A MacGuffin is the inanimate object that drives plot into motion. It could be Green Lantern's ring or the Death Star. Often reviled as a lazy genre convention, the MacGuffin is nevertheless crucial to great science fiction. Here's why.
You've seen thousands of MacGuffins, and probably complained about most of them. Does it really make sense that a virus would turn everybody into brain-eating zombies? Why are all the characters obsessed with that one turbo-gun when there are probably a million other mega-artifacts they could use to blow the bad guys away? Even the inventor of the MacGuffin, Alfred Hitchcock, made fun of them. In interviews, he said:
[We] have a name in the studio, and we call it the 'MacGuffin.' It is the mechanical element that usually crops up in any story. In crook stories it is almost always the necklace and in spy stories it is most always the papers . . . It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men in a train. One man says, 'What's that package up there in the baggage rack?' And the other answers, 'Oh that's a MacGuffin.' The first one asks, 'What's a MacGuffin?' 'Well,' the other man says, 'It's an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.' The first man says, 'But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands,' and the other one answers 'Well, then that's no MacGuffin!' So you see, a MacGuffin is nothing at all.
I beg to differ, Mr. Hitchcock. In science fiction, the MacGuffin is everything.
What I propose here is a way of taking the MacGuffin out of the cozy little hole Hitchcock made for it - after all, he wasn't talking about science fiction, only the kinds of thrillers he made. So I'm reformulating his definition of MacGuffin to explain why objects can be as important in science fiction as characters are.
MacGuffins Look Cool
Remember the first time you saw an enormous spaceship slowly moving across the screen in a science fiction movie? For me, it was the opening scene in Star Wars: A New Hope, where we watch as a mind-bogglingly enormous Imperial ship flies overhead, its hull a puzzle of intricate features that suggest infinite power and an infinitely large population on board. In fact, A New Hope set a new standard for the majesty of spaceships on film. And there's no doubt Star Wars' ships were MacGuffins: The throughline of the movie led us straight into finding a little chink the armor of that Mega-MacGuffin Vader was planning to use for planet-destroying fun. One of the things that made Star Wars such a brilliant film was George Lucas' mastery of the MacGuffin. The objects in his world were so arresting, so realistic and yet so fantastical, that audiences were sucked into the relatively predictable story in a way they never would have been otherwise.
Spaceships are the lifeblood of scifi MacGuffinry. They take on distinct personalities: A zany police box for Doctor Who; a shiny near-smileyface for the crew of the Enterprise; spiky blobs for the Cylons; and baroque, palatial hulks for people in the Dune movies.
Gorgeous, mind-boggling MacGuffins are not just the stuff of cinema spectacle either. A brilliantly-conceived MacGuffin can turn an otherwise ordinary science fiction novel into something memorable and mind-ensnaring. Such is the case with Greg Bear's classic Eon, which would be nothing more than a tired Cold War saga if it weren't for the strange anomaly that humans discover: An asteroid whose interior turns out to be the entrance to a nearly infinite terraformed corridor where humans of the future have been living for over a thousand years. Most of the novel is devoted to exploring the abandoned (and, later, inhabited) cities of "The Way," and this mega-MacGuffin turns the novel into something extraordinary. The same could be said for the classic novel Rendezvous with Rama, which clearly inspired Eon and many other books in the mega-MacGuffin genre.
Iain M. Banks has raised the SF MacGuffin to the status of literary art. Nearly all his Culture novels include at least one fantastically detailed object in space - and in Look to Windward one of the main characters is an AI Mind who has taken one such structure, an Orbital habitat, as its body. Other brilliant Banks MacGuffins include the transdimensional mystery object in Excession; the gigantic nested world of Matter; the space-based water city made from millions of miles of braided, water-filled tubes (also in Matter); and the Culture ships themselves, self-assembled by the Minds that inhabit them and capable of housing entire cities.
Objects Do Things That People Can't, Plus They Rarely Engage in Bad Dialogue
Nobody can forget that moment in 2001 when Dave looks into the heart of the MacGuffin and says, "My God - it's full of stars." That's because the MacGuffin can do something no character could ever do: It can be a portal to another universe, or to control of time itself. As the Stargate franchise has proven, you can generate a narrative that goes on for years based entirely on one MacGuffin. Deep Space Nine engaged in similar MacGuffinry with its wormhole.
Green Lantern has spun stories for decades using the single MacGuffin represented by a power-bestowing ring. (And let's not get started on Lord of the Rings, which may not be science fiction but nevertheless partakes in a very full-on way of SF-style MacGuffinry.)
A good MacGuffin takes you places that human characters never could. Without giving a long, irritating speech* or trying to Teach Us A Lesson or Offer A Bargain, your MacGuffin can transplant humans to Barsoom or Odo's planet or the world inside a videogame where Programs die when your quarter is used up. To function beautifully, the MacGuffin should be both spectacular and valueless. It is something that can be used or misused, and eventually understood completely using science. And the best part? The only thing that can happen to a MacGuffin is that it can be lost or found. It won't get its heart broken, lose faith in itself and require a pep talk, or go darkside (unless it's found by a bad guy).
* I will admit that MacGuffins do occasionally give bad speeches, especially when they are inhabited by AI or come with some kind of inscription that everybody will ignore until it's too late (and the words will then come back to haunt them - "What if 'How to Serve Man' has another meaning?")
Worldbuilding is MacGuffinry Raised To The Level Of Art
Why did Neal Stephenson spend over a hundred pages describing the amazing artifact in Anathem when his characters finally find it? Because worldbuilding is its own kind of artistry. Even when it occurs via the printed word on the page, with no special effects to help it along, it is the cornerstone of great science fiction. Cities and generation ships and entire worlds can be MacGuffins. Indeed, they can even be lost and found - just think of the "lost" planets in Serenity and the new Battlestar Galactica.
We want to explore every inch of a new world as it is revealed to us. That urge is MacGuffin artistic appreciation. It's what holds us rapt as the city twists into new shapes in Dark City; it's what makes us sigh at the incredibly complex, glowing sets in City of Ember. Connoisseurs of the MacGuffin can tell the difference between shoddy, uninspired worldbuilding (The Postman movie, with its "everybody is dirty it must be the post-apocalypse" look) and something that's come from artists at the height of their creative powers (The Matrix, which stunned everyone who saw it with its vital, compelling special effects and fluid, snakey bug Machines).
Without MacGuffins, Science Fiction Would Be (Almost) Nothing
In the Dark Knight movies, Gotham is a miracle of creepy worldbuilding but it is also an object that the bad guys and good guys fight over. Scarecrow doses its water supply and turns the city into a hallucinatory death mess. Joker threatens its landmarks, and Harvey Dent converts the city's leadership from good to evil when he goes darkside as Two-Face. Batman turns the whole city into a massive gadget when he activates a surveillance device that allows him to turn everybody's cell phones into spy cameras and see everything that's happening everywhere. Without Gotham and Batman's gadgets, the Dark Knight stories would literally be nothing.
And yet Hitchcock was right when he said the MacGuffin is nothing too. The object has no identity of its own, and only comes alive in the hands of characters and stories that know what to do with it. A good MacGuffin can make a story go from good to sublime, but only if properly used. The Highlander sword rules in the first movie, and sucks in the second one. Green Lantern's ring is usually awesome, but not when chipmunks wear it.
We wouldn't care what happens to Gotham unless we also cared about what happens to the characters who inhabit it. Indeed, some of the best MacGuffins straddle the line between being objects and characters. The Terminator of Terminator 2 is both a main character in the film and the MacGuffin who must be destroyed much in the same way Frodo's ring must be in a gout of flame. The strength of a MacGuffin is that it comes to stand in for characters and their relationships with each other. The Stargate signifies cross-cultural connections; the Death Star signifies genocide.
Human relationships are transient but MacGuffins are forever. And weirdly, what that means is that human relationships last forever too. Solidified and made infinitely powerful by a MacGuffin, those relationships are passed from hand to hand, galaxy to galaxy, timeline to timeline. And so a MacGuffin may be "nothing," but it is also the only thing that really matters.
Top image from Eon via Jeff Zugale.