Who among us has not been betrayed by the failure of a simple plan that should have worked? One sets out to collect firewood, only to be suddenly concussed; one tries to kill time with a round of cards, only to crush four of one’s own phalanges; one seeks the comfort of restful sleep, only wake with a mysterious deep incision down one’s abdomen. It’s not just me—this seems to be a perverse tendency 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…
“The Devotee of Evil” by Clark Ashton Smith (1933)
The plan? Allow me to let our bold visionary speak for himself:
“You saw and felt it, then?” he queried—“that vague, imperfect manifestation of the perfect evil which exists somewhere in the cosmos? I shall yet call it forth in its entirety, and know the black, infinite, reverse raptures which attend its epiphany.”
The result: he succeeds in spades. However, it turns out that direct contact with the very essence of pure, undiluted evil is not an experience one survives intact.
Topper by Thorne Smith (1926)
The plan: tiring of his staid, constrained routine, Cosmo Topper sets out to prove that he is not the boring, conventional, middle-aged man everyone takes him for. He purchases a flashy motor vehicle previously owned by the late George and Marion Kerby.
The result: not only does his wife think he looks a fool in his unsuitable automobile, but it turns out that Topper’s new car has some features unmentioned in the sales pitch. It hosts the shades of George and Marion, who died discovering the downside of gleeful DUI. A visitation of ghosts would be alarming enough. It’s even worse when Marion, who believes that her marriage ended with her death, sets her cap for Topper. As flattering as this is, George firmly believes that since death did not part him from Marion, the Kerbys are still married. Not a man to control his impulses, George’s fury is focused on the all-too-mortal Cosmo Topper.
And Having Writ by Donald R. Bensen (1978)
The plan: Having narrowly escaped death when their starship crashed on Earth, alien explorers Dark, Ari, Raf, and Valmis attempt to accelerate early 20th-century Earth’s technological progress by convincing the crowned heads of Europe to begin the horrific global war that alien metahistorical analysis says is inevitable. It should come as soon as possible!
The result: the alien plan depends on humans beings, in particular their monarchs, being rational. The aliens 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 matters martial when they grasp the horrors that war would bring. Society focuses its efforts elsewhere.
Although the human spacecraft are advanced enough to send the aliens on their way by the 1930s, the aliens can only think that humans would have been even more advanced had the alien plan worked.
A Civil Campaign by Lois McMaster Bujold (1999)
Miles Vorkosigan has earned himself a remarkable military career and a very special place in spymaster ImpSec Chief Simon Illyan’s most secret files. In part this is coincidence: Miles has a tendency to be in the right place at the right time to affect momentous events. In greater part, this is because Miles has a prodigious ability to improvise complex schemes on the fly and to sell them with bafflegab.
When romance, in the person of recently widowed Ekaterin Vorsoisson, presents itself, why not apply the same talent to courting Ekaterin? After all, the alternative—talking frankly with her—is unthinkable.
It turns out that the more complicated, the more ornate his cunning plans, the greater the chance of hilariously humiliating catastrophe. It also turns out many potential romantic partners would actually prefer the direct conversational option to covert manipulation.
Unsung Heroine by Sarah Kuhn (2019)
Multi-talented Lucy—martial artist! karaoke singer! lover!—has succeeded at many things but failed at 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 has only managed to convince Rose that Lucy is a good friend.
Lucy, thwarted, decides that if she cannot win Rose, she must crush her own infatuation. How? By finding Rose a better match. Once Rose is taken, Lucy’s obsession will fade. Because that is totally how feelings work.
This could be a tragedy, but it’s a rom-com. The novel’s framing sequence makes it clear that Lucy and Rose do get together, so readers can relax in the knowledge that it’s going to turn out okay. Lucy tells her friends just how she feels about Rose; Rose is not long in ignorance. And then…
This topic offers a target-rich environment. No doubt you have your favourite examples of best-laid plans going dramatically awry. Comments are, as ever, below.
In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews and the Aurora finalist Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He is a four-time finalist for the Best Fan Writer Hugo Award, is eligible to be nominated again this year, and is surprisingly flammable.