknown object like Ephraim’s coin lies in the temptation to make just one more wish to fix everything that’s gone wrong. Magic can be a terrible addiction, right, Frodo? And of course, there’s a twist.
If I can play Rod Serling for a moment, ultimately, wishing is about hope, but hope is wasted if you don’t use it for encouragement, consolation, and motivation if your wishes don’t come true right away. (They seldom do.) We make idle wishes every day. “I wish I had a better job.” “I wish I had time to write.” “I wish I could help you.” “I wish…” Sometimes when you make a wish, you’re really making an excuse for not taking action.
We might wish for things we never expect to happen without magical or divine intervention, but that might just be taking the easy way out. There are plenty of things we have no control over in life, but we all have the power to grant some wishes for ourselves or others—no strings attached.
And what if your wishes could come true? I’m sure most people have thought about what they would ask for given the opportunity, and they’re certain they know how to game it so no there are no unwelcome tricks. You’ve probably heard the phrase “be careful what you wish for,” but is it possible to make a wish with a positive outcome? Perhaps, Disney tells us, if your wish is selfless. But even Aladdin’s last wish (spoiler!) to free Genie at the end of the movie had dire consequences: There were two dreadful direct-to-video sequels.
Fair Coin: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s
See the book trailer. Visit the author’s blog. Follow him on Twitter.
Wait, the Monkey’s Paw was a short story? I thought it was a Simpsons Treehouse of Horror episode… ;)
I can’t wait to read this. I loved the Edward Eager stories when I was a kid and I love the idea of updating concept and giving moral ambiguity to it.
Looks really interesting, but isn’t available on the Kindle in Germany. :-(
Will try to order it somewhere; Amazon says it takes 2-3 weeks to get it…
Hrm, there’s a Kindle version, but not a Nook version. A lot of times that means that Amazon has scanned and OCRd the book, so I try to avoid those cases… do you know if that is the case?
Sean, the e-book editions were prepared by Pyr, including the Kindle edition. I’m not sure when the Nook edition will be available, but since other Pyr titles are out on Nook, I think it’s on the way.
As soon as it shows up on the nook, I’ll pick it up. It looks interesting.
I’ll have to read this. My favorite author, C.J. Cherryh, had a trilogy set in Russia where magicians had to be very careful about wanting anything – because their mental wishes would set in motion a whole chain of events that would grant the desire, and you never had control over HOW. Apparently she had designed this as a counterpoint to the ease with which magic is used in many fantasy novels.
Hrm. Get the Kindle edition now, or wait a bit for Nook? Questions questions questions!
duskfire: That reminds me of the sequence in Ghostbusters (I forget if it was the first or second film) where the movie’s reaching it’s climax. Harold Ramis warns Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd to keep their mind perfectly clear, after the Sigourney Weaver demon orders them to “choose a form” for the demon’s master to take. When the Sta-Puft marshmallow man appears, Dan Aykroyd apologizes profusely, saying something to the effect that he tried to keep his mind clear, but the image of the character “popped into his head, as something sweet and innocent, from his childhood”.
…reaching *its* climax, I should have said. Sigh.
I’ve always had a suspicion that these “wishes won’t make you happy” stories contain an element of sour grapes, and also of the “be content with your station” meme.
BTW, John, I just voted for you. Helping a wish come true… 8-).
S.M. Stirling: I’ve had that same thought regarding the “be content with your station” message. It reminds me of the ending to the 1939 The Wizard of Oz movie, in which Dorothy says she’s learned not to look for adventure or happiness or whatnot outside of her own backyard, which of course is completely contrary to what she does in the books. I can live with most of the liberties taken in adapting the book, but that one always made me sour, imposing a sanctimonious moral on a story that didn’t require it. Especially one that made a virtue of being small-minded.
I read the book already — and loved the twist!
(Your closing line about the Aladdin sequels cracked me up)
I still have nightmares about “The Monkey’s Paw,” and I think it’s been almost twenty years since I heard the story. LOVE this premise. Reading Fair Coin now…
If you were waiting to read Fair Coin on the Nook, I just noticed it became available last night. Just in time for the weekend… :) Thanks, all!
The bright amongst us….just found out about your Fair Coin (from Rocco Riti) . I guess you did not “dwell on your misfortune” but turned it into “good fortune.” Sincere best wishes for continued success….why wasn’t I on your acknowledgement page???? !!!! or video!!! Be well, Richard H. Valk