Monday, April 7, 2008

What's In the Box?

by Mary Altman

In speculative fiction, the term "black-box theory" is typically used to describe a device of which we know or care very little about its inner workings. The entire focus is on its input/output behavior—the result rather than the reasoning. The term is used in aviation (the black box records the last minutes of airplane flight in the event of a crash), engineering, computing, philosophy, psychology and cryptography. Sociologist Bruno Latour describes the black box theory as "the way scientific and technical work is made invisible by its own success. ... Thus, paradoxically, the more science and technology succeed, the more opaque and obscure they become."

Over the years, speculative fiction has adopted the black box theory as its own, using it to create a shortcut for authors of both hard and soft science fiction. It is a device that allows authors to stop reinventing the wheel with every new series—or, in literal terms, it allows authors to stop reinventing the hyperdrive. The black box represents all the necessary tropes of space exploration and speculative fiction writing. Faster than light travel, artificial intelligence, communication over vast distances… These are the things that many authors find absolutely necessary to carry their books; however, because they have become so much a part of the collective consciousness—because they have been used over and over until the reader is willing to accept them as fact without a science-heavy explanation—they have become the background noise of the genre. Most simply: it doesn’t matter how it works. It only matters that it works.

That, in essence, is the black box theory. In speculative fiction, it is the willing suspension of disbelief. It is the automatic acceptance of certain genre tropes. It is, most importantly, a tool that the author may use so that less time is spent expounding on faster than light travel yet again and is instead focused on the meat of the story.

What’s in the box? It doesn’t matter. Mr. Crusher, set a course for our next destination, warp six. Engage.


Unknown said...

Oh, I agree with this so much... and there's nothing I can't stand when reading speculative fiction is pages going on and on about how something works.

I'm willing, as a reader, to believe in it. Don't tell me how it works, unless it's important when it breaks (aka, The Millenium Falcon)

Liana Brooks said...

I'd be the author guilty of trying to reinvent the wheel every time. Hyper-drive, genetics of a new species, basic girl + boy = attraction... my critique group shreds those bits to pieces.

Dave Fragments said...

You really don't want to explain Quantum Mechanics to the average reader if you have a black box ready to do all that work.

Please believe me, you will only confuse your readers. Your book will contain thousands of words of exposition that only a few can make any sense of.

It's not that any reader is stupid, not by a long shot. it's that Quantum Mechanics are counter-intuitive in the worst ways possible.

Take the easy Black Box and use it. Write the story and not the science.

Em said...

I love it when erotica fans and Star Trek nerds come together. This blog is, as always, wonderful.