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August, 2005 : Feature:

What Happened to Hyperfiction?

Hypertext is truly a new and unique environment. Artists who work there must be read there. And they will probably be judged there as well: criticism, like fiction, is moving off the page and on line, and it is itself susceptible to continuous changes of mind and text. Fluidity, contingency, indeterminacy, plurality, discontinuity are the hypertext buzzwords of the day, and they seem to be fast becoming principles, in the same way that relativity not so long ago displaced the falling apple.
Robert Coover, "The End of Books." New York Times Book Review, June 21, 1992

Despite Coover's provocative title of over a decade ago, the end of books obviously has not yet arrived. Hypertext, hyperfiction, hypertext fiction—concepts that seemed harbingers of the future to many in the early nineties—are rarely talked about in the new millennium. In all fairness, Coover himself updated his assessment in his 1999 essay "Literary Hypertext: The Passing of the Golden Age":

Many electronic writers now seem baffled and disillusioned by what author Jay David Bolter has called "the anxiety of obsolescence" as their tools and formats, laboriously learned, are ceaselessly displaced by others, and they are further dismayed by the Web's increased hostility toward text and the flight of readers into cybermalls and chatrooms (Coover b, n.p.). (1)

Of course, hypertext itself has become a fact of life with the omnipresence of the World Wide Web (so bemoaned by Coover) and its links leading on for what seems forever, but fiction which takes advantage of hypertext and hypermedia is still highly exotic and largely unknown. In fact, at times it almost seems to be becoming more obscure, rather than gaining in cultural influence as predicted. Once an irreplaceable resource for critics and theorists of hypertext fiction, Michael Shumate's site "Hyperizons" has not been updated since July 1997. Numerous other sites specializing in references to online fiction experiments result in link after outdated link. (2) There are certainly still a number of regularly updated sites and institutions concerned with digital, hypertext and multimedia fiction, including Eastgate Systems, Alt-X, and the German webzine dichtung digital, but for the most part, hyperfiction and its multimedia successors remain as much a fringe phenomenon as they were fifteen years ago—if not more so.

New Media and SF

One indication of the inability of hyperfiction to maintain a place in the cultural consciousness is the waning genre interest in the new medium as a source of fictional experimentation. During the heyday of hyperfiction, John G. McDaid claimed that science fiction had little or no interest in participating in the digital: "It should be no surprise that sf resists the electronic, coming as it does just as sf was beginning to enjoy some respectability in the mass market" (1994: n.p.). This, however, was not strictly true. Science fiction authors have participated in the electronic conceptually, experimentally and communally, as we pointed out in our piece "Electronic Community and the End of the Lone Writer." Cyberspace and virtual reality have long been thematic staples of science fiction, and the genre has been instrumental in the development of the World Wide Web. Authors such as Philip K. Dick and William Gibson conceptualized the "space" before the technology for contemporary virtuality actually existed, in turn inspiring the groundbreaking architects of the Web. As Scott Bukatman puts it, "[S]cience fiction has, in many ways, prefigured the dominant issues in postmodern culture" (6).

Experimentally as well, science fiction writers have been involved in electronic fiction. One of the earliest experiments in the form was Rob Swigart's Portal: a Computer Novel, published by interactive fiction specialists Activision in 1986 on computer disk and appearing in print two years later from St. Martin's Press. As Nick Montfort points out, "Portal has an exploratory rather than puzzle-solving structure and was one of the earliest attempts at an interactive fiction that combined literary efforts with the use of graphics" (n.p.). Swigart's collection of hyperfictionalized short stories, Down Time, was published in 2000 by Eastgate Systems, still the most important purveyor of hypertext fiction—and the only commercially viable one that we are aware of.

In 1992, widely acclaimed cyberpunk guru William Gibson wrote the text for the self-consuming literary artifact Agrippa (A Book of the Dead), a poem on disk which was designed to be erased as it was read (needless to say, it was soon cracked and the text is now widely available on the Internet). SF writer Geoff Ryman has provided a further well-known experiment in hypertext, 253: a novel for the Internet about London Underground in seven cars and a crash (1996). 253 was such a success that it was published in print form in 1998 by St. Martin's Press as 253: The Print Remix. Interestingly enough, however, the last two of these widely known electronic experiments by SF writers do not actually contain SF elements themselves. (3)

On the other hand, a number of hyperfiction works which have met with a certain amount of critical attention are based on science fiction and fantasy concepts, among them Sarah Smith's King of Space (1991) and Shelley Jackson's Patchwork Girl (1995), Eastgate System's best-selling title, a hypertextual tribute to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and L. Frank Baum's The Patchwork Girl of Oz. While King of Space makes the impression of narrative one step removed from game, Patchwork Girl is an elaborate construction of text spaces, a hyperfictional treatment of the intersection of technology and identity—in short, a work which recognizes and takes advantage of the potential of hypertext.

The Potential of Hypertext

Despite the declining attention hyperfiction has received in recent years—as well as the exaggerated reports of the death of the form—we remain of the opinion that there is definite fictional potential for hypertext. One of those potentials is in the dialogic structure of interactive text: the ability of the reader to enter into a sort of conversation with the text through the choices he or she makes. (4) Another is the construction of the text in an encyclopedic fashion, what McDaid refers to as "artifactual hyperfiction" (n.p.). In this kind of fiction, the "story" revolves around entries or text fragments which eventually build the world and the story, a very different method of story construction than propagated in writing manuals. But this form—so essentially hypertextual—has already been used in traditional paper fiction in such text experiments such as Ursula Le Guin's Always Coming Home (1985) or Milorad Pavič's Dictionary of the Khazars (1988)—both works which could be described as "hyperfiction" in the form of linear text.

Dictionary of the Khazars is structured like a dictionary, consisting of entries on various events and people important to the "Khazar question." Key terms are marked with religious symbols, a cross, a star and a crescent moon, to aid in cross-referencing: instead of one dictionary, there are three—one for each of the major religions concerned with the interpretation of the crucial historical events. A number of terms are repeated in all three dictionaries, but the content of the entries varies according to the religious context, and the symbols next to the important terms function much like links in hypertext. As a result, the book can be read in many different ways, as Pavič points out in his "Preliminary Notes":

No chronology will be observed here, nor is one necessary. Hence each reader will put together the book for himself, as in a game of dominoes or cards, and, as with a mirror, he will get out of this dictionary as much as he puts into it, cannot get more out of the truth than what you put into it (13).

The artifactual form is also that chosen by Adrienne Wortzel for her inventive hyperfiction The Electronic Chronicles (1994-1996). In a fictional future, the Casaba Melon Institute discovers a collection of electronic documents, which, according to the introduction, the "Blue Planet Wizards encrypted and compressed ... documenting their civilization." These artifacts make up the hyperfiction, which the reader uses to investigate the fictional world.

Of the inherent possibilities of hypertext, the one perhaps most frequently used by fiction writers who work in the medium is that of multiple voices, threads, and chronologies, the structure used in Patchwork Girl. Among the voices that speak up in Jackson's text include the "author" of the hypertext, the maker of the female Frankenstein, the monster itself, and the individual body parts used to put the monster together.

While there is potential for fascinating experiments in the construction of fiction in this multiplicity, it may also be one of the main reasons we are asking the question in 2005 of what happened to hyperfiction: reading works such as The Electronic Chronicles or Patchwork Girl can be extremely complex and often downright confusing. Hyperfiction has often been referred to as "non-linear," but no matter how many threads or links there are to follow, the reading experience itself remains linear. The reader must take the "non-linear" fragments at his or her disposal and make coherence out of them—at least enough coherence to maintain interest in the text.

Unfortunately, most of the examples of hyperfiction from the "golden age" of literary hypertext have not been able to create a wider readership for fiction based on hyperlinks. Academics remain interested in the phenomenon, but even on university campuses, the interest seems to be dropping off somewhat, since hypertext narration never achieved the kind of status prophesied ten or fifteen years ago. This may in part be due to the difficulty of reading hyperfiction. The indeterminate nature of the text and the illusion of openness demand more commitment on the part of the reader rather than less; instead of being liberating, works that experiment with this kind of textual openness (including hyperfiction) require more dedication to the artistic vision of the author than all but the most deliberately challenging of print texts.

Of course, everyone interested in the subject has their own answer as to what direction hypertext fiction should take in order to be a meaningful part of the cultural landscape. While Coover (b, n.p.) admits to a fondness for pure text, there are probably as many visions for the "future of narrative in cyberspace" (whatever name one cares to give it) as there are theorists: most such visions now include multimedia. There are, however, certainly examples of the genre such as Ryman's 253 capable of holding the reader's interest while creating a narrative native to the medium of hypertext. It seems to us somewhat premature to declare the death of hypertext fiction—but just as premature to declare that the golden age has come and gone.


  1. See also "Hypertext is Dead (Isn't it?): An Excerpt from the 1999 Computers and Writing Online Conference." [back]
  2. See for example Glenn A. Kurtz, "Multimedia Theory and Experimental Fiction." A particularly interesting example is found on Noah Wardrip-Fruin's site "Hyperfiction," in which his link to his own hyperfiction piece, The Book of Endings, is outdated. [back]
  3. Perhaps the most common form of electronic experimentation in our genre is that of collaborative fictions, such as Unwirer by Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross, but the structural experimentation here does not make use of the possibilities of the computer, since the work is intended for print, and the electronic medium used largely for the purpose of facilitation. [back]
  4. See for example Ruth Nestvold, Joe's Heartbeat in Budapest. [back]

Works Referenced

Antlitz, Susan Elaine, et al. "Hypertext is Dead (Isn't it?): An Excerpt from the 1999 Computers and Writing Online Conference." Featuring: Susan Elaine Antlitz, Collin Brooke, Nick Carbone, Johndan Johnson-Eilola, Kathy Fitch, James A. Inman, Lennie Irvin, Michelle Kendrick, Steve Krause, Ted Nellen, Albert Rouzie, Greg Siering, Geoffrey Sirc, Greg Ulmer, and Anne F. Wysocki.

Bolter, Jay David. Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext, and the History of Writing. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1991.

Bukatman, Scott. Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Post-Modern Science Fiction. Durham and London: Duke UP, 1993.

Coover, Robert (a). "The End of Books." New York Times Book Review, June 21, 1992. Available online.

——— (b). "Literary Hypertext: The Passing of the Golden Age." October 29, 1999. Keynote Address, Digital Arts and Culture, Atlanta, Georgia. Available online.

Doctorow, Cory, and Stross, Charlie. "Unwirer." June 9, 2003.

Gibson, William, (text) and etchings by Dennis Ashbaugh. AGRIPPA (A Book of The Dead). New York: Kevin Begos Publishing, 1992. Text available online.

Hink, Gary. "Temporality of Hypertext Fiction: The Subjective Narrative of Sequence." Juxtaposition. Jan. 29, 2004.

Jackson, Shelley. Patchwork Girl. Watertown, MA: Eastgate Systems, 1995.

McDaid, John G. "Luddism, SF, and the Aesthetics of Electronic Fiction." The New York Review of Science Fiction. May, 1994. Available online.

Montfort, Nick. Interfacing with Computer Narratives: Literary Possibilities for Interactive Fiction.

Murray, Janet H. Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. New York: The Free Press. 1997.

Nestvold, Ruth (a). "Cyberbooks and Virtual Libraries: Hypertext and its Implications for Literature."

(b). Joe's Heartbeat in Budapest: A Hypertextual Conversation Piece. 1998-2000.

Pavič, Milorad. Dictionary of the Khazars: A Lexicon Novel. New York: Vintage, 1989.

Ryman, Geoff. 253: a novel for the Internet about London Underground in seven cars and a crash.

Shumate, Michael. "Hyperizons."

Smith, Sarah. King of Space. Watertown, MA: Eastgate Systems, 1991.

Swigart, Rob (a). Down Time. Watertown, MA: Eastgate Systems, 2000.

——— (b). Portal. Los Angeles, CA: Activision, 1986.

Wortzel, Adrienne. The Electronic Chronicles. 1994-1996.

Copyright © 2005, Ruth Nestvold and Joseph E. Lake, Jr.. All Rights Reserved.

About Ruth Nestvold

Ruth Nestvold has published in Asimov's and Realms of Fantasy, and was a recent finalist for both the Tiptree and Sturgeon awards. She holds a PhD in literature with specializations in genre issues, gender issues and hyperfiction. After getting out of academia, she switched to translation and software localization to feed the writing bug. She maintains a web site at

About Jay Lake

Jay Lake lives in Portland, Oregon, where he works on numerous writing and editing projects. His 2008 novels are Escapement from Tor Books and Madness of Flowers from Night Shade Books, while his short fiction appears regularly in literary and genre markets worldwide. Jay is a winner of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and a multiple nominee for the Hugo and World Fantasy Awards. Jay can be reached through his blog at or his Web site at


Aug 1, 21:56 by IROSF

Is it dead, Jim? Or is this a form whose day has yet to come?

Ruth and Jay's essay is here.
Aug 2, 03:31 by Matthew Davis
Possibly overlooked is some of John Sladek’s stories from the late 60s: “Alien Territory” is a 9x4 grid of paragraphs, while “The Lost Nose: A programmed book” is what we would now call a choose-your-own adventure book.
Tom Disch could probably say some harsh things about the failure of even finding a public for his “you-dunnit” “Amnesia” (1986).
Kim Newman’s “Life Lottery” from 1999 was published as a book, and I think has recently been republished as an ebook, so it may work even better as a hypertext experience. However there may be one drawback in that there are about 12 sections which deliberately weren’t linked, so it was up to the reader to thumb though all of the book and discover a contradictory back-story to the apparent one which one followed through the linked entries.
Aug 2, 07:37 by John McDaid
Interesting read. Think that Ruth and Jay really nail it with "The indeterminate nature of the text and the illusion of openness demand more commitment on the part of the reader ...[and] more dedication to the artistic vision of the author than all but the most deliberately challenging of print texts." It's not surprising to me that hyperfiction seems to have submerged for a time; there may need to be a generation raised in the practice of digital text before there is really going to be an appetite for experimentation. Folks who feel challenged by technology do not relish the added cognitive load of a new reading technique.

And I still believe it will be artifactual -- like the "AI" game a few years ago -- but now, it has the potential for being massively customized and database driven. Of course, then, the real question is the chicken-and-egg one of funding the creation of a rich enough experience without an apparent market, but there are open-source models which can address that...
Aug 2, 09:24 by Adrian Simmons
I know next to nothing about hyperfiction, but I'm curious to know if there is/was ever a paying market for it.

Cutting edge art is all very nice, but there is only so much one can do for the love. Were there ever Benjamins involved? Hamiltons even?
Aug 2, 10:21 by Bluejack
Well, I hesitate to call it hyperfiction, because it's not what Ruth and Jay were writing about, but a great many video games these days are quite directly based on the "choose your own adventure" paradigm.

There are sequences in which the player follows a linear course (failing, and restarting until the line is complete), and then there are decision points, which will determine what the next line will become, leading to one of many possible conclusions. (Or, as with those old choose your own adventure books, many lines end up converging, keeping the tree narrow enough to be manageable.)

Videogames aren't hypertext in any sense of the word, but they do match at least some of the criteria for hyperfiction. My hunch is that the High Art variations of hyperfiction will always be fringe players: they simply veer too far from the essential hard-wired human understanding of storytelling. Video games, and their successors, are the most compelling medium for interactive storytelling.

And part of this, ProGoblin, is *all* about the money. Game designers want their rich, multi-media experience to last more than one quick pass through, so inserting these decision points and multiple streams of stories gives players more playing time, more reason to come back to the story. The same can not be said of those crappy little books: who wants to read that tripe twice?

jmcdaid's point to the "AI" game is a very good one: if choose your own adventure stories have found their most suitable form in video games, perhaps artifactual stories will find their best expression in guerilla marketing.

It is worth observing that even in open-ended virtual worlds such as Everquest, where the interactivity is unlimited, the game designers still embed stories: there are quests and adventures with largely linear narrative arcs set within this open ended world, leading to the meta-hyperfiction of stories told within the framework of mutually consensual fictions.
Aug 2, 10:41 by Adrian Simmons
But it seems to me that the big 'hypertext' worlds/stories, can't survive on the story alone. They require something else, graphics, and/or interactivity. A team-effort.

I think that puts it out of the realm of the solitary writer. It was already a hard enough sell, a writer had to want to do hyperfiction and also posses the technical expertese to pull it off (or find someone they trust to do it for them).
Aug 2, 12:55 by A.R. Yngve
You philistines, you! (*irony*)

I have been posting complete SF novels as web-serials online since 1999 -- in English -- and you don't make ONE mention of them in this article.

I'm still at it -- damn the naysayers -- and the novels can be read here, in complete form or as ongoing serials:

Aug 5, 02:34 by Matthew Rees
"Video games, and their successors, are the most compelling medium for interactive storytelling."

Forget their *successors* - what about their *predecessors*? There may not be a commercial market for text adventures anymore, but they've developed into a thriving hobby industry. (Nowadays the preferred term is Interactive Fiction, or IF.) I'd be interested in knowing whether the authors classify IF under the umbrella of hyperfiction - or whether it's even on their radar.

If this is all news to you, here's some sites you should check out:

...And those are just the tip of the iceberg.
Aug 5, 02:57 by Bluejack
Thanks for that list, marees ... provides a whole different perspective on things, and a refreshing reminder that the long tradition in the "adventure" (aka zZork) form of text-based games are also am important part of the interactive storytelling tradition.

I will say that, in line with the authors original point, this form of storytelling appears to be a form that is heading towards obscurity and marginalization, rather than the opposite. I'm sure there's a "home brew" enthusiasm behind it, but looking at the websites you cite, it's pretty clear that updates are far and few between. Still, you yourself reference this kind of storytelling as a predecessor, and within that historical context, the whole advent of text-adventure games is pretty important to bear in mind when discussing interactive storytelling.

What I'm not sure about, however, is whether these games really count as hyperfiction or not. My hunch is that they will be excluded for the same reason that all videogames are excluded: they simply don't conform to the standard expectation for hypertext.
Aug 7, 22:45 by Joi Chevalier
Indeed, marees' comments on the predecessors may indicate what's happened to the theory of hypertext - what was once theory simply became a practice for online writing. Instead of being marginalized, as Bluejack suggests, what was so glamorized as 'hypertext' simply became 'if you created the text in a non-linear fashion, then it was also presented in a non-linear fashion as well. In short, theory gave way to practice: the text is presented in the way the text is generated. These acts are one in the same.

For example look at the text generated in a MUSH. Multiple threads, stories, events, activities happen in real time simultaneously, however all of those activities represent various time frames and story progression(s) in the larger narrative of the MUSH's theme. Is it possible to represent those stories in their relative time frames, with characters and stories in various states, and still have the 'narrative' readable by a passing user, who might become familiar with the story of the MUSH as a whole? Could someone pull a linear story out of a complex hypertext?

It's possible. A few long-standing collaborative writing environments present their fiction writing in a hypertext. For an example, check out Myriad Mush -

As Bluejack also mentioned about why some items are excluded, this might fall into that category. But what is hyperfiction but the allowance to exist, side by side, multiple voices, multiple narratives, multiple spaces, in multiple timeframes - and to be able to access it all in an understandable fashion?

In addition - I do like the term 'artifactual hyperfiction.' Artifacting the acts that take place within the space of Myriad Mush was the intended goal of creating the hypertext, but leaving the collaborative hyperfiction in tact as it transpired in the space.

As to the original question about hyperfiction being dead - at some point in the 90s, we had to quit writing about hyperfiction and actually try to do it everyday.

Thanks - Kit.
Aug 8, 02:14 by A.R. Yngve
Allow me to add, that the fiction manuscripts on my website are edited over time -- small errors fixed, words changed -- which makes the texts "living documents", quite apart from the fixed format of printed text.

We have become accustomed to thinking of books as "crystalline", solid forms - one version is the only "real" one, the one you hold in your hand doesn't change.

ut as soon as you publish a book manuscript as HTML script on the Web, the paradigm changes. The text becomes "soft" (software), malleable, can be endlessly altered even while you read it. In fact, it comes closer to the nature of the spoken word.

We have not yet seen the full cultural implications of this paradigm shift.

For example, consider this thought experiment: If the Bible had been hypertext/HTML from the beginning, would there be only ONE canonized version today -- or countless slightly different versions?
How do you uphold a "canon" if the text can't be controlled by editorial authority, "frozen" in a final version? Religious texts are especially vulnerable to this new media environment.

Aug 8, 15:53 by Carl Frederick
Three or four years ago, I thought it would be fun to write a web-novel where, at any time, one could click to follow the events from the POV of a different major character. Further, I wanted to have multiple threads which could only be illuminated from particular POVs. I wrote Darkzoo, a story of an armed takeover by animal rights activists at the Bronx zoo. Some tracks show a normal adventure novel, whilst two tracks show a werewolf story. One track is a photo essay told/shown by a kid.
It was a nightmare--making the tracks parallel and writing essentially, eight long fiction pieces. Incidentally, Darkzoo was used as a required 'text' one year at Nichols College for a course on the modern novel.
Darkzoo is still free and on-line. If one cares to look, it's at (my homepage) [click on Darkzoo: on-line, multiviewpoint novel].
I could see doing something like it again, but only as part of a team where each member is responsible for a particular track.
Aug 8, 18:14 by Bluejack
Hey Carl, that's a really cool project! I took a quick look at it, enough to figure out how you handle the navigation and so forth, as well as to take in the scope of the project. Very ambitious!!!

For those too shy to use their browser's url bar, here's the entry point.

I'll spend some more time on it. I will say it could benefit with a little touching up on the typography, the full-width text is definitely going to make me narrow my browser down a lot when reading it.
Aug 12, 06:38 by A.R. Yngve
Carl, I tried to write a multiple-choice story for the Web several years ago (you know the type: "If X goes out the door, click here -- if X stays, click here")...

...but soon I had to give up. It was just too hard to keep track of all the alternate plotlines. I even tried to include an Inventory of items -- so that the reader could change the plot with the right choice of items, like in a videogame... but it got too complex for my little brain.

I do admire your patience and effort in writing DARKZOO... but I don't expect any writer to try that kind of experiment more than once in his/her lifetime.


Aug 12, 13:03 by Carl Frederick
Bluejack, thanks for taking a quick look at Darkzoo. Yes, it was ambitious--too ambitious. I never had the time to do what I really wanted with it, namely do a Rashomon-like slanting of the story when two or more characters (from different tracks) were in the same scene together. And, yes, it could indeed benefit from some touching up of the typography, as well as some souping up of the writing itself.

Incidentally, you disliked my Dec. 04 Analog story, The Fruitcake Genome (no prob. Other reviewers had a different opinion). I should say that the story was instigated by one of my little projects where (using the method outlined in the story), I converted some of the fruit-fly genome to music. Analog had a 'Science Behind the Story' article about it on their website and included a downloadable MP3 of the 'music'. Cory Doctorow though, announced it to BOING-BOING and the ensuing traffic brought down the Analog/Asimov website. They had to remove the MP3. But now, I've reprinted the article and made the MP3 available on my site I thought you might be interested that there's more to the story than just the story.

Yngve: Interesting that you tried a multiple-choice webstory. They are incredibly (IMO) hard to pull off. And yes, one such experiment in a writing lifetime is probably sufficient (Og Yngve. Ar deg fra Norge eller Sveriga?)

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