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 Numerous other sites specializing in references to online fiction experiments result in link after outdated link.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, for...you 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.
- See also "Hypertext is Dead (Isn't it?): An Excerpt from the 1999 Computers and Writing Online Conference." [back]
- 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]
- 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]
- See for example Ruth Nestvold, Joe's Heartbeat in Budapest. [back]