Awhile back I mentioned how some mysteries are often better left unsolved—even, sometimes, for the writer. After I was reminded of a particularly bad movie, I realized this is because coming up with intriguing questions, leaving tantalizing clues for the reader or audience to pull at, is often easier than answering those same questions.
The bad movie in question is Event Horizon. Without getting too spoilery—although good gads, if you haven’t seen the film and I manage to talk you out of it, consider yourself deeply indebted to me—the movie starts out with a very interesting premise and then devolves into pure stupidity. A ship has disappeared into another dimension and years later has returned. That other dimension is implied to be Hell, because ripping off DOOM sounded cool to the writers, and basically the last half of the film gets increasingly, pointlessly gory. I’m making this sound better than it is; trust me, it’s stupid. (Ironically, when they finally got around to making a DOOM movie, they didn’t use this premise, even though it made way more sense for that film.)
What kills me about the movie is that the hook is so great: The ship went somewhere and came back. What happened to it? Where has it been? Surely more interesting answers to that could have been concocted; it wouldn’t be a sci-fi horror film then, but it would be a potentially good sci-fi which is roughly how it was portrayed in its trailers.
Or to take another example, Michael Crichton’s Sphere. If people thought the movie was deeply flawed, it’s because the book was just as flawed. Again we have an interesting hook: A starship is discovered at the bottom of the ocean, having crashed there about 300 years ago; the ship is American, clearly having traveled back in time. A sphere of (presumed) alien origin is discovered aboard, and, well, the whole thing turns into. (Highlight to see spoiler text.) Stupid. He just ran out of ideas a third of the way through the book, and decided since he couldn’t satisfactorily answer the most interesting questions, he’d just invent new ones with an answer sci-fi fans could see coming a light-year away.
Now let’s turn to one of my favorite books of all time: Gateway by Frederik Pohl. It raises lots and lots and lots of questions: Who were the Heechee? Why did they leave behind so many ships? What happened to the ships that didn’t come back, or made it back barely intact? Layers of mystery unfold beautifully, and some get answers, some not. The unresolved questions of what else is out there are fascinating. Sadly, the sequels kind of blew it.
I think a lot of times these kinds of mysteries work out better if the author really takes the time to come up with a sufficiently cool explanation, and better still if they spool the answers out a bit at a time. In Richard K. Morgan’s Altered Carbon trilogy, part of the backdrop is that a race of pterodactyloid aliens lived on Mars and many other worlds, but vanished after leaving behind vast technology; he alludes to the Martians having been involved in a war with another race, that may have led to their mutual destruction. The facts about them are limited, doled out carefully. One of my favorite trilogies, Brian Daley’s space adventure series with Hobart Floyt and Alacrity Fitzhugh (Requiem for a Ruler of Worlds, Jinx on a Terran Inheritance, Fall of the White Ship Avatar), delves into the mysteries surrounding a race known only as the Precursors, but never delves so far or so quickly that it falls flat, and ultimately leaves a lot open-ended.
Off the top of my head, I can think of much better ways for Event Horizon and Sphere to have gone. The former came up with an intriguing question but instantly blew it in favor of an answer that was just a dumb excuse for a gore-fest. The latter left the big mysteries open-ended, but that’s not so much the problem as that Crichton clearly abandoned the interesting sci-fi questions in favor of a lamer plot. It’s all just such a waste.
My point is this: Solve your mysteries or don’t solve them, but whatever you do, don’t let the answers be stupid.