TWA #50 – Mad Science – JUDGEMENT!

TWA 50 battle card-01Welcome to The Writer’s Arena Laboratory! We’re here to sublimate some literary justice.

Crackpots are often visionaries, and vice versa. Add an engineering degree and an obsessive personality and you have a recipe for madness. This week our authors went headlong into the minds of lunatic scientists and came back with some amazing stories.

Joseph Devon plugs in with “There’s Always Time.”

J.R.D. Skinner takes aim at the moon with “Scientific Inquiry”

Who will win the battle of mad science? Let’s see what our judges have to say.

Donald Jacob Uitvlugt is our first judge this week. Donald strives to write what he calls “haiku fiction,” stories that are small in scope but big on impact. Find out more about haiku fiction here. He welcomes comments at his blog or via Twitter @haikufictiondju).

From the obsessions of the alchemists through the excesses of Faust to the hubris of Victor Frankenstein, the mad scientist has been with us as long as science has. The scientific method is a tool whose use merely reflects the personality of the wielder. A thin line separates a Pasteur from an Oppenheimer. The Arena must be crazy to not have used this theme already.


As is my custom, I’m going to comment briefly on the two stories before moving on to my vote.


“Scientific Inquiry” by J.R.D. Skinner –  There’s a lot to like about this story. The megalomania of Professor Riddle is portrayed with entertaining zest. He’s been cast as a bad guy, but like the best of villains, he is the hero of his own story. What he’s done makes complete sense to him. In his view of the universe, he’s the sanest person in the room. This sets up the delicious ambiguity that, for me, lies at the heart of the story: Is Professor Riddle’s view of the universe correct, or is he crazy? In the world of the story, it could be that both are true at the same time.


I did have a couple of issues with the story, however. First of all, as much as I tried to resist the temptation, I found it impossible not to think of Gru from Despicable Me while reading, given Professor Riddle’s focus on the moon. More seriously, the frame narrative did not at all work for me. I didn’t mind the confessional tone, but the courtroom scene lost verisimilitude for me as a reader almost from the beginning. No attorney, especially not a defense attorney, would let Professor Riddle speak on and on as he does, even if going for an insanity defense.


Because I couldn’t buy into the reality of the court, I found my buy-in to the reality of the story undermined.


“There’s Always Time” by Joseph Devon – What a delightful meditation on obsession. But more than obsession, this story is a study in hubris. Sean has convinced himself that science can solve a problem that it was never meant to solve, the problem of change.


For me, this story reads like a classic Greek tragedy in science fictional stage dressing. We understand why Sean wants what he wants. What he wants might even be construed as a good thing. But the way he goes about wanting it is fundamentally flawed. I think of the old maxim: whom the gods would destroy they first drive mad. Sean is like Sisyphus, working against forces that will inevitably land him at the same place he started.


He is in a Hell of his own design, and he can’t get out because he doesn’t realize he’s there. The door is locked from the inside.


Two very good stories this week, but one for me rose above its competition. This week my vote goes to:


“There’s Always Time,” by Joseph Devon.



Rich Alix is our second judge. He is a patron of The Human Echoes Podcast, and an all-around awesome guy. He is the voice of the common man in this contest, and here are his thoughts:


“Scientific Inquiry” by J.R.D. Skinner – The tone of this story is great. I bought into the courtroom and the crazy professor on the stand. The dialogue and pacing also shines in this story.


I really liked how the story kept getting more and more insane. I kinda guessed the cloning angle right off (it is battle Mad Science after all) but the time travel angle was a surprise.


Professor Riddle weaves a wonderful story. I liked the little asides he throws in as he talks about his adventures:


“I have always fancied myself to be an independent man, but it is quite another thing for a gent to be asked to survive in an age without residential housing or basic agriculture.”




The time travel loop was somehow a little more perplexing than most paradoxes I’ve seen before. I had to go back over it again to make sure I had it all right in my head.


The weakness of this story however was the ending. I did like the twist that Professor Riddle wasn’t all he has been telling us he is. It does cheapen the story a bit though, instead of a brilliant scientist sacrificing everything to save the world, we get a ranting homeless person.  I also found it hard to believe that the court would allow him so much leeway to tell the entire story he did, even at a competency hearing. Small thing but it bothered me a little.



“There’s Always Time” by Joseph Devon – I’ll admit, I got this story all wrong when I read it for the first time. I KNEW it was a time travel story, I mean, even the title told me so.


The way Sean focuses on all the details in the bar made me think that he has traveled back from a future where these things no longer exist. Maybe an apocalypse or some more mundane personal tragedy.


I was ready for our hero to have a bittersweet visit with the family he always ignored, to take part in a life he missed the first time around. I even wondered if somehow Sean was responsible for whatever cataclysmic event happens in the future.


His interactions with his brother and friends only seemed to reinforce these ideas. They can’t see that he has changed. They think he is still lost in his work. They refuse to believe that he is there for them now. My heart broke for him every time he is brushed off.


When his dead parents showed up it was a big surprise, though not as big as what happened next.


The ending was powerful and sad beyond belief. Time travel would have been a blessing compared to what our scientist has been reduced to. So desperate to reconnect with his lost past he is rebuilding friends and family digitally. There is something beautiful about the way he adds his notes and revisions even as he is racked with sobs. This really is his last hope.


Two strong stories this week but i can vote for only one. At the risk of being labeled a “softie” I am going to let my emotions guide me again this week and cast my vote for the story that wouldn’t let me go. My vote goes to:

“There’s Always Time” by Joseph Devon


The judges agree and Joseph Devon is the winner of TWA #50! Congratulations Joseph!

What a great pair of stories for our 50th bout. Let’s see if the audience agrees with the judges.

It looks like our fans and our judges are in disagreement over this one! Take heart Mr. Skinner, you have the love of the plebeian hordes on this one.

That’ll do it for this week in The Writer’s Arena. Be sure to stop by next week for an a-maze-ing adventure.

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