I went to a talk last night by Tom Abba entitled “This isn’t the future of the book”. I was expecting something different – more to do with eBooks, iPads and Amazon – but what I got was altogether more interesting.
Abba is a lecturer in New Media and Visual Culture at University of West of England in Bristol and recently completed a PhD, out of which came the subject of the main part of his talk. What concerns Abba is the future of the book in an age where both creation and consumption is (or can be) digital. Right away he suggested that “we can’t see the wood for the huge tree labeled ‘interactive fiction’ that is blocking our view.” By this he means multi-threaded or hyperlinked stories where your route through the story is determined by choices you make, but all the paths are predetermined by the author.
Abba includes the first-person (or ‘second person’ as he rightly points out) computer game in this genre, but this is something I would dispute. While what he is saying is true of most examples, I think there are – or will be – instances where the game creator has created an environment within which autonomous agents roam. Each agent is programmed to respond to what it encounters according to a set of rules, but if those rules are sufficiently complex then the result – and the experience of the player(s) – will be unpredictable and not something previously scored by the game’s creator. I did get the feeling that Abba appreciated there was scope for debate on this, but it is a side issue so he quickly moved on.
The main subject of the talk was an experiment into a different form that the novel might take, called ‘anovelexperiment’. It started in February 2011 when 120 apparently unconnected people received an anonymous package through the post, comprising a cardboard tube containing a large sheet of handmade paper on which had been printed one of four photographs in which could be found textual fragments of what could be a story. Abba describes these as ‘cornerstones’, likening the whole creation to a jigsaw and these four openings to the four corner pieces that are the key to building up the whole picture. Behind these you discover a collection of short texts, movies and images that eventually lead to a narrative. You can find further details on his blog post and at db.tt/2GOlO7e.
I look forward to exploring it further, but in the meantime, Abba continued by discussing some of the other efforts that have been made to reach beyond the book as we know it. He talked about the Dictionary of the Khazars by Milorad Pavic, which is essentially an encyclopedia that can be read in many different ways to create a multi-layered story. Others include Composition No. 1 by Marc Saporta which comes as loose leaves in a box, and the extraordinary Tree of Codes by Jonathan Safran Foer.
One of my favourites is The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall. To my mind some of the others, particularly Composition No. 1 and Tree of Codes, are not novels but books in the broader, more physical, meaning of the word. The Raw Shark Texts, on the other hand, is a gripping story that invites you to explore further through the ‘un-chapters’ and ‘negatives’ to be found at Steven Hall’s Web site.
All in all a fascinating talk on a fascinating subject. Just how much such experiments will impact mainstream publishing, taking advantage of the ever more ubiquitous iPads, smartphones and Kindles, depends on just how imaginative mainstream publishers are willing to be.