Hypertext

Tagged: Game | Theme

Hypertext can be defined as a way of organizing textual information which allows users to move from one section, or node, to another along various routes, or links. It is generally assumed that this scheme is implemented on a computer system; this encyclopedia is itself an example of hypertext. The idea of somehow automating the retrieval of information from a common store appears repeatedly in the writings of the early twentieth century, as in the Permanent World Encyclopedia suggested by H G Wells in World Brain (1938). The clearest ancestor of modern hypertext, however, is the "memex" proposed by Vannevar Bush in "As We May Think" (July 1945 Atlantic Monthly), which would have allowed users to create "trails" of connected sets of microfilm pages, effectively constructing their own personal links around a set of immutable texts. Computerized systems which supported links between documents, loosely inspired by the memex, were demonstrated by Douglas Engelbart and Theodor Nelson in the US in 1968; Nelson is responsible for coining the actual word "hypertext". The concept then spread through the computer science community, becoming widely known with the release of the HyperCard application for the Apple Macintosh personal computer in 1987 and the creation of the World Wide Web by Tim Berners-Lee in 1989-1991. The main subject of this entry, however, is not hypertext in general, but its uses in fiction, and especially in science fiction.

Storyspace, a software environment designed to enable the creation of hyperfiction (fiction written in hypertext), was first demonstrated in 1987, running Michael Joyce's Afternoon, a story. This seminal work partakes enthusiastically of the postmodern tradition of literary experimentation. It is often deliberately obscure, encouraging reader disorientation by such means as unexpected changes of the narrative voice and concealment of the links needed to move from one node to the next. Different readings (or traversals) of the text can lead to radically different understandings of its meaning; the narrator, who may have seen his son die on the afternoon of the story, may (or may not) have caused that death. The effect is of a Labyrinth of interconnected fragments representing the protagonist's disassociated state of mind, through which the reader wanders, experiencing moments first of frustration and then of epiphany.

The new form of hyperfiction acquired an early theorist in the person of George Landow, author of Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology (1992; 1997 rev vt Hypertext 2.0: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology; 2006 rev vt Hypertext 3.0: Critical Theory and New Media in an Era of Globalization). Landow saw hypertext as a literal embodiment of the theories of post-structuralist literary critics such as Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida. In essence, he suggested that the hypertext reader partially constructs the narrative they experience by choosing which links to follow. This reflects Barthes' concept of the "writerly text" as expressed in S/Z (1970): a work which the reader helps create by deciding on one of many possible interpretations. Eventually, Landow proposed, readers should be able to modify the text itself, adding links to other works or contributing comments, literally rewriting the document as they read it. This project, however, appears to be based more on the concept of the memex (in which the basic documents are static, making it easy for users to attach external links and marginalia) than on the reality of digital hypertext (where any such personal additions must be made to a body of texts which are themselves prone to alteration). Arguably, Landow's writings are more applicable to hyperfiction than to hypertext in general; many authors have been influenced by his work, treating it as the poetics of the form.

While Afternoon, a story is in no way a work of sf, Shelley Jackson's Patchwork Girl (1995 ebook) – another well known piece of hyperfiction created in Storyspace – is broadly science-fictional. This is a highly referential work which makes frequent allusions to both Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus (1818) and L Frank Baum's The Patchwork Girl of Oz (1913). The primary narrator is the female companion to Frankenstein's monster, secretly completed by Shelley. Creator and creation become lovers, and then go their separate ways; the monster travels to America, and finds her fate there. Thematically, Patchwork Girl is concerned with the assembly of composite identities (or hyperfictions) from disparate components. Structurally, it combines multilinear and explorable approaches to Interactive Narrative. Geographically, the map of its various links and nodes is considerably more straightforward than that of Afternoon, a story, though some readers still find it frustrating to navigate.

Various other works of hyperfiction were created in the 1990s using Storyspace and another similar environment called Hypergate, and attracted considerable attention from literary academics. One particularly well known example is Stuart Moulthrop's Victory Garden (1992 ebook), which deals with the first Gulf War. Few of these stories can be classified as sf, however. An early exception is King of Space (1991 ebook) by Sarah Smith, a writer whose first published works were sf short stories – beginning with "Christmas at the Edge" in Christmas Forever: All New Tales of Yuletide Wonder (anth 1993) edited by David G Hartwell – but who has since concentrated on historical fiction. The subject matter of King of Space – sex, starships and criminality – is reminiscent of the works of Samuel R Delany, while its approach to the form has far more in common with the branching tree of multilinear options typically seen in Gamebooks than the labyrinth of ever-shifting associations which dominates most hyperfiction. Another piece of hyperfiction by a science fiction writer is Rob Swigart's Down Time (coll 2000 ebook), but the various stories contained in this work are not sf. Ultimately, the first wave of hyperfiction failed to gain any great audience outside academia, and few new works have been created in the Storyspace tradition since the late 1990s.

Most analyses of the structure of hyperfiction have been based primarily on the shape of the web of links. Mark Bernstein's influential paper "Patterns of Hypertext" (June 1998 Proceedings of the Ninth ACM conference on Hypertext and Hypermedia), for example, identifies a number of common elements, including the "cycle" – a recurring sequence of nodes from which the reader eventually departs, exemplified by Afternoon, a story – the "counterpoint" – which employs two alternating voices, as seen in Patchwork Girl – and the "tangle", which is used to intentionally disorient readers. In terms of the more structuralist analysis presented in the Interactive Narrative entry, hyperfictions have made use of at least the explorable, multilinear and modular approaches, both separately and in combination.

Another school of hyperlinked fiction began to appear in the mid to late 1990s. These pieces frequently include images, music and other media as well as text, and are therefore often classified as hypermedia rather than hypertext. Such works have generally been made available without charge on the World Wide Web, rather than sold as Ebooks implemented in proprietary systems such as Storyspace, and tend to be closer in spirit to the experimental "visual poetry" pioneered by the international Fluxus group in the 1960s than to prose storytelling. Arguably, hyperlinking may be fundamentally better suited to poetry and virtual art installations than to the development of a sustained narrative. One influential early example of the form is "My boyfriend came back from the war" (1996 Web), by the Russian artist Olia Lialina. The hypermedia movement has, however, had very little connection to sf. One exception is Geoff Ryman's 253 (1996 Web), a non sf work by a science fiction writer which presents interlinked word pictures of 253 individuals on board a London underground train which is about to crash. Structurally, 253 is very different to most Storyspace hyperfictions; it takes the form of an entirely explorable, largely static composition made up of associated stories rather than an enfolding labyrinth (see Interactive Narrative).

SF writers working in the printed genre have generally shown little interest in hyperfiction; Ryman and Smith are rare exceptions to this rule. When genre authors have become involved with "digital narrative", they have almost always done so through the medium of Videogames. Relevant examples include Douglas Adams (codesigner and writer of The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy and Starship Titanic), Michael Berlyn (designer and writer of Suspended: A Cryogenic Nightmare), Thomas M Disch (designer and writer of Amnesia; see Adventures), George Alec Effinger (codesigner and writer of Circuit's Edge), Warren {ELLIS} (writer for Hostile Waters: Antaeus Rising), Harlan Ellison (codesigner and writer of I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream), Jane Jensen (designer and writer of the Gabriel Knight series of graphical Adventures), Marc Laidlaw (writer for the Half-Life series of First Person Shooters), Sean Stewart (writer and codesigner of The Beast), Rob Swigart (designer and writer of Portal) and Roger Zelazny (codesigner and writer of Chronomaster). The reality, perhaps, is that the history of attempts to create Interactive Narrative can be divided into two unrelated traditions: that of Role Playing Game and Videogame development, which is strongly linked to print sf, and that of hyperfiction and hypermedia, which has primarily been associated with literary theory and postmodern art. Where narrative Games are generally concerned with choice, whether within the individual chapters of an otherwise linear story or at the level of the overarching plot, most hyperfiction is about the exploration of a web of associations which is open to many different interpretations. These two approaches have followed almost entirely separate lines of descent from what are arguably the two ur-texts of Interactive Narrative: Dungeons and Dragons (1974 Tactical Studies Rules), Gary Gygax's and Dave Arneson's original RPG, and Roland Barthes' critical theory text S/Z (1970). For good or ill, it seems likely that their two cultures will remain distinct. [NT]

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