Standard disclaimer: This post looks at the text of a short story for educational purposes, and does not shy away from spoilers. If you don’t want the story spoiled, read the original story first. (And subscribe to support the magazine.)
In Boonker’s Room
Analog. November 2016
We are introduced to Saul, a bullied and possibly suicidal teenager, and then Boonker. Boonker is an alien who is breaking several of rules to share secrets with Saul. We are told Saul is a battleground, not a confederate. Boonker displays a device that presents an illusion to Saul, or a projection, where sight is only a metaphor for what is going on. What’s going on is a war between life and anti-life. Saul plays with the machine that lets him see everything and he wanders through a simulated creation, narrated by Boonker.
The voice is close omniscient third person. We see things from both characters’ heads and their impressions of the other characters. The narrative slides through them like Saul trying to master the projections. They play a game kind of like chess, taking turns twiddling the simulated constants of the universe.
It appears that this really piece of tech and the game of Eros and Thanatos seems like Boonker and Saul are fighting for the fate of the universe. It is easy to get lost in the dressing. The real story under all this is Boonker trying to determine if Saul wants to live of not. It is that simple. The challenge is taking that simple question and building the story world around it.
Build up from the Question
So as an experiment, lets brainstorm an idea. In my current WIP, I have one character who needs to decide if he can kill one of the antagonists. This is a simple question much like the question to Saul. It is a simple yes or no answer but there’s a lot of baggage surrounding it. For my character, a hard-boiled character, killing is part of his history but not something he wants to do. So, as a thought experiment he meets with another character, Murdock Collins, another hard-boiled type but with a strong pacifist streak. Collins is a programmer who talks apartment buildings out of committing suicide. Tarakona, the hero in this case, goes to see Collins.
Collins, as a thought experiment, proposes a giant metaphor. The goal of this exercise is to find that metaphor. In Boonker’s Room the decision to live or not is abstracted to Life vs. Nihilism. As Tarakona is thinking about taking another life, the question is abstracted to …what? Abraham bargaining with God over the fate of Sodom and Gamorrah? This metaphor casts Tarakona in the role of God and Collins in role of Abraham. By questioning if that particular antagonist deserves to be killed this way, Tarakona doesn’t have to make that choice in such an immediate way. This is not the most subtle way to handle it, unless Tarakona doesn’t realize that this is his choice.
Saul is dressed as suicidal. There is a trope that suicidal characters who act like they are suicidal aren’t really suicidal. They want a connection to other people. It’s when they stop talking about killing themselves that they really go through with it. In these terms we can see what Saul can’t. It’s not knowing something than the character because we’ve been watching other characters, (although that happens here; Boonker comments that Saul’s father is in full thanatos and is relieved when Saul chooses to play life) we know something more about Saul than he knows about himself.
There is the real lesson here. How does this story make us see that Saul is depressed? We are told about a kid bullied at school and at home. We are told he affects the suicidal stereotype. We know from popular media that this means they don’t want to die, but connection. How does this story tell us Saul wants to live? We watch him play the game. The lesson of the game is that life is hard. Saul takes some charge of his own life and shows some.interest in playing the game again. He may not be aware of it, but we are.
There are some questions I do not have answers to in this story. After several readings I don’t know who Wong is, or why Saul calls Boonker EW. These distractions buried the important lesson in the story.