Screen-based, text-only, partially interactive fiction has been an intermittent obsession of mine for many years. I can trace the source of it back to 1982, when I wrote a little chapbook of a dozen very short stories, all about hippie travelers in the 1970s.
Borders was intended as a set of snapshots that would illustrate a culture. We may not have been located in a contiguous physical space, but everyone who was on the road in the seventies knows very well we constituted our own little society; and that was part of the attraction. We didn't just travel to see the weird and wonderful sights of Afghanistan and Nepal and especially the kaleidoscopic glories of India; we also traveled to meet each other.
Inevitably, when I put the chapbook together (I did it in part to teach myself typesetting, since I was at the time working as a proofreader, and gave it away as Cards for the Winter Solstice), I had to put the stories in order, and I resented this. I felt, and still feel, that they were little shards of a picture, chosen by my subconscious because they seemed important; each was based, sometimes very loosely, on a fragment of memory that glowed brightly, that I felt (felt, I stress, not thought) was significant. The conscious ordering of them, however, involved a structuring part of my brain that was likely to impose a misleading and distorting editorial viewpoint; mine.
The short-shorts were unconnected, in that they did not represent a continuing story and they were not necessarily about the same person or people (except the author, naturally). But I always thought of them as a unity, and wanted them read as such. Preferably out of order.
Randomness the domain of the computer. It's the only way of presenting this kind of thing in such a way that the author cannot predict in what order the snippets will be read, and so of testing my inchoate theory that the reader's emotional reaction to any individual story will vary, depending on the reaction evoked by the previous one.
This in itself is hardly a new idea every singer prepares a set list, and knows that the order in which individual songs are sung affects the audience's response. In literature, there was Julio Cortazar's grand experiment Hopscotch. He designed that novel to be read either sequentially as printed or by leaping to a specified page, forward or back, at the end of each chapter. To follow his instructions, however, involved breaking the reading habits of a lifetime; I kept reading on to the next printed chapter instead of jumping to where I was supposed to be hypertext within a printed book is a pain. On computer, however, it would be easy to set the text up so that a single choice at the start would lead you along one or other pathway, seamlessly.
Borders is just the start. I have a much longer project that I want to present in a related form, and once I get this site up and running I will get back to working on a long poem that I am coming to realize may lend itself to being presented in a different hyperlinked form, not randomized by the author. There are certainly other possibilities, and I intend to explore them, both in theory and in practice. Watch this space.
An Early Experiment
When HyperCard came out, I taught myself HyperTalk and began to play with it; I concluded that it was an interesting toy, but too limited and platform-dependent to be adequate. I did produce a stack called June 1990 (the link is to a demo of it) which played with the idea that news is always read in context, and that breaking down the normal grouping of headlines by subject would be stimulating, and doing so at random could be interesting. The stack presents in random juxtaposition triplets of facts gleaned from the San Francisco Chronicle for that month. Of course, I had chosen the headlines (actually one-sentence summaries) from which the choices were made; and I only got as far as picking 34 of them, but the number of different screens generated rapidly gets huge. I still think it's cute.
I wasted a little money on a multi-platform program called, if I remember correctly, Plus, which I never really learned to use. Later, I got Voyager's Expanded Books software, but never mastered that either, being too concerned with writing to want to spend the time programming; and besides there was still the distribution question. But now, there is the Web, and I happen to have some time. At last, this idea looks feasible.
Here's the mind-bending contradiction: I want control, as every writer does; and yet I know that every piece of writing is different at every reading. (Sounds a little like design issues on the web in its present form, doesn't it?) Traditionally, writers simply ignore this, and present their own reality as precisely and forcefully as they can, and invite readers to look at the world through their eyes, knowing that this is impossible but relying on the reader's talent for empathy and the writer's talent for clarity to approximate the vision.
There are, of course, those who claim that their subjective view of the universe is the objective truth. In this view, the reader is pupil and the writer is master (the male implications of the term are all too appropriate in most cases), and the experience of reading becomes one of allowing the deprived or ignorant the privilege of seeing through the enlightened one's eyes.
Isn't it an extraordinary coincidence how the defenders of the cultural status quo ante circa 1900, the promulgators of objectivism, the believers in the great works of the past, the definers of the canon of civilization, how these guys are paid-up members of the ruling class?
I got nothing against Plato, baby, and I read him in the original Greek when I was fifteen. That don't make me wise, or even smart, just privileged, and even then the important learning I was doing (the artistic experience) was coming from The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan: "You can be in my dream if I can be in your dream."
But here's the problem: They're right AND they're wrong. And so am I. The big difference, the huge overwhelming difference, is that I insist that their view is valid, and they deny mine. You can't even argue it.
We have different filters on our lenses, and what they see as green I see as red. I can put on their filter, and discuss shades of green (Homer and Shakespeare and Tolstoy); and they, the most sympathetic of them, can put on my filter and discuss shades of red (Dylan and the Beatles and Robert Johnson) and for a while it seems like we are getting together. But even there, the talk usually comes down to words and technique: to Johnson's imagery and his guitar playing, where what I get from him is an extraordinary view of the human abyss that comes from some place behind the tunes, behind the words, behind the playing, a vision to which the techniques are purely subservient. And as for Dylan, well, wordsmith that I am, my favorite line of his goes "aaah-aaaah-aaah" and my favorite performance of his was the one at the Grammies during the Gulf War when you could hardly understand a word he was singing, a triumph of anger and pain that couldn't have been more appropriate to the time.
And what about Howling Wolf? And what about the hike past the Gokyo lakes in the high Himalaya? And what about the time my partner and I surprised ourselves by spending all day making love? Compare and contrast the aesthetic experience of great sex and Hamlet. Does that compute, Mr Spock?
It does to me, and if it doesn't to you, that's OK.
The human experience is too big to be channeled. Too real to be pinned down. Too diffuse to comprehend. But I'd like to convey a peek of my experience, and the way I see to do this is to force myself to give up some control, to trust in happenstance, to believe in the ethic of randomness and pray for a sympathetic response.
I'd like to say: This is true, and this is true, and this is true, and this is true, but all of them are incomplete, all of them are lies if you will, for the truth is only all of them. In the infinite hologram of life, every fragment contains the universe, and every fragment on its own is nothing. Which color of the kaleidoscope will you choose to believe in?
A Nod to Eno
Someone who has affected my thinking on all this is Brian Eno. I don't really know what he thinks, most of my information is gathered from sleeve notes and I can't really be bothered to chase down more, but his work with music has been inspirational.
In practice, his successful experiments are still control-freak choices of the possibilities provided by intermediate randomness. Thursday Afternoon is my favorite, an ambient piece that changes the mood of the room in ways I find continually interesting even as I don't pay attention (which is the point). The liner notes to my copy got destroyed in the '89 earthquake (I had to wash jam from my upstairs neighbor's kitchen off the disc, which still plays) so my memory is vague; but I think the sounds were in part randomly generated. The end result, however, is as structured as, say, The Naked Lunch.
More recently, I gather he has released a card that will plug into your computer and generate virtually unique and unreproducible pieces of music at your command. I haven't tried it, partly because I don't want to tie up my regular machine and I don't have a spare for it and partly because it's not available for Macs anyway, but I like the idea.
I'm not sure what is going to develop from all this. Of course, certainty would defeat the purpose. But I think there is fun to be had on the road.
I believe that there is a new, word-based artform waiting to be used with this technology. And I want to see it happen. I don't care about intranets, and industrial databases, and advertising, and the whole panoply of commercial development that is presumably going to drive web technology. I care about people, and art, and love and peace.
I want to see new flowers growing up through the cracks in the new concrete.