This is an intellectual love letter. Some stories are good. Some are great, and when I say great I mean that staggering kind of great that makes you want to read it again immediately, and then emulate it as best you can. One such example of the latter is Deus Ex Arca by Desirina Boskovich.
This slightly longer and spoilery post is going to have a go at tapping into what makes it so good. But first things first, get thee to Lightspeed and read the darn thing! The following will assume you have done that, you have been warned!
So. When a story starts with the familiar then it can go anywhere. The more mundane the opening the greater the potential of departure. A story that starts with a giant squid eating God who's really an impostor. has already opened the kimono. Normal families at a farmer’s market, however, has a long way to go. This is good because Boskovich sets her targets on everything. She’s playing with the essential basis of legends and society and it unfolds in an excellently elegant fashion.
Using the metaphor of a box which does awful and bizarre things to everyone who touches it except for a small boy, she gives us a handle on knowledge and change. The start is about the uncontrollable nature of the world. Before the box arrives anything could happen at any moment, but for some reason it doesn’t bother us. Objectify it into the finite and tangible form of this box (admittedly one with absurd habits such as turning boys into toasters) and you create something terrifying.
But shown something irrational it’s amazing how predictable humans are. Boskovich says, ‘They came for the box the next day, as Jackson assumed they would. (He’d seen movies, after all.)’ Familiar, right? The government try and take control, to understand this clearly incomprehensible thing. Man applies logic, might and resource and sacrifices lives.
If you can’t touch chaos yourself but you know who can? Why, they become your vector, you study them, which means they just become another box. Poor Jackson becomes objectified himself. See where this is going?
Next we see everyone except for his sister is now afraid of Jackson just as they are afraid of the box. Never mind the boy is independent of the box. The box comes back to him so the soldiers come back for the box. The definition of madness as repeating something you know won’t work comes to mind at this point. But still the soldiers come back for it time and time again.
But then it breaks down, what you thought were rules are revealed to be just a sequence of events you interpreted that way. You don’t need to touch the box.The world is starting to deconstruct itself, becoming something incomprehensible. Imagine this:
“Later, he looked more closely and realized that two of the houses across the street had become the skeletons of dead dinosaurs. A third was made out of gingerbread. A fourth hovered two feet above the ground. A fifth was only there on Wednesdays.”
Funny, right? But also scary.
Because finally it becomes personal for Jackson. His world changes. His mother, destroyed by stress years before, becomes a literal half-woman who “was translucent and two-dimensional, and shimmered into nothing when Jackson and Emily tried to talk to her”. Then she disappears. This is a blessing compared to the grisly dismemberment that does for their dad.
And how does it end? Jackson and Emily retreat to their treehouse, the child’s refuge from the adult world, to wait it out. Everything is broken down into discrete and recognisable elements which together signify nothing. Simple statements now prove society is an illusion, making us realise it always was:
“No one used money anymore; it was too weird. They just asked for things. Sometimes they appeared. Sometimes they didn’t.”
Which leads to the punchline. It’s all a test, a gift from hyper intelligent creatures. Worse, they turn Jackson into the next box! It’s a prankster God. Imagine the poor boy’s despair at this conversation:
“Why couldn’t you just tell us about what was in the box? You know, like, explain it to us in words?”
“We can’t use words,” they said, glaring at him with pity and scorn.
“You’re using them right now.”
“Not in the least,” they said, and he saw that they were right. Whatever words they’d used were the ones he’d given them to tell a story he already knew.
“The box was so simple it transcended language. The box was as elegant as we could possibly make it. The box—well, the box was perfect.”
It's not perfect, it's awful and terrifying. It’s Pandora’s Box. It’s the essential symbol of curiosity, serving no real purpose in itself and demanding to be opened. Buttons have consequences after all, maybe wisdom will stop you. But a box? Presents, deliveries, memories, things. What could ever be wrong with things?
This object becomes the disconnect between the divine and the human, the inescapable barrier between our desire to know everything and the fundamental impossibility of ever achieving that knowledge. All of that hoo-ha with the soldiers and the government, that’s one of the barriers right there. We isolate the things we don’t know and can’t understand, just like Jackson is isolated.
What really blows me away after all of that, however, is that this is a coming of age story. Childhood is full of incredible ideas and potential and one by one, as we become adults, we identify these things and label them. We put them in boxes. Jackson starts off immune to the awful absurdities, people turning into celery or whatever, and remains so. But he also loses everything and everyone around him one change at a time. He says it so well:
“Time doesn’t really exist,” Jackson said. “I figured this out when I was in the place. They said I was there for five years, but I know it wasn’t five years. It might have been a month, and it might have been twenty years, but I know it wasn’t five.”
“But I was five years older when you came back.”
“That stuff is just on the outside.”
That’s the deal with adulthood though, you come to accept that everything on the outside is immutable and is somehow just as important, if not more so, than you. But we also spend the rest of our lives trying to regain that childish innocence and joy. We’re pretty contrary when you think about it.
So what is the lessen of the box, of Deus Ex Arca? It’s more important than the snake eating its own tail. It’s not just that you have to accept change, because the changes are tragic and can’t be easily accepted. Instead it’s a story about letting go of control, of accepting your place in a world which, when you really look at the details, doesn’t make that much sense.
“I think so. Everything is everything. Like, everything is made out of everything else. So it doesn’t matter what things are. Because they’re all the same thing.”
Not bad for 5700 words, eh?