Computer-based literature is a story in the making

June 17, 1992|By Joshua Quittner | Joshua Quittner,Newsday

Pay close attention if you read "Agrippa," a short story written for the computer by science fiction author William Gibson.

It turns to gibberish after you view it.

You won't have that problem with Judy Malloy's "Its Name Was Penelope." Then again, don't lose your place in her piece: "Penelope" shuffles nearly 400 pages of a fictional woman's "memories" every time you reread it. It's never the same twice.

During the past few years, dozens of writers have been experimenting with a brave new way to tell stories.

Rather than simply placing traditional books on computer disks, as some publishers have done, they are using the computer as an instrument with its own powerful voice -- and creating literature that couldn't exist without it. These stories, called "webs," can include sound, graphics, even limited video. They usually make the reader help shape the fiction, cracking the wall that separates the reader from the thing that's being read.

While some critics dismiss computer-based literature as a curiosity more interesting to talk about than actually view, others say a new art form is being born that promises to be as significant as the motion picture.

"It really has the potential to be the next wave of story telling," said George P. Landow, an English professor at Brown University and the author of two books about computer-based texts.

"The question is," he said, "is this total chaos and anarchy, or is it a new reading form that makes the reader a kind of creator?"

In the modular bitspeak of cyberspace, most of this interactive literature is described as "hypertext," a format in which key words or images on a computer screen are highlighted and interconnected.

When a reader "clicks" with a pointing device, such as a mouse, on a highlighted section of the text, the reader pops into a new place in the hypertext work. By following links around the web, the reader is able to discover different ideas and themes.

With a number of webs recently released or about to be published, computer users can decide for themselves whether this is a gimmick or a new art form.

While most webs can be read only on Macintosh computers, versions for IBM compatibles are starting to arrive. Some hypertext pieces have been posted on electronic bulletin boards. Plans are even being laid for an interactive fiction cable-television channel.

"Let's just call it a 'word channel,' " said Mary Milton, a New York publisher who has been talking to a number of cable companies about her idea.

"Some of these word groupings will be just linear," she said, "so that you can just download them and keep them. Others will be interactive and you can respond in a variety of ways."

Ms. Milton, who said she has 15 people preparing humorous, political and fiction writings for a cable channel, promised that "this is stuff that everybody will be able to read. It's a totally new kind of art."

For instance, in "afternoon," by Michael Joyce, a man is having lunch with his boss, whom he suspects of having an affair with his wife. The man sees a bowl of hard candy on the table. The reader may click on the words "crystal bowl" and be linked to another section, in which we learn that the man believes he may have seen his wife and son die in a traffic accident earlier that day.

On any given screen of text in "afternoon," as many as 15 words can be selected that take the reader "off on different reflections," Mr. Joyce said.

This allows the story to be told from different perspectives -- the man's, the boss', the wife's -- and, Mr. Joyce maintains, more closely simulates the complexity of life.

"It's a better way of telling a story because it redeems the multiplicity that we're used to," Mr. Joyce said. "We know that in our own lives, the track that ends up being our life is filled with change and could have gone in all different ways."

His piece is published by Eastgate Systems Inc., in Cambridge, Mass., the largest publisher of hypertext fiction.

Mr. Joyce and other hypertext authors agree that the "forking paths" structure of the new literature poses new problems for readers -- for instance, how do you know you're finished reading something that forks all over the place?

The effect is also disorienting to first-time readers who are used to the unbroken scroll of conventional books.

Mr. Landow, of Brown University, said that some of these problems will be solved by new writers, while others may simply disappear as readers get more sophisticated. The potential audience of hypertext fiction, he said, is huge.

Today's students are already working with hypertext in educational software and are comfortable with the idea of wandering around through a maze of ideas.

"Look at kids watching 'Sesame Street' on TV. They can follow rapid sound bites and things that are very disorienting to people in their 60s," he said.

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