Nailing an effective, satisfying conclusion for a science fiction novel (or any novel for that matter) seems to be a moving target that evades many authors. Some of my favorite books have endings which leave me wanting more (acceptable), are cliffhangers (slightly frustrating but if it’s good, I’ll wait), or undo much of the goodwill the author has established by character, plot, pace, world-building, and story. A good ending isn’t even a hallmark of success or popularity. Stephen King is regularly criticized for endings that lay an egg.
This is quite a broad topic and I don’t want to completely spoil books you may not have yet read. What constitutes a good ending is very subjective. Do I gain a sense of satisfaction? Joy? Anger? Do I feel anything at all? The worst endings leave us with a big shrug and wondering why we bothered. Fortunately this hasn’t happened often to me.
I’ll start with my favorite example of a weak ending of what otherwise was an enjoyable alien invasion tale with plenty of military tech vs. overpowered aliens who have mankind on the ropes.
David Weber’s Out of the Dark had me hooked and is quite the page-turner, a light, action-filled tale that’s at its best when focused on the desperate groups of humans in a lopsided war against the brutal Hegenomy. I love the simple notion of the kinetic strike tech that gives the invaders such an upper hand against the ground-bound humans. I also thought the aliens’ reason for completely underestimating Earth’s jump in tech since their last survey was a nice touch. But then we get to a conclusion which is the greatest recent example of a deux ex machina I’ve read in years. I won’t spoil it, but if the movie Independence Day’s world-saved-by-a-conveniently-compatible-alien-operating-system left you feeling a bit down, this will floor you. I would have accepted a cliffhanger, or a soft ending left open to the sense that the war goes on, but not this. I suspect that my buddy that suggested I read this book did it as a prank. We’re still on speaking terms, but barely.
What’s interesting is that David Weber is a good, very readable author. Out of the Dark is quite engaging until the end parts where it just gets silly. It’s also unfair to pick on one work when Mr. Weber has so many other worthwhile science fiction stories. But this is the most egregious bad ending I’ve run into. If Godzilla had saved the day I would have been equally as taken aback.
So that’s one end of the spectrum. Most books, including David Weber’s other works, fall into the acceptable range of good conclusions that don’t make you feel frustrated that you took the time to read to the end.
I next want to cover some endings that satisfy. These next examples left me thinking about the rest of the story and gave me a lingering emotional impression which only a good book can give. This is what I’ll talk about next week.