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Slingshot Ending

Entry updated 30 January 2021. Tagged: Theme.

A term initially used by Kim Stanley Robinson when attempting to describe the typical ending of a Gene Wolfe tale. The Book of the New Sun (1980-1983 4vols), There Are Doors (1988) and Exodus from the Long Sun (1996) all close as their protagonists begin to move towards a goal which has been anticipated from the beginning. But they move out of frame, out of the end of the book, and the story closes as though before its proper ending. As Robert Frost said in a letter of 1 November 1927 (in Selected Letters of Robert Frost [coll 1964, p344]): "My poems ... are all set up to trip the reader head foremost into the boundless." The effect is similar to the device in classical rhetoric known as enthymeme, where an argument is begun but not ended; the term also describes a syllogism that is left incomplete, with the conclusion to be supplied by the reader. Though unexpecting readers might feel that the consequent affect is one of frustrating truncation, a discomfort at not being told what should be told for proper closure, a true slingshot ending should persuade them that a choice of conclusions has indeed been indicated – and that their task (or joy) is to plunge head foremost towards a finish they will be glad to sanction.

The last lines of Paradise Lost (1667; rev 1674) by John Milton (1608-1674) offer an early example:

The World was all before them, where to choose
Thir place of rest, and Providence thir guide:
They hand in hand with wandring steps and slow
Eden took thir solitarie way.

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein; Or, the Modern Prometheus (1818; rev 1831) concludes with what can easily be read as a dark slingshot ending, since the Frankenstein Monster's announced plan to destroy himself is not seen fulfilled, may perhaps not be carried out. Of the several unmistakable slingshot endings in the work of Edgar Allan Poe, the most extraordinary is almost certainly that which closes The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838) when – with only a few obscure hints preparing the reader for what is to come – Pym finds himself in a canoe hurtling towards the South Pole:

The darkness had materially increased, relieved only by the glare of the water thrown back from the white curtain before us.... And now we rushed into the embraces of the cataract, where a chasm threw itself open to receive us. But there arose in our pathway a shrouded human figure, very far larger in its proportions than any dweller among men. And the hue of the skin of the figure was of the perfect whiteness of the snow.

Through this "sublime" portal, the narrator, we are to assume, is about to enter the Hollow Earth; it is a moment of Transcendence that the form of the slingshot ending inherently enables.

If the slingshot is not simply to be the concluding huis clos trap of a conte cruel or Horror in general (as in certain novels by Brian Evenson), it is almost certainly necessary that the ending envisaged by the reader be in some sense voluntary for the character living it, or bestowed, as in the exhilarating conclusion to Vladimir Nabokov's Invitation to a Beheading (1938), which almost perfectly illuminates J R R Tolkien's "escape from prison": brushing aside his pending execution,

amidst the dust, and the falling things, and the flapping scenery, Cincinnatus made his way in that direction where, to judge by the voices, stood beings akin to him.

It should be noted that these voices have not been mentioned or heard before this sentence.

The device – though never common – is more often found in the literature of Fantasy, where happy endings tend to be built in, than elsewhere; certainly in the early, relatively uncommercial years of genre [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below], when narrative risks could more easily be taken. The reasons for its infrequency are plain: such an ending must be told in a fashion which surprises the reader but also compels ultimate assent, not an easy task; it may aspire to the shockingly quotable (see Quotations), no easy task; and it is a daring device, one that commercial publishers may resist. An early twentieth-century example of the ending appears in G K Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare (1908) at whose close the protagonist wakes from climactic nightmare to find himself walking through glowing, suburban Saffron Park and catches sight of his companion's sister, whom we guess (but only after we have read the last sentence of the book) he will soon wed; that last sentence describes her (the repetition of the word "girl" pointing up his suddenly heightened attention) as "the girl with the gold-red hair, cutting lilac before breakfast, with the great unconscious gravity of a girl".

Late twentieth-century examples of use include the eponymous tsunami that ends The Last Wave (1977) directed by Peter Weir (1944-    ), which may represent a dream, or the End of the World, or both; Ursula K Le Guin's "In the Drought" (in Xanadu 2, anth 1994, ed Jane Yolen); and "The Rio Brain" (February 1996 Interzone) by M John Harrison and Simon Ings, the latter tale being rejected – because of its "abrupt" ending – several times before eventual publication.

Clearly, as throughout The Book of the New Sun and its successors, the device can be used to provide a compelling transition into a further book; but the primary use of the slingshot ending, as in Wolfe, is to close the telling in a rush of wonder. Perhaps the most famous sf example of a slingshot used to convey the Sense of Wonder is A E van Vogt's The Weapon Makers (February-April 1943 Astounding; dated 1947 but 1946; rev 1952; vt One Against Eternity 1955 dos), which closes with a line that introduces a brand-new thought about Homo sapiens and a term not previously encountered in the book, which closes a conversation we have not been aware of between beings we knew nothing of: "Here is the race that shall rule the sevagram." Other effective closing slingshots, each signalling a perspective shift, appear in Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) – "Oedipa settled back, to await the crying of lot 49."; Arthur C Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama (1973) – "The Ramans do everything in threes."; and Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game (August 1977 Analog; much exp 1985) – "He looked a long time." More recently, Iain M Banks's Feersum Endjinn (1994) ends by conveying (in a very few words from its dyslexic narrator) how the never-seen titular device is now operating on a grand scale to rescue not just Earth but the entire solar system from inevitable doom: "... thi stars ½ moovd." And a clever example is supplied in the last scene of a late novel by Kim Stanley Robinson Red Moon (2019), whose protagonists are literally slingshotted off the Moon via a great launching platform, their destination unplumbed. [JC/DRL]

see also: Geoffrey Household; Eric Koch; Kate Wilhelm.


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