Reader Response - "The End of Books", by Robert CooverI found Coover's article fascinating, speaking as one who has participated in various forms of hypertext writing. I hesitated to call it fiction, because in my perhaps archaic mind, I tend to think of fiction as having a beginning, a middle, and an end, of being a complete story within itself, and as Coover points out, "what is closure in such an environment? If everything is middle, how do you know when you are done, either as reader or writer?" In the two forms of hypertext writing I've attempted, there was no closure, no end. I'll discuss them separately below; there are of course a multitude of other forms that could be discussed.
The Interactive Story - Single Writer, Many PathsI've never completed this project. I start it with the conception of something along the lines of a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure, although with a somewhat more sophisticated language. I wanted to put up a story on a web site, on a set of pages, where various words in each section of the story would lead to other sections of the story, where order could be thrown to the winds and theme/key words/idea would be the organizational force. Temporal structure is immediately lost, although there may still be an embedded narrative flow. Or not.
I quickly realized how much WORK this would be; far more than a traditional story. I started with separate pages of writing, then moved to separate linked poems, then moved to single paragraphs on each page. Character remained; unlike Coover, I don't believe that character is in jeopardy. Without character, what remains is mere style; I cannot bring myself to care what is happening unless it is happening to someone. I imagine many readers feel the same. And so I had a woman, confused, moving from section to section (perhaps echoing the confusion of her readers). And the choices of where the readers chose to go, what word caught their attention and led to another section of the story made them not merely readers, but rather collaborators, to the extent that I wished I could easily create the technology to save a record of their journey, of the story they created.
Perhaps they would visit each page in as rigid an order as they could create. Perhaps they would check back often to their primary page, moving on only when it was exhausted of linking words. Perhaps they would return to a page that moved them, reading it over and over and over again, utterly disregarding links that did not appeal, words that did not move them. There is so much to consider, when you cannot ensure that the reader will ever even glance at the entire work. Each page must stand on its own, and with every other random (?) assortment of pages. A gargantuan task, and I must admit that after some weeks of work on it, I set it aside. I hope to return to it again.
Holomuck -- An Interactive, Participant-Created EnvironmentMost readers at this point (in the developed countries, at least) have heard of the web, but they may or may not have heard of the mucks. Mucks or mushes or muds as they are variously called are multi-user environments (the originals, based on Dungeons and Dragons games, were called multi-user-dungeons). Imagine a space, empty of text. A player comes in and begins building a room, hanging in the space. Perhaps they build a suite of rooms, describing them with loving care, eventually creating a castle, hanging there in the air. Others can log into that space, wandering the paths of the castle, chatting with each other and with the original creator. One of them decides a castle needs a garden, and (having received permission from the castle's creator) opens a link from the kitchen door to a path, leading to a garden they create. Another creates a moat, and populates it with automated fish that swim up to you and wink. A fourth creates a subterranean world, complete with mermaids, and takes on the persona of a mermaid herself whenever she visits the space.
There are many such spaces, scattered around the net. FurryMuck, PernMush, Holomuck, etc. They often have themes - FurryMuck, for example, focuses on anthropomophic animals. The humans who log in there take on the personas of intelligent dragons, or cat people, or samurai cockroaches. They create alternative lives there, interactive conversations, games, quests, sex acts, stories. Is all of this fiction? It's certainly writing.
Some mucks are highly organized, based around a theme and with rigid guidelines to prevent magic in a science fictional world, or humans in a dragons-only space. They preserve the fictional dream. Often players will create long, elaborate dramas, where staying in character is an essential element. Some players prefer to create no persona at all; playing themselves in a fictional space (imagine yourself transported to Oz -- how would you act?).
Some mucks are not organized at all. A chaos of different interpretations collides, and Luke Skywalker may walk into a modern office building and have a conversation with a dragon and a bartender. Some players/writers thrive in such a postmodern chaos; others run screaming.
The Mushes are somewhat different. The structure is pre-built, and the players go simply to role-play a story. Often the stories span weeks or months, and they sometimes operate in a compressed time, so a single player can live through generations of characters. PernMush is based on the novels of Anne McCaffrey, and her invented world of Pern. The players can pretend to live inside that world, to be dragonriders and sailors on a sea underneath the Red Star -- they can write their stories there.
Holomuck is one where I have written and played. I have little interest in role-playing, but I have built (described) cathedrals and whorehouses, deserts and weapons shops, and recreated all of Narnia, with a quest besides. 'This is all mere setting', you may cry. 'There is no story here'. Yet when a character goes on a quest, they must have options, choices. A structure emerges as you create those choices -- what happens if they lift the green handle, or turn the red knob? Events occur, and suddenly we have plot -- and character as well, for what they choose to do is determined by the kind of person they are, and a character emerges, though it is not written by myself or the player. Again, is this fiction?
Now people are talking of creating graphic-interface mucks, where the participants can click and drag the elements of their story, telling a tale with no real writing at all; simply a series of pictures, or pre-written text. Yet the choices are surely still what makes the story; as long as we do not succumb to randomness, are we not still creating a work of art?
A Supplantation of BooksDo I find hypertext exciting, invigorating, beautiful? Oh, yes. The potentials it opens up for collaboration, for variation, for structure are incredibly exciting.
Do I think it will supplant the book, the novel? Oh, no. Human beings desire closure; they strive for answers, decisions. While hypertext can contain little closed stories within it (and often does), at heart it is so open, that to me it seems of more value in its exploration of possibilities than its potential for finished work. Hypertext is exciting, but it is also exhausting. It has the potential to demand an exponentially greater expenditure of thought and energy and writing from its authors, and a greater expenditure of creativity and collaboration from its readers/participants. It tends to be a high energy art form, and as such, I think it will carve out its own space in the world of art/literature, but will neither supplant nor stifle the world of the written book.