The Black Box

J.J.'s Mystery Box

J.J.’s Mystery Box

There’s a black box. Inside this box is a mystery. It’s contents are unknowable. You can put something inside the box, or many somethings, and the box, via unknown means, produces something else. How it works, why it works, and all manner of technical questions are fundamentally unanswerable. It just works.

The Black Box is a trope in fiction. There’s the Tesseract (and other Infinity Stones) in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, an object of immense power the characters do not understand. There’s the Source Code in Source Code. The Machine in Contact. There’s the magic box in LOST (kind of—more on this one below). The trope is a bit like a Deus Ex Machina* meets a Macguffin—the audience does not understand it, and most of the time the characters don’t either, but it is what wills the plot forward.

Got unknown alien technology? Black Box. Hyperspace drive? Black Box. Zombie virus? Depends on the show/book/movie, but yeah. Magic spell? Might be a stretch, but I’d put it under the black box umbrella. To use a Potter example, a witch may say a magic word, a wand may translate the word/gesture/intent, and out pops the result of a spell. How does it work? Rowling never explains, because she doesn’t have to. It is irrelevant, which can be a feature of a Black Box.

The Underpants Gnomes Phase 2 is a Black Box that hasn't been found

The Underpants Gnomes Phase 2 is a Black Box that hasn’t been found

This is a common trope, especially scifi, but it is also a phenomenon in the real world. Radiolab did an episode about it a while back, with three fascinating examples. The one I liked the best was the Piddingtons. I wholly recommend listening to the show, but here’s a brief breakdown of the story:

The Piddingtons were a married couple who had a popular radio program in the 50’s. They performed feats of telepathic prowess, the husband ‘communicating’ with his wife over some distance, to some stunt location, where she would repeat some phrase verbatim after divining it out via psychic waves. In short, they were doing a trick, the same thing a David Blaine or Cris Angel do today. Their job was to present something that the audience, no matter how determined, could not figure out. Like any magic trick, it was a misdirection. They forced you to focus on one aspect of the trick, trying to figure out the code or whatever, when the truth was much more mundane.

That’s the beauty (and the danger) of magic acts. The truth is, it’s a trick. No one bends the laws of physics. There’s no such thing as telepathy, levitation, talking to the dead, and so on. The good ones (see: Penn and Teller and The Amazing Randi) do not obscure this fact. They openly admit to lying. They are entertaining because they utilize a black box, which is usually their own minds. They know the truth, they know how the trick works, and they use that knowledge to misdirect you. It isn’t what’s inside the box, or what it does that matters, but the box itself is the draw, the thing that creates wonder and excitement.

The Prestige is one of my favorite films. A recurring theme of the film is the secret behind magic tricks, and whether or not the secret should be known. Radiolab, a show that is about science and getting to the bottom of mysteries, presents you a choice. On their website is a clip from Penn Jillette, in which he explains how the Piddingtons probably did their trick. You, the audience, are presented with the challenge: look inside the black box, or let the mystery remain. You might drive yourself nuts trying to figure out the secret, but if you take a step back and think about the entire situation, you may discover that the entertainment isn’t about what the secret is, but about how it affects you.

This, I think, is the key to speculative fiction. Every piece of fantasy, scifi, and lots of horror, requires a black box of sorts. It may not be a literal object or process in the story, but a more meta assumption that the rules expressed in the story just work, and that you don’t need to know how. The Force has an input—the focus and intent of the Jedi or Sith. It has a result, levitation, premonition, lightning, etc. How does it work? We don’t need to know. It is better without knowing.

A black box in science is what drives careers. A black box in fiction can make—or break—a story. But there’s another black box, that may never see the light of day, and that is the human mind.

A few years ago, J.J. Abrams did a TED Talk. In it, he described a mystery box he got as a child. He never opened the box, instead cherishing the mystery. It became a metaphor for the creative process. It even appeared in an episode of LOST, where Ben tells John Locke about a ‘magic box’ on the island that can produce whatever you want. John takes it a little too literally, and Ben has to remind him it’s a metaphor. To me, the black box is a perfect metaphor for that weird, nebulous thing we called inspiration.

Where do ideas come from? We can sort of trace their roots. The musician Josh Ritter once described it like a monster you must feed constantly.You read/listen to/watch whatever the monster inside decides it wants you to absorb, and once in a while it will regurgitate something useful, artistic, profound. In classical mythology, the Muses also fit the bill.

This is the ultimate Black Box. How do my story ideas become? How, even, do my thoughts become? I know I see and hear stuff, and I produce things for others to see and hear, but I don’t really know how it happens (this is different from learning the craft of writing). There’s a lot out there about philosophy of mind, cognition, archetypes and the collective unconscious, and all that jazz, but it has only ever told me half-truths, patterns, and how to recognize patterns. How do ideas happen? I don’t know. I’m not sure I need or want to know.

We can accept a black box in fiction because we ourselves are a black box. We are the trope, and while it may puzzle most of us for a while, if we take a step back, we find it isn’t how it works that ultimately matters, just that it works.


cover3I know what inspires me in my current series, Gone To Wonder: theme parks, steampunk, coming-of-age stories, new technology, and crazy adventures. I don’t know how they Check out the first episode in the series, Absent Hero, available for Kindle.

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