A race of superbeings has built a silver box, and “used its infinite power and limitless being to lay claim to everything, everywhere” (p. 10), turning the universe into its plaything. “While all of this happened, the Laz made themselves immortals and began to believe that they really were gods” (p. 11). For British readers, all we have to do is to change the colour of the box, and, yes, we know exactly what Walter Mosley is talking about. Or we think we do. A writer of mysteries (I know him best for the “Easy Rawlins” series), Mosley has also published science fiction, but as we read on we find that Inside a Silver Box is less a Doctor Who skiffy romp and more akin to the way Doris Lessing, in her Shikasta series, made SF into symbolic fiction. Inside a Silver Box is certainly not a hard SF novel, nor even, in its concern with morality and godlike figures, a Stapledonian epic. Its science-fiction strands often read like new-age mysticism, while its best pieces are its evocations of the world of Mosley’s mainstream novels: the USA’s urban streets. Even there, its most rounded character—a young black hoodlum called Ronnie Bottoms who, in the second chapter, rapes and murders Lorraine Fell, a privileged young white woman—is something of a cliché: the criminal who learns that his crimes are wrong. But it may be the clash between genre expectations that makes the novel more interesting than many an exercise more firmly based in what we think science fiction is.
Lorraine is murdered just where the Silver Box is buried, and is brought back to life by the Box working through Ronnie; there follows an uneasy alliance between Ronnie, Lorraine, and the Box, monitored through the persona of an old wino (Claude Festerling, aka “Used-to-be-Claude”) who drank himself to death in the same place. Lorraine’s resurrection is specifically flagged as an act of atonement by Ronnie (“like a man making up for his mistake” [p. 32]: “I did not have the right to take your life” [p. 33]), and transforms both herself and him—it is mass from the obese Ronnie which (apparently) forms her body: she is now darker-skinned, he is a hundred or so pounds lighter, and each of them now has a green eye (the significance of which, other than as a marker of their experience, is unclear). Ronnie himself confesses that “there ain’t no forgiveness” for his crime (p. 79) but recognises that a bond has been created between them. When the Box, speaking directly rather than through Used-to-Be Claude, says, “I realised I had been created to torture, kill, and maim. I wanted it to stop, but first I had to free myself and throw all my power into resistance” (p. 77), we see that there is perhaps a greater moral battle going on. Ronnie’s remark to Lorraine that “you run down the street past poor, sick, uneducated, homeless and hopeless people with yo’ fine ass and your pockets full’a money. I belonged in prison but that don’t make you innocent” (p. 82) can easily (and shockingly) be read as excusing his actions, but the point seems to be that Lorraine has parroted such opinions through her studies and term papers, and now has to confront the complicity of her culture and class in the flaws of the world she lives in.
Transported to another plane, the pair develop superpowers (for Lorraine speed, for Ronnie strength) and return to New York, set to combat the cosmos-threatening entity Inglo which embodies the Laz; fully aware that the Box itself is not necessarily going to spare humanity if the alternative is to surrender to the Laz. Mingled with this melodrama is the everyday life of the pair—Ronnie’s altercations with the police and his probation officer, and Lorraine’s conflict with her parents, who see her new relationship with Ronnie (as might be expected, a complicated love-hate relationship) as threatening to their racist worldview. Here, Used-to-be-Claude, their mentor, acts also as benefactor, engaging a lawyer who skilfully unpicks the legal entanglements surrounding the two. There is also Lorraine’s ex-boyfriend and several women with whom Ronnie has been or becomes involved, who complicate matters. Indeed, the final conflict seems to be constantly deferred as the pair try to sort out their true relationships with each other and the Box.
This is hardly a novel that would appeal to the conventional sf fan, and in truth, I have my own doubts about how well it works. Mosley has a trick of setting up rather portentous philosophical situations (“The man you call Claude is merely a simulacrum, where my soul is still intact and yet, at the same time, a clean slate” [p. 135]) only to veer away from them: when the naturally puzzled Ronnie asks a question the answer is “We are not here to discuss metaphysics.” There is some remarkably lumpen lifting from a stewpot of pulp SF scenarios: “Nontee. Descended from the tribe of Ga, the progeny of Lambor and Ty. He and his mate Nosta received a quadrant of a minor galaxy where there existed ninety-four intelligent life-forms” (p. 237). Even Ronnie turns out to have had a white teacher in second grade who cuddled him and told him stories. In addition, when introducing characters or showing them in action, Mosley has a trick of over-describing in strings of adjectives which reads oddly to my mind: “Used-to-be Claude turned to the angry, shy, frightened, and very, very brave young woman” (p. 75). One minor character is “the hundredth-floor midnight security guard” (p. 164). Lorraine’s family servant, Nova, is introduced thus: “The mid-height, bottom-heavy, dark-skinned woman came from the kitchen” (p. 227). In another exchange: “‘What?’ the young teacher’s assistant asked, honestly confused by the rich white girl” (p. 242). There’s a flatness here, a sense of picking out random details or telling us what we already know, rather than picking out individuality. While Ronnie seems to grow, Lorraine, having become aware of the possibility that privilege might imply complicity in the unfairness that maintains that privilege, rejects her parents’ lifestyle and values yet happily continues to use her father’s credit card and live in the apartment he pays for. It is hard to know what to make of this, unless it is to point out that neither Ronnie nor Lorraine have been turned into moral paragons by their experiences.
Yet the conclusion—that it is better for the two warring entities to fight it out—is not only one which provides a satisfying pulp ending, it also naturally arises out of Ronnie’s growing maturity, as he realises that the alternative is for him and Lorraine (and the rest of the human race) to be puppets in a cosmic battleground. By halfway through the book, Ronnie is engaging in quick-witted repartee and we warm to him as a person rather than a type, knowingly striving to overcome the hand life has dealt him and turning his back on his past. The tic of focussing on the physical details of a character may, in fact, be part of the novel’s growing insistence—interesting in such a “metaphysical” fiction—of the importance of the physical: “‘There’s nothing without being physical,’ [Lorraine] said, ‘without feeling close because of that. I mean, when people say that something is more than physical, it’s like they’re trying to get away from what they are’” (p. 245). Shortly after that conversation with Alton, the young student Lorraine picks up for sex (which itself follows a scene where Lorraine and Ronnie are literally taken to a different plane through having sex with each other), the Silver Box manifests as a large, insectoid metallic creature with a skin of:
shining silver with eyes of liquid gold. The long tapered head had either hair or complex antennas flowing back along the beautiful form, and it walked upon a dozen delicate, multi-jointed silver legs that curved forward upon hooked claws that dug into the ground as it propelled itself along. (p. 255)
The imagery here seems more assured, more clearly focussed on the beauty and immensity of something compared to which individual human lives are themselves mere bugs. And out of this imagery we can create an argument that we “bugs” have a physical and moral value of our own.
Inside a Silver Box shows the traps that cross-genre fiction can fall into. Its use of the “fabulist,” symbolic aspects of science fiction may miss the more detailed (if equally symbolic) realism of other wings of SF: there is little of conventional SF’s world-building here. Yet that, clearly, is not the kind of sf that Mosley is attempting to write: the everyday life he is chronicling is “real” and gritty enough, and the novel is very much one which wants to contrast the two modes, to use sf as a way of moving away from, rather than simply echoing, the structures of the adventure story. I still prefer Mosley’s crime fiction, but find his science fiction more nuanced than it at first seemed.
Andy Sawyer is librarian of the Science Fiction Foundation Collection at the University of Liverpool Library, and a widely published critic. For ten years he was Course Director of the MA in Science Fiction Studies offered by the University's School of English. He is Reviews Editor of Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction. He recently co-edited (with David Ketterer) Plan for Chaos, a previously unpublished novel by John Wyndham, and (with Peter Wright) Teaching Science Fiction in the Palgrave "Teaching the New English" series. He was the 2008 recipient of the Clareson Award for services to science fiction.