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Reading #1
Digital Unbound
By George Melrod
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Let us begin at the middle.

I am sitting with Michael Joyce in his garret office in the English department at Vassar College, under a peculiarly sloping wall, sipping coffee. "None of us ever intended to be a computer nerd," he observes affably. "I came into this as a writer."

In fact, he is both. By combining his hands-on interest in information technology with his own literary background, Joyce has created a new way of writing that not only utilizes the personal computer but depends on it. We are talking about software and the future of the novel. We are talking about hyperfiction.


What is hyperfiction? It is the marriage of the storybook and the PowerBook. It is the linear narrative thread spun into the labyrinth of the microchip. Hyperfiction is, in short, nonlinear interactive electronic literature. It is also potentially the next stage of evolution for storytelling, in which text is made of light instead of ink, you help the author shape the story, and you never read the same novel the same way twice.


One name you hear a lot around hyperfiction circles is Johann Gutenberg, whose invention of movable type (circa 1440) marked the death knell of what we now refer to as the oral tradition. With his printing press, Gutenberg indirectly sired not only the medium of the novel, but also, some might argue, the modern ideal of individual authorship. Previously, oral storytellers would recount the same stories generation after generation. Gutenberg's modest goal was to mass produce Bibles--never would he have dreamed he was begetting Jackie Collins and John Grisham.


Today's apostles of hyperfiction see themselves as spearheading a communications revolution no less profound than the one launched 550 years ago. But while Gutenberg took us away from the communal author, hypertext promises, at least partly, to turn back the clock.


The word "hypertext" was coined by computer visionary Ted Nelson in the 1960s. Then still a student at Swarthmore, Nelson conceived of a way to connect all the information in the world through a giant electronic network of cross-referenced documents, which he dubbed a "docuverse." He invented hypertext to mediate the nonsequential linking between these texts. So that while reading about, say, Shakespeare, for example, you could key onto a certain word or phrase and find out more about Elizabethan cross-dressing, Danish melancholia, or male pattern baldness.


It was Michael Joyce who first came up with the idea of applying hypertext to the art of writing original fiction. Joyce is a burly, genial man with a sonorous baritone and a graying beard. In spite of his venerable reputation as the grandfather of hyperfiction, he shows a boyish excitement when he points out the empty bookshelf in his office. The gesture is just one indication of his commitment to the computer and his enthusiasm for hyperfiction. "This," he says, "is an example of how electronic culture can still rock you."


A graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Joyce published his first novel, The War outside Ireland, in 1982. The book garnered several awards but small sales. At the time, he was teaching at a Michigan community college. One day, while playing on his Apple word processor, he had an epiphany. Seeing the ease with which text blocks could be moved around--and how a block of text might belong equally well in various places--he got the idea of writing a story that never read the same way twice.


Since the software didn't exist, he hooked up with classicist and computer scientist Jay David Bolter and John B. Smith, another computer scientist, to create Storyspace. Storyspace is the only software designed specifically for the creation of hyperfiction. (It is currently available in either Macintosh or Windows format.) The program allows you to create boxes of text on one screen, which you then connect to other boxes with lines, establishing the various pathways for the reader. The result is a weblike electronic storyboard. Because there is no standard sequence to the text, these text panels do not have numbers; they have titles.


When the time finally came to launch their product at the Hypertext Conference in 1987, Joyce and Bolter realized they didn't have an example of what it could do. So Joyce wrote Afternoon, A Story."The process was incredibly liberating," he recalls. "To that extent, I never looked back."


Written in crystalline, lyrical prose, Afternoon remains the most popular hypernovella. The plot--to the degree there is one--concerns an unnamed narrator who has witnessed the scene of a car accident. "I want to say I may have seen my son die this morning," he declares in one panel. As the narrator wrestles with his fears, we follow him through his circle of friends and learn about their values, relationships, and infidelities.


The story opens on a screen entitled, appropriately, "Begin." From there you must either click on a word in the text or choose a direction on the toolbar menu on the bottom of the screen to progress to another panel. Using this method, you gradually cobble together a story line. As you progress the program records which panels you have visited, allowing for a certain degree of cause and effect. The program has a built-in default that prevents you from seeing a plot resolution before you've met the characters, kind of like the way a railroad switch keeps a train off the wrong track. Even so, you can expect to be tossed between story lines to a dizzying degree.


The result is a kind of narrative collage, a textual kaleidoscope in which the story is cut into fragments and is constantly changing. If it's a bit disorienting, that's part of the idea. Instead of laying out a straight path, hyperfictions set you down in a maze, give you a compass, and let you decide where to go next.


The idea of nonlinear writing is nothing new. Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy (1759-1767) is often cited as the first novel to mess with the linear story line. In the late 1910s, Dada poet Tristan Tzara made poems from words drawn from a hat. In the early sixties, William Burroughs (along with Brion Gysin) cut up blocks of text and rearranged them, finding new meanings in the haphazard juxtapositions. He used a similar technique when he wrote The Soft Machine. In Julio Cortázar's novel Hopscotch, the chapters can be read in two ways, resulting in two different stories. Other writers now seen as harbingers of hyperfiction include Thomas Pynchon, Alain Robbe-Grillet, and Italo Calvino. But it is Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentine fantasist, who invented perhaps the most dazzling antecedent for hyperfiction. In his short story "The Garden of the Forking Paths," he writes about a supposed labyrinth which turns out to be a text with contradictory plot lines; the forking paths represent the infinite possibilities for the lives of the characters.


While hyperfictions certainly build on this heritage, they also carry their own particular set of guidelines. Number one is that the act of reading requires interaction. Your choices help shape the story line; you can't just turn the page. Also, because of its inherent fragmented structure, hyperfiction seems to encourage stories with multiple voices, viewpoints, and protagonists. Moreover, hypertexts avoid endings. Instead of propelling you from A to Z, they encourage you to meander through the story at your own pace and end when you want to.


One thing hyperfictions are notis games. There is no scoring, no winner or loser, no right or wrong path to take. The writers assiduously avoid you-are-there fantasy adventures. Their texts are literature, not literary fun-house rides where youchase Moby-Dick! You make love to Madame Bovary! You get buried alive in the House of Usher!


Navigating through a hyperfiction can be frustrating because you don't always wind up where you expect. The result is that reading the story becomes a bit like playing Chutes & Ladders across a floppy disc. Some hyperfictions even invite you to wander around the internal linkage maps that connect the text panels, allowing you to be tossed between story lines different ways.


How is it done? Simple. As you read, the text panel appears against a background web of titled boxes and crisscrossing lines (picture an intricate flow chart). To move to other frames, you double-click on words in the text or use the arrows in the toolbar. If you don't like where you've ended up, you can press the Shift key while clicking on the double arrow in the toolbar to return to the previous frame. Or you can press the Option key with the double arrow to choose an alternate link. You can also click on the map in the background, select a box directly from the network, then click onto that box's title to bring up that text frame. If you loathe technology, it's as much fun as programming a VCR. But once you figure out how to work the controls, it's easy to get hooked.


Take, for instance, J. Yellowlees Douglas's crafty, hip hyperfiction I Have Said Nothing, which describes--in candid, darkly funny terms--the deaths by car accident of Sherry and Jule, two former girlfriends of the narrator's brother. (Auto fatality seems to be a special theme of hyperfiction.) Once the program plops you into the story, you may follow one of several different narrative paths, from the grief-stricken reactions of the brother, to wry commentary on the way we experience death in the movies, to ruminations on the physical aspects of death itself ("Do you know what happens to you when a Chevy Nova with a 250 engine hits you going over seventy-five miles an hour?")


But you also may get shuffled to another story line--say, to the house of one of the accident victims, where "the line of really pathetic-looking stuffed animals that always looked ready to erupt into clouds of weevils seems to be waiting for her." When you actually get to the deaths of the two women (as Jule is dying in an ambulance, we get a harrowing account from her own point of view), their story lines end, the screen shows a period on a blank screen, and you have to backtrack into the web to pick up the other stories. There is no official ending. In Douglas's view, we are all the authors of our own fictions; closure is the last thing you want. "Fiction is too much like reality," Douglas explains. "It's got one ending, it's fixed, and you're stuck with it. Why have an aesthetic that restricts you to the same things life does?"


Stuart Moulthrop's Victory Garden is set on a college campus in a southern city resembling Atlanta, during the Persian Gulf War. A sprawling work, it incorporates 993 different text panels, connected to each other via 2,804 links. Like other hyperfictions, the novel weaves through the lives of its cast of characters--in this case professors, friends, and students--as they seduce, console, or drink with one another. One of the protagonists, Emily Runbird, is a soldier stationed in Kuwait. In some readings she is a less important character; in others she is killed; in still others she returns home intact. Interspersed between story lines are numerous quotes about hypertext and cyberculture: a device that is educational, though somewhat self-congratulatory.


Carolyn Guyer's Quibbling similarly braids together several couples' stories to portray a quilt of relationships, interspersing erotic encounter, interchanges of e-mail, and musings about the teaching of art. Deena Larsen's Marble Springs is a feminist re-creation of the life of an 1880s Colorado town, told through prose poems about the lives of individual women. The reader accesses these stories through maps of the town or family trees that diagram the characters' connections. The men's stories are left unwritten, but Larsen invites the reader to add to the narrative as he or she likes and leaves blank space on the screen to do so.


One of the zaniest hyperfictions of all is John McDaid's joyful Uncle Buddy's Phantom Funhouse, which documents the life and writings of rock musician/science nerd Arthur "Buddy" Newkirk, McDaid's nom de plume. Using the image of a grim-looking house as a map, the reader clicks on the windows to enter quirky realms. These include a rotating globe entitled Hyperearth, an array of bizarre tarot cards called Oracle, and an encyclopedic Fictionary of the Bezoars, in which McDaid defines a myriad of cyberterms. Some text links are only available if you solve the underlying Egyptian riddle. You don't have to figure it out to enjoy the work's frenetic humor, however; with its giddy multimedia approach (the disk even comes with cassette tapes of Buddy's fictional rock band), Funhouse transcends the boundaries of textual hyperfiction. (Because of their complex graphics, both Funhouse and Marble Springs require HyperCard, an applications program from Apple.)


But don't look for these disks at your local Waldenbooks or B. Dalton. Still in its infancy, hyperfiction is being promoted almost solely by a single maverick company in Massachusetts called Eastgate Systems, run by a savvy, eccentric, ex-chemist named Mark Bernstein. Bernstein not only selects the works to be published but is helping Joyce and Bolter upgrade Storyspace. (Both Storyspace and the hyperfictions mentioned above can be ordered by contacting Eastgate Systems, 134 Main St., Watertown, MA 02172.)


Over the past seven years, Eastgate has published some fourteen hypertexts and has recently inaugurated The Eastgate Quarterly, a floppy-disk periodical that includes shorter works of hyperfiction, nonfiction, and poetry. With each of its titles selling in the low thousands, Eastgate is more like a university press or an underground record label than a mass-market Goliath. "A lot of people working in multimedia see a mass audience; I see us speaking very much to the book audience," Bernstein says proudly. "We are the most literary electronic publishers, and are missionaries for hypertext. We're not selling perfect works of art; we're selling the birth of a new form."


Eastgate is not just selling a new way of reading, but a new way of writing. And with hyperfiction courses being taught at a growing number of colleges across the United States (Joyce estimates there to be about forty programs), campuses are providing an active training ground for the second generation of hyperauthors. At the vanguard is Brown University, which has long been a hub of hypermedia thanks to Robert Scholes and George Landow, who pioneered the use of hypertext as a pedagogical tool. In 1991 novelist Robert Coover introduced hyperfiction as an undergraduate course at Brown. Last year, his workshop was taken over by his teaching aide, Bob Arellano.


A slender, zealous man with razor-chop sideburns, Bob Arellano puts the hyper into hyperfiction. He recently handed in Brown's first electronic graduate thesis, a hyperfictional account of the infamous murder at the Rolling Stones concern at Altamont. Arellano also edits a hypertext magazine, LSD 50, which he distributes over the Internet, under his pen name Bobby Rabyd. His teaching forum is "The Living Syllabus," a computerized writing space that holds all of his students' assignments. Over the course of the semester, all of the students' writings--and their comments on each other's works--become integrated into a chronicle of the class's work. "It's the paperless classroom," he explains merrily.


The classwork includes not only writing, but the art of creating the linking superstructures, the scaffolding on which the stories are built. Part of what makes hyperfiction so dynamic are the limitless options for these superstructures. For example, Stephanie Ansen, a twenty-two-year-old theater major, created a fiction incorporating conversations overheard at the university pool, using the layout of the pool building as an organizing architecture. Eric Witherspoon, a twenty-year-old Chinese history major, used a Chinese restaurant menu as a jumping-off point for a study on the Cultural Revolution.


Shelley Jackson, a graduate student in creative writing, is working on a story called The Patchwork Girl, a modern-day retelling of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein which Jackson has illustrated with her own original drawings. Jackson's monster, however, is made from the body parts of different women. By clicking onto the Patchwork Girl's body parts (leg, arm, torso, etc.), we learn the history of the woman behind each party, spoken in that character's voice. Another pathway leads the reader to a journal written in Mary Shelley's voice, recounting an erotic tryst with the monster.


Because hyperfiction mimics the way our thoughts meander, it is a seductive writing tool. It invites you to explore links between disparate thoughts and images. While the subjective nature of these connections can make it disorienting for the reader, it can be gratifying for the writer. And although many students are frustrated with the clunkiness of the technology, they can't seem to stay away. "I hate it," Ansen says bluntly, "but I can't stop thinking in terms of it. It writes the way my brain works."


Already, competing schools of hyperfiction are emerging, with writers like Joyce favoring a more free-associative approach to the linking structures, and the Brown writers favoring navigable maps and architectural systems.


To Robert Coover, this new blood is just what the medium needs. Coover, himself a noted experimental novelist, is one of hyperfiction's staunchest promoters and most exacting critics. "I've been sold on it because of what the medium has to offer, not because of what's out there," he says. But, citing the example of Don Quixote--often considered the first great novel, written 150 years after the Gutenberg Bible--he admits "it takes time to attract the artists to the medium." In 1993, to help expedite the process, Coover organized the Unspeakable Practices II conference, which brought together writers from the worlds of hyperfiction and contemporary literature, such as Raymond Federman, Ronald Sukenick, Kathy Acker, and Paul Auster. But so far, for all their tinkering, it seems that none of these authors have traded in their WordPerfect for Storyspace.


If the medium has still not yet found its Cervantes--or even its Judith Krantz--that may be because the idea of collaborative authorship is still so confusing. At its most loopy--when authorship is thrown open to everyone--hyperfiction can become sort of a literary virtual reality, as in the MUDs, or multiuser domains. The epitome is Brown's Hyperfiction Hotel, a fictional architecture created for Coover's undergraduate writing class. Here, students can create fictional hotel rooms in which to write their own stories and characters, can alter each other's rooms, or, if they prefer, can add to the hotel's public areas--lobby, bar, pool, hallways.


And after Tom Meyer, a grad student in computer science, made the Hyperfiction Hotel available on the Internet via World-Wide-Web, it became accessible to anyone with a modem and the urge to check in, making it the first official hostel of the information superhighway. (In techspeak, it also became a MOO, or MUD-object-oriented.) Anyone on the system can visit the hotel and explore the rooms, read the stories of the fictional characters, or even converse with other real-time visitors.


The idea of someone in Wiesbaden adding a room to a fictional hotel based in some silicon chips in Providence, Rhode Island, takes the idea of group authorship to bizarre extremes. But undermining--or augmenting--the traditional idea of the author is part of what makes hyperfiction revolutionary. Joyce is among the biggest proponents of interactive authorship. "We don't know what's coming next," he says, "but we do know it's multiple. One thing I'm sure of is that authorship as we know it is doomed. But the authorial voice isn't."


Hypernovelist Carolyn Guyer conducts a women's hyperfiction cooperative called Hi-pitched Voices. She also happens to live with Joyce (they met, fittingly, at a hypertext conference). Together with Joyce's sister, a professor of anthropology at Berkeley, they are jointly writing a text called Sister Stories, based on the structure of the Aztec calendar.


Coover, too, feels that the future of hyperfiction probably lies in the multivocal muse: a decidedly pre-Gutenberg idea. "The real prototypical hypertexts were medieval writings," he remarks. "The idea of marginalia becoming text was a medieval notion. We don't even know who wrote 90 percent of the stuff." Still, like Joyce, he does not write off the author's voice. "For the near future, it is still the most important thing."


Ironically, the greatest threat to hyperfiction may be the burgeoning success of its big cousin, multimedia. With new computer software such as Macromedia Director making the job of downloading images, sound effects, and even movie clips, as easy as pulling greenbacks from an ATM, the spartan allure of pure text is sure to get a lot of flashy competition. So as digital convergence brings all sorts of media together through the CPU, hypermedia may well overtake hyperfiction as the narrative paradigm of the next century. As Coover muses, "It may be that future texts will be a little like Hollywood films: made by teams of writers and artists under the direction of a single vision."


For lovers of the printed word, the idea of the literary document mutated into a multi-author, multimedia collage sounds like something out of a bad sci-fi dystopia. But already, CD-ROMs are redefining the idea of the reference book. Encyclopedias expanded to multimedia can include complete photographic libraries, computer graphics, sound effects, video and film clips, even games, all at a fraction of the mass of a multivolume bookshelf set. Scenting a new market, disk publishers are releasing other CD reference texts--from history manuals to nature guides--fast on their heels. Interactive children's books, likewise, are becoming a boom business. Of course, you don't need two thousand dollars worth of computer hardware and an electric outlet to leaf through Peterson's Field Guide to the Eastern Birds, or The Cat in the Hat.


In the short term, however, there is no question that the way we think of "books" is changing, and that interactivity is playing a key role. Voyager, the company responsible for publishing many of the most innovative CD-ROMs, including the Residents' Freak Show, has released a series called Expanded Books on floppy disk. Including such sci-fi blockbusters as Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park and William Gibson's Neuromancer trilogy, they are formatted to resemble book pages, but allow all the amenities of a PC, such as scanning the text for specific words, jotting comments in the margins, even adding electronic dogears or paper clips to mark a page. But while you are welcome to access the chapters nonsequentially, it remains in the end a linear text. As Voyager editor Roger Devine observes, "It's not really hypertext, but halfway; it's a conservative approach mimicking the print format, so that people will feel comfortable with it."


Coover, for one, thinks that a turn toward electronic text is inevitable, and that in the not-so-distant future, a majority of college courses will be taught using it. And "if the main way we access information in the future is electronic, this means that book publishing becomes more about boutique objects." By tapping into the Internet, researchers can already access texts from libraries halfway across the globe, from the relative comfort of their own desktops.


A more mundane application of electronic text is the elimination of repetitive paperwork. Sometime in the next five years, the SAT tests required for college admissions will be administered via computer. And this year, for the first time, the Common Application Form that is used by 137 colleges will be available on computer disk. In this way, at least, the decades-old promise of the computer revolution to reduce the consumption of paper--and the depletion of forests--may finally be beginning to bear fruit.


Still, Joyce's empty bookshelf notwithstanding, no one is predicting the outright death of the bound volume. For if we have learned one lesson from previous technological shifts, it is that a new medium does not abolish its precursor, it merely alters its purpose. Photography did not mean the end of painting, although it did take over the role of portraiture, freeing artists to explore their own impressionistic visions. Nor did movies kill the stage, nor TV replace movies. And after all, you still can't slip an electronic novel into your pocket to read at the beach, and you still don't have to worry whether the new Sue Grafton thriller you just bought for your Mac can port to Windows. But, to quote the ubiquitous AT ads, "you will."


It's also worth remembering that hyperfiction as a medium is still only seven years old. As of now, most hyperficionados are academics, whose names repeatedly crop up in the introductions of each other's works. It's not hard to imagine their interweaving web of relationships forming a hyperfiction of its own, complete with erotic encounters and exchanges of e-mail. But as the tools become more sophisticated, and new voices emerge, the medium will become less insular and more accessible.


What will it become? Who knows. Just as Gutenberg could never have predicted the proliferation of Chinese restaurant menus, nor Thomas Edison have imagined Snoop Doggy Dog, we can't predict what hidden jack-in-the-boxes the medium holds in store. Even Joyce admits it is impossible to gauge what the legacy of hyperfiction might be. "In a way, the Gutenberg analogy is very good," he notes, as the afternoon draws to its close, and he and Guyer drive me away from the serene greens of Vassar to the still-sequential train station. "He didn't know what he was starting, and he died broke."


"Interactivity" may be the buzzword today, but whether anyone will choose to interact with this new medium in the years ahead is still unknown. It is not only the quality of the writing but the receptivity of the public which will determine whether hyperfiction becomes a part of the culture, or joins the 8-track in the museum of extinct technologies. The medium may be the message, as Marshall McLuhan wrote, but the message must be heard for it to matter.


Yet time and technology have a funny way of changing our attitudes. McLuhan's take on print media is that it createdour sequential way of thinking. Who's to say we won't simply evolve along with our media and shed our linear bias like an old skin? Once a new, computer-bred generation becomes comfortable living in a systems–oriented world, the idea of reading nonsequential fiction might seem as logical as 1-2-3.

The article was originally printed in Details magazine in October 1994, and was revised in 1995. Reprinted by permission of the author.

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