Sunday, April 27, 2014

Idea Garage Sale: MH370

I can't help it if it's a crutch - I can't let this go by without mentioning it. I got my copy of Fortean Times 313 this week, and a good chunk of the opening article, on the search for flight MH370, reads like a Garage Sale post:

Could the captain of MH370 have committed suicide-by-plane?...Maybe the plane landed in the Andaman Islands. There are more than 570 islands, only 36 of which are inhabited...Maybe it landed in a remote desert area in, say, Xinjiang, Kyrgyzstan, or Kazakhstan - but it would be difficult to evade radar in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, which are kept on high alert, unless...

And so on for several more column inches, ending in "Or perhaps this was a dress rehearsal for the Rapture." Except for the Rapture comment, all the theories put forth are culled from internet speculations as the interested but helpless public tries to make sense of the disappearance and its attendant oddities.

This of course demonstrates my central thesis: Ideas are easy to get. Mysterious tragedies (by now I think we must assume it is a tragedy, though the theory about the Andaman Islands clings to a sliver of hope) are a particularly fruitful spawning ground for them. The chief practical use of ideas like these is to posit new potential areas to search.

Either the fate of the flight will be determined soon, or it will fade into the limbo of great disappearances, joining Amelia Earhart, Flight 19, and Glen Miller in the public imagination, and as the weekend and vacation pursuit of hobby sleuths.

And it will, inevitably, inspire books. How good those books are will depend on the skill of the person writing them; how closely they relate to the real case, ditto. How the relatives of those on those flights react will depend on the good taste and delicacy of the writer; and I don't know about you, but when fictional treatments of historical disasters are uniformly slammed by those living and most closely concerned, my opinion of the quality of the work automatically goes down.

The Andaman Islands scenario particularly appeals to me, and has the potential for a compelling, complex plot. Or for appalling sensationalism and insensitivity; take your pick. Its first, greatest strength as the basis for a story is that it makes long-term survival of a good portion of the crew and passengers an option. Your story possibilities are limited if everyone is swallowed by the ocean within a few hours of the Last Known Location. (Unless you're telling a ghost or horror story.) A good old-fashioned castaway story, or an exploration of the personal and political dynamics of an international flight, are obvious possibilities. You could throw in one of the other theories, about Zeta Reticulan abductors or a tragic miscalculation by a defense grid, or set up some national espionage element if you prefer thrillers.

My own first impulse would be to look at the passenger manifest and find out what I could about the crew. Any non-fiction work about the flight should definitely go there, striving to make the people on the board real in their messy, mundane humanness for the reader half a world away; but a story must use the flight as a jumping-off point and avoid using the real names of real people, who have real survivors mourning for them.

The natural leaders of a downed plane would be the pilot and crew, so knowing something about the internal structure and subculture of Malaysian commercial aviation would be necessary to create key characters. These will be the people best suited to negotiate the conflicting claims and needs of the passengers, who will not all even be able to communicate with each other; they'll be the ones with the best knowledge of the plane's resources.

The passengers will include business travelers and families, people with special needs (what does a diabetic or an HIV patient do as a castaway? What about someone with food allergies?), possibly a lone child who has been placed in the particular care of the flight crew, obnoxious jackasses who feel that their first class tickets entitle them to higher priority after the plane crashes and heroes who take the brunt of hardship (and are these two classes really mutually exclusive? Are you a hero if you expect heroic behavior to buy heroic treatment?); panickers and pragmatists; and the whole gamut of unexamined assumptions, unacknowledged prejudices, and conflicting priorities. They'll have theories; they'll have gadgets and world views and expertise that they trust that will let them down; they'll have unexpected strengths and surprising weaknesses.

A story can't cope with fleshing out each and every person on a 227-passenger flight; it can't even cope with using all twelve crew members equally; but it can create a few representative lead characters and sketch in the rest to create engaging protagonists and plausible group dynamics.

You're all thinking of Lost, I know. Well, don't. Or at any rate - think of it only in terms of avoiding its mistakes. I lost interest in that show early because it became clear that they didn't think the castaway survival element was sufficient and kept throwing more stuff on top of it; and this is just not true.

Two hundred and thirty-nine people thrown into survival mode will generate all the story anybody needs.

And that's before they meet the unwelcoming stone age peoples of the Andamans...(who had better not appear as either Noble Savages or ruthless headhunters, please.)

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