Friday, 28 July 2017

The Mystery Box: Part 2

A couple of years ago, way back when Return of the Jedi was the most recent non-prequel Star Wars film, I wrote a blog post about the concept of the Mystery Box, and how I thought guys like JJ Abrams misused and misunderstood it. A secret, I argued, consisted of nothing more than withheld information. A legitimate mystery, on the other hand, needed to be held to a higher standard. Essentially, it had to be capable of surviving its own explanation. I cited the horribly botched Khan reveal in Star Trek: Into Darkness as a key example of a weak, ugly little fake "mystery". Zack Snyder's Sucker Punch is another one. It sets out to tell you that you're going to be fooled, then goes through two hours of meaningless contortions and manipulations only to present you with a completely arbitrary twist of absolutely zero impact, interest or consequence. It's totally hollow at the core.

So yeah - let's talk about magic again.

Over the two years since that post, I've been kicking the Mystery Box idea around in my head, trying to sift something tangible out of the chaotic pulp of my thinking. I hoped I'd get a story out of it. In fact, I've got several and fully intend to pursue them. The first thing that emerged, though, was a trick. I've practised its component parts literally thousands of times so far, rehearsed it hundreds of times... and performed it precisely twice before living human spectators.

I make no claims to originality in any particular element of its method, and magicians have played with its general premise for decades. I'd probably credit Douglas Adams for the plot, now that I think of it. All that said, it's as close as I can get right now to a practical demonstration of what a Mystery Box story needs to be to satisfy me, and it goes like this:

Remember This Moment 2: A Magic Trick

The magician places a pen and a small plastic box on the table in front of him, sealed and transparent on all sides. Inside the box, clearly visible at all times, is a neatly folded playing card, identity unknown.

"This trick," the magician announces, "is essentially an encapsulation of my entire attitude to magic - and maybe even life. It begins with a secret, it ends in a mystery and everything between... is theatre."

The magician takes a sealed pack of playing cards from his pocket and offers it to a spectator. He turns his back and asks the spectator to take the cards from the box and to look through their faces, choosing one by whatever process they want. He waits with his back turned while this is done. 

Without turning around, he asks the spectator to sign the face of the card. Oddly, he then asks the spectator to write the date alongside the signature. Finally, the spectator is asked to write the exact time on the card.

For the first time, the magician turns back to face the spectators. He asks that the card be returned to the pack and the pack returned to the box, all without any possibility of exposing the identity of the selection. The magician never touches the cards, simply putting the sealed box back in his pocket.

Putting on his best "mind-reader" face, and with as much mock-drama as he can muster, the magician proceeds to announce the exact identity of the selected card. He pauses to let the moment breathe.

"There are a couple of problems with this trick," he says. "Firstly, if you already believe in mind-reading, all I've done is demonstrate something you already know to be possible. I might as well be giving a lecture on plumbing at that point."

"The thing is," he continues, "I don't believe in mind-reading - at all. Despite everything I just did and said, I'm not a mind-reader."

Another pause...

"The other problem is procedural. Thinking back over the trick, you'll remember that there were a couple of extra steps in the sequence that seemed important at the time but never cropped up again. You took the cards out of the box. You chose one and you put the cards away - but I also made you sign your selection. Not only that, but I asked for the date and time to be written down too. Those pieces of information are the key to the entire trick, and they're essential precisely because I'm not a mind-reader. I'm a time traveller - and you're about to help me prove it.

"Here's where we are right now. In my pocket I've got a pack of cards with one completely unique object in it - a playing card that identifies a person, a date and a time. Tonight, after the trick is over, Future-Cy is going to open that box and remove your signed, dated card. He's going to go back in time to earlier this week, where he'll meet Retro-Cy and present him with this impossible, unique object. The card, signed and dated, tells Retro-Cy exactly which card will be selected, who will choose it and precisely when the trick's going to take place - all the information needed to perform a completely impossible mind-reading routine.

"However, Retro-Cy has a problem. The card in his hand is an impossible object. It exists in two places at once - both in his hand and buried in a pack of cards that he hasn't even bought yet. Burdened with this terrible responsibility, Retro-Cy does the only thing he can to preserve the integrity of the time-stream and causality itself: he folds the card neatly into quarters and seals it in a little plastic box..."

The magician returns the spectators' attention to the box on the table.

"A box that has not been opened. A box that has not been touched. A box that has not even been approached since before the trick began."

For the first time, the magician removes the lid of the box, using fingertips only.

"It begins with a secret..."

Keeping the card in plain view at all times, the magician carefully removes it from the box.

"It ends in a mystery..."

The magician unfolds the card, revealing the spectator's signature, along with the time and date. It is unquestionably the selected card.

"...and everything between is theatre."

That's the trick as I present it, and if I ever come up with a story that pulls off the level of sleight-of-mind it requires to make it work, I'll be a happy writer. From the moment the box was first placed on the table, there was only one possible destination this "story" could be heading. However, the spectator is taken along the "mind-reading" plotline just long enough to reach the first major twist - naming the card under impossible circumstances. The second "act" of the story then goes behind the scenes of the first, explaining exactly how the trick was accomplished. The explanation itself is simultaneously totally consistent and utterly impossible. That's the key to it. By this time, to reverse-engineer the real mechanics of the effect, the spectator would need to explain:
  1. How the magician knew which selection had been made, despite never handling the cards or observing the selection process. Alternatively, how the magician could have controlled the selection without any means of influencing the choice.
  2. How the magician removed the selected card from the deck after the spectator very carefully put it back into the pack, and the pack back into the box.
  3. How the magician managed to fold the card without anyone seeing it happen.
  4. How the chosen card had managed to be isolated in plain view inside the box since before the selection was even made.
With several layers of deception in play, the idea is to present the time travel explanation as an "easy way out" for the spectator. It fits the available evidence and, in context, could almost be considered the Occam's Razor solution to the effect. As I said, the point is for the mystery to survive its own explanation. So far, I'm pretty pleased with how it's working out.

Anyway, that's what I've been up to recently. How about you?

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