Random Reviews: “The Box” by Bruce Coville
Because I’ve been asked about the process by which I’ve been selecting stories for the Random Review series, I thought I’d take a moment to explain how the stories are selected.
I have a database of approximately 42,000 short stories that I own sorted by story title. When it comes time for me to select a story to review as part of this series, I roll several dice (mostly ten sided) to determine which story should be read. I cross reference the numbers that come up on the die with the database to see what story I’ll be reviewing. This week, I rolled 4,023 which turned out to be Bruce Coville’s short story “The Box.”
One of the things I’m hoping to get out of this series, from a personal point of view, is to discover authors and short stories that I’ve owned and have never read. Of course, I’m also hoping to share those discoveries, good or bad, with the readers of Black Gate.
“The Box” refers to a gift an angel has given to Michael when he was a young boy. The box wasn’t a gift, but rather a duty, for Michael was told to take good care of the box until the angel returned to retrieve it. Holding onto the box shaped his life from the time he received it through school, dating, work, and into old age.
Although the beautifully carved wooden box was always the subject of interest to those around Michael, he was fully accepting of his responsibility. At various times of his life the box was accepted as a part of himself, seen as a prize to be taken from him, something to be questioned, or simply accepted. The box, itself, did not remain unscathed and at times Coville describes how the box was damaged and how that injury to the box impacted Michael.
Eventually, when Michael has become an old man, he has another encounter with the angel, who accepts the box back and confirms that Michael has successfully completed his task, despite Michael’s own concerns. Michael takes the opportunity to ask what the box held, but the angel refuses to provide an answer, indicating the whatever might have been in the box, as well as the box itself, was less important than Michael simply completing the task he was assigned, no matter the adversity he faced in achieving his goal.
I’ll admit then when I first read “The Box,” I had an interpretation of the story which I believed might be someone unique and not what the author intended. In that reading, I saw taking care of the box as simply a matter of doing the right thing without consideration of a reward for doing so. Upon further reflection, I realized that the box was really just an allegory for enduring faith.
Which isn’t to say my initial reading was incorrect. It just points out that whatever the author’s original intention and message is, the reader brings their own baggage to their reading of a story and the reader’s interpretation can be just as valid as the intentions of the author. Any given story or novel is a discussion between the author and the reader. The author can say whatever they think they are saying, but the reader takes their own lessons away from the text and as long as the text isn’t contradictory to that understanding, it remains legitimate.
Steven H Silver is a nineteen-time Hugo Award nominee and was the publisher of the Hugo-nominated fanzine Argentus as well as the editor and publisher of ISFiC Press for 8 years. He has also edited books for DAW, NESFA Press, and ZNB. His most recent anthology is Alternate Peace and his novel After Hastings was published in 2020. Steven has chaired the first Midwest Construction, Windycon three times, and the SFWA Nebula Conference 6 times. He was programming chair for Chicon 2000 and Vice Chair of Chicon 7.