Hyperfiction Plot Moves at a Click
Mar. 14, 1998
NEW YORK (AP) _ Imagine a fictional story that has no fixed plot, no certain ending. The narrative can take hundreds of different turns, and the one deciding each twist of the tale is the reader.
Literary heresy? No, hypertext fiction.
Hyperfiction, as it's also called, is an emerging literary genre that unfolds on a personal computer rather than on paper. It has attracted the attention of avant-garde literati and is studied at several colleges.
Compared with traditional fiction, ``It resembles more a web than a thread,'' said Bob Arellano, a creative writing graduate student at Brown University.
Put another way, reading a traditional novel can be compared with driving the length of a road without intersections; reading hyperfiction is more like wandering city streets, choosing which way to go at each corner.
Hyperfiction presents readers ``pages'' with highlighted words, phrases and pictures, just like on World Wide Web pages. Readers click on these links to see where the story leads. Such nonlinear yarns tend to lack a definitive end; readers can surf through them as much or little as they choose.
In ``Victory Garden,'' a hyperfiction by Stuart Moulthrop, a soldier writes home from the Persian Gulf War:
``Tell Thea she's a jerk for not writing... She will probably ask you to help her out, but this time please just say no.''
The soldier's sentiment presents readers with a decision: ``Thea,'' ``not writing,'' and ``just say no,'' are all links that will take the story in new directions at the click of a mouse.
Clicking on ``Thea'' gives the reader a look at that character's shock at the coming of war. Clicking on ``not writing'' reveals an angry letter from the soldier to Thea. The ``just say no'' link leads to a description of a saloon at the soldier's college.
``Victory Garden'' includes 993 short ``writing spaces,'' the hypertext equivalent of pages, and 2,804 links.
Mark Bernstein, chief scientist at Eastgate Systems, publisher of ``Victory Garden'' and other hypertexts, says the work would make a ``moderately thick'' novel if printed and bound.
He sees hypertext authors as artistic descendants of avant-garde writers such as William S. Burroughs.
``There is not one way of reading the story, there are millions of ways of reading the story,'' said Mark Amerika, author of the online hyperfiction novel ``Grammatron.'' It can even evolve beyond a ``story,'' becoming multimedia art with the addition of sound, pictures and film.
The growing hypertext literature movement emerged quietly in the 1970s and '80s, starting off as complicated, theoretical game-playing for computer whizzes.
As computers became more mainstream, hyperfiction attracted a larger audience of computer-savvy writers and readers. Brown University first offered a hypertext writing workshop in 1991. Since then about a dozen colleges have followed.
``Grammatron'' begins with the words ``I am a machine... a writing machine,'' flashing across a red screen to the sound of surreal, moaning music. From there, protagonist Abe Golam moves through an electronic dream world.
Bob Arellano's online novel ``Sunshine 69'' has a more mainstream feel. Readers follow characters through the year 1969, where they go on jungle patrols in Vietnam and take various drugs. Written under the `cybername' of Bobby Rabyd, ``Sunshine 69'' links text with music, maps and pictures.
Eastgate, based in Watertown, Mass., sells works of hypertext fiction on CD-ROM and floppy disk, usually for about $20-$25 apiece.
The company maintains a stable of authors, many of whom write in StorySpace, an Eastgate-marketed writing program that lets readers and authors more easily navigate in hypertext.
Among Eastgate's top sellers is Michael Joyce, who teaches English at Vassar College and whose work, ``Afternoon, a Story,'' is one of the most influential pieces of hypertext fiction.
``Afternoon'' gives readers a look into the mind of a man who witnesses a car wreck and develops a terrible suspicion that his former wife may have been involved.
Bernstein says that like many works of hypertext, the nonlinear ``Afternoon'' concentrates more on ``capturing moments and feelings'' than on developing a traditional plot.
In ``Victory Garden,'' Moulthrop, a University of Baltimore professor, gives plot a more important role. The story is a highly complex portrayal of paranoia and uncertainty, set against the backdrop of the Persian Gulf War. Its many plots and subplots are, in Bernstein's words, ``torn up and fragmented, but still a narrative.''
Reading hypertext fiction requires extra concentration.
The medium's arty flair and technical complexity can make it difficult for the casual reader to digest. Eastgate publications come with technical instruction booklets.
There's another barrier to reading hyperfiction for enjoyment. ``When I sit at a computer, I usually think like I'm working,'' said Eldon Pei, an undergraduate in Brown's creative writing program.
Also, the very randomness that defines hypertext fiction makes the reading experience incomplete, he said. ``I want to feel like I'm getting everything, and in hypertext that's impossible.''
Still, Pei sees a future for hypertext writing.
``It's a genre that is still in its very beginning stages from what I've seen,'' he said. ``As with any art form, it takes some time to develop and mature.''
The Web site for ``Grammatron'' is www.grammatron.com; for ``Sunshine 69,'' www.rabyd.com/sunshine69; for Eastgate Systems, www.eastgate.com.