The Black Box

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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.

Cross Them Genres

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By Zyllan Fotografía (http://www.flickr.com/photos/zyllan/5436985592/) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The burst of e-publishing in the last decade has created an exciting situation. Gone are the days of books relegated to their sections in bookstores, fighting for space along side others in a genre system that never quite made much sense. Vonnegut in the same section as Robert Ludlum? Stranger in a Strange Land next to the latest Star Trek book? Nope nope nope. Silly.

No, in the wide open digital world, books are free from being shoehorned into broad categories. This is the era of the cross-genre, where a story can blend whatever elements they like to whatever fantastic end the writer can conceive. Case in point, my forthcoming series, Gone To Wonder.

GtW is about a theme park. A steampunk theme park. With Celtic fantasy elements. And a hint of far-future scifi. With near-future whiz-bang technology. But ultimately, it’s the story of a young woman finding her place in a crazy world. There’s a lot going on, but thankfully, I don’t have to simply label it “science fiction” or “young adult” and move on. I can list it online with as many keywords as I’m allowed, in whatever combination suits it best to both describe it and find readers.

I adore the idea of cross-genre. As a creative writing exercise, it can grease the wheels. Try it–think of two genres that you wouldn’t ordinarily imagine working together, then think about the story possibilities.

Paranormal romance/Ocean’s 11-style heist: Girl recruits vampire, ghost, and merman to help her steal from the rich oil baron that wronged her family; vamp, ghost, and merman compete for her affections.

Superhero/post apocalypse: Amnesiac hero sets out to fix a shattered world, but discovers his god-like powers caused the end of the world.

Time-travel/detective: History has gone awry in a time-travel incident, and it’s up to the Hercule Poirot of historians to uncover the clues, discover the perpetrator, and fix the past.

The possibilities are infinite. Tell me some of your ideas. Do you have a favorite book that stepped genre lines brilliantly? Have any unlikely blends you’d like to see?

 

Gone To Wonder

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“Is that…?”

“No way,” said Gavin, pulling down his goggles to peer through the jungle growth.

“It’s them!” He whooped loudly, hopping up and down. Wendy couldn’t believe she was friends with this 19-year-old boy who was bouncing and giggling like a five-year-old at Christmas.

But she was excited, too. Down the road, surrounded and followed by a crowd of adventurers, were the two great mountains of metal, Tank and Tonk, lumbering down the path, blocking its entire width. Gavin shouted at her as he jogged to catch up to them.

Tank and Tonk hadn’t been seen outside of Ganton in Wendy’s recent memory. The closest they came was the day-ending parade, where they marched with all the others, stopping short of the Coast Way. But here they were, on the way to the Rogue’s Gallery.

Something was amiss, however. The crowd following them was excited but confused. And the two roving animatronics didn’t look right. Wendy couldn’t place it, but something about them was abnormal. It wasn’t till they had caught up that it dawned on her.

“Gavin,” she said, tugging him down so she could speak in his ear. “Look at them.”

“Yeah I’m looking. How could I not?”

“No. Look. Inside.”

Within the arcs of bronzed metal, churning pistons and spinning gears, something was missing.

“Holy crap. No operators,” said Gavin, his excited turning to puzzlement.

Wendy nodded. And what was more, she could see their heartgears, the source of an automan’s energy, buried within their frame, which normally glowed white or blue. Both Tank and Tonk’s heartgears were bright red. That meant one thing for an automan: Torque, the berzerker state that meant bad news for anyone in the way of their mission.

“They’re torquing,” said Gavin, only he wasn’t looking at the gears. He had walked to the side and was looking at their faces, at their glowing red eyes. He shared a look with Wendy, one that she needed no words to understand.

Something was very wrong in the Wonder today.

 

Above is an excerpt from an early chapter of Absent Hero, the first episode of my series Gone To Wonder. I’m not usually one for excerpts, since a lot of the time they’re rubbish out of context, but I can’t help myself. The first draft of Episode One was finished up just over a week ago – just in time, in fact, for me not to have to pony up on the Steak Bet. And I’m itching to get this thing out into the world.

Gone To Wonder is about a young woman named Wendy Danek. Wendy is a superfan of a revolutionary theme park called Finnegan’s Wonder. It’s a place where augmented reality, vivid video projections and holograms, hundreds of animatronics, and thousands of actors combine to create storyscapes: landscapes where stories come to life around the visitor. But it is more than that, because the visitors themselves become characters, adventurers in a brand new world of steampunk behemoths, pirates who command the wind, a mysterious mystic, woodland warrior poets, sprites, whisps, airplanes, vicious mechanized plants, and more. There are no rides in this park, only experiences that challenge the divide between real and make believe.

But the Wonder is in trouble. Attendance and enthusiasm are waning. Maintenance is lackluster. Whole lands are closed. And worst of all, it’s legendary creator and leader, Clayton Ferris, has been ousted by the majority shareholder, a man named Charles DeWitt. The day after the hammer falls, Wendy and her crew of faithful friends are thrust into the story in ways none of them had known before. Animatronics are coming to life, characters are attacked, and a war against a mysterious new race of automatons is brewing. At the center of it all is Wendy, chosen against her will by someone — or something — to push the story to stranger heights than it has ever gone.

In the coming months we plan to bring you five thrilling episodes of Gone To Wonder. It’s a story that has quickly become my favorite project to date. It combines my love of theme parks and armchair imagineering with a healthy dose of fantasy, steampunk, and science fiction. It blends a near-future setting with an impossible, fantastical world, and comments on the power of story on our lives.

We’ve got a ways to go yet. The first episode is in revision mode now, but keep watch over the next few weeks for news on a release date, as well as where and how you can get a copy. I look forward to bringing this project in front of readers soon. Until then, I’ll be gone to wonder.

Beware: The Nerds are Coming!

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What’s more amusing than the offhand dismissal of genre as a serious form of fiction? The fear of genre and its fans! Back in 1975, that’s exactly how Newsweek critic Peter S. Prescott came off in an article called “Science Fiction: The Great Escape”.

It’s an article that decries the New Wave of science fiction as work that is edging into territory it shouldn’t belong. My favorite bit is this:

An argument can be made that the ghetto is precisely where science fiction belongs, that it has enough to offer without succumbing to the literary pretensions of the New Wave.

The ghetto! Delightful.

There’s a lot more over at io9, including a very angry response from Kurt Vonnegut.

Podiobooks: Audio Books For The Podcast Fan

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I’m an avid listener of podcasts. I have about 20 different ones in my podcast library at all times. They vary from interesting (Like Stuff You Should Know) to political (Political Junkie) to cultural (Pop Culture Happy Hour). The other day, though, I found a new type of Podcast — Podiobooks. They are a type of Audiobook that is done in serialized form. And they are awesome.

I’m currently listening to Scott Sigler’s Earthcore. Luckily, the entire series has already been published on the iTunes podcast store. That way, I don’t have to wait a week or more for the next chapter.

Scifi Comedy Webseries? YES PLEASE

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Speaking of webseries, the other day I stumbled onto this teaser for a webseries from SyFy (who brought us such hits as Sharknado and Sharkalanche*). Watch the teaser at the link here. (Hat tip to The Nerdist)

Could be terrible, might be fun. It’s a webseries so it’ll cost us nothing to find out.

*not actual film, but it seems like a logical next step. or should that be illogical? only spock knows