Black Box

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Egan, Jennifer. "Black Box." The New Yorker 4 & 11 2012.[1]

Discussed usefully and provocatively — starting with how to classify "Black Box" — by Kathleen Ann Goonan in "The Science Fiction Issue: Exploring a New Liminality" essay on the Science Fiction issue(s) of The New Yorker in SFRA Review #301 (Summer 2012): pp. 48-53.[2]

"Black Box," Goonan says,

is the story of a woman who claims to be, and acts like, a spy, whose body is embedded with communication and recording devices. If we go with labels, it can be viewed from many literary angles: feminism, postmodernism, thriller. But —science fiction? At first glance, that’s a stretch. The only technologically speculative element might be the camera in the eye and other embedded communication tools, but I have little doubt that this technology is presently in the works for, if not available to, warfighters right now. [...]

Feminism and the politics of the body and identity: “Beauty,” the main character (never otherwise named and existing only as a quality) has been brainwashed by her husband [...] to sacrifice her life for some greater good. Odd. Couldn’t this ogre have chosen a woman who did not need SM coercion to accept this mission? We want to shake Beauty: why can’t she see that he’s using her, that he can’t possibly love her? Perhaps because her certified cardboard SF character as a Beauty can’t see beyond her own nose? A grave disservice to all Beauties, I say.

But our spy, Beauty, is hardly new. Neither are futuristic spy devices cooked up in government labs, or tense getaways in speedboats. The story reminds me of nothing so much as any Ian Fleming book. In fact, “The Spy Who Loved Me,” a Fleming novel written from the point of view of a much-victimized woman who fell in love with James Bond, might have been one of the overlapping ur-sources of this story. [...] Despite the resemblance, this near-archetypal story is common currency in the spy thriller genre and needs no direct source [...]. The story was composed and released as tweets, a device that gives each terse paragraph the impact of poetry [...]. The telegraphic tweets, the continuing anonymity of Beauty (although she names her husband, this too might be part of her programming), and the style of each declarative, imperative phrase, shorn of everything but the character’s point of view, give the story undeniable power and spare elegance. In this instance, the technological medium — Twitter — actually is the message, which gives the story a nice science fictional kick. (p. 51)

For the camera in the eye, cf. and contrast The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe and related works cross-referenced there. The Twitter aspect we have not yet documented elsewhere.

More profoundly in the story, Goonan asserts finally —

Finally, the title, “Black Box,” implies that this is a programmed person, perhaps an android. This seemed the coolest, most skiffy interpretation, and there is nothing in the text that contradicts this interpretation. Egan, in an interview, claims that beauty is a “real person,” so my interpretation is incorrect as far as author’s intentions go ( But [...] It doesn’t matter what Egan thought, or intended: Beauty is an android. She’s been programmed with a story about her past[,] and [with] emotional subterfuges[...]. She thinks in brief, observational spurts, as if learning (or being updated from a remote source: the tweets) who she is. Dan Winters’ photograph illustration of Black Box undeniably references Rachel, a replicant (android) in Blade Runner [italics supplied], so The New Yorker, at least, realizes that Beauty is artificial. Her mechanistic “thoughts,” her constant reference to her directions about how to act and what to do buttress this interpretation: an android might think like this, in a programmed way. A human, really, would not. [...] (p. 52)

In this reading, Beauty is an android in the manner of Rachel in BLADE RUNNER: an artificial organic being who can pass for human in the sense of human as woman of woman born, but one loaded up with implants of the high-tech spy variety and subject — Beauty (and perhaps the implants?) to control by an "ogre." See then for the SF and ethical question of the personhood and rights of Beauty, and cf. and contrast such works as, clearly, BLADE RUNNER, and also "Data's Day" and, more explicitly on Mr. Data's personhood (or not), "The Measure of a Man" on Star Trek: The Next Generation; cf. and contrast also Isaac Asimov's more robot-centered, Bicentennial Man. Cf. and contrast also, in this issue of The New Yorker, Sam Lipsych's “The Republic of Empathy”.

RDE, finishing, 16Jun21