Form: hypertext fiction

Is Shade of the Morning Sun a Network Novel and Does It Really Matter?

Is Shade of the Morning Sun a Network Novel and Does It Really Matter?

Below is a clip from the original PhD thesis (2005) of David Cicoricco, author of Reading Network Fiction, which may just capture even more specifically what Shade of the Morning Sun is – namely a networked novel or network fiction.

Read it several times and take time to digest:

“A three-tiered distinction of axial, arborescent, and networked adds greater precision when applied to narrative fiction.

An axial narrative refers to a narrative where digressions are present in the form of glosses or notes that are secondary to the main narrative; typically, a reader returns to the main text after the digression.

Anarborescent fiction, by contrast, refers to a narrative with branches, but specifically those that contain mutually exclusive story events or outcomes; a reader of an arborescent narrative makes choices at bifurcating points in the text and continues on until the end of one of the branches is reached. Returning to a previous bifurcation in an arborescent narrative is equivalent to rewinding a temporal frame; that is, readers undo and redo the story whenever they decide to go back.

A network narrative, then, differs not only in its non-hierarchical organization, but also in that its narrative emerges gradually through a recombination of elements. Writers of network fictions are less concerned with confronting the reader with mutually exclusive outcomes and more concerned with the way narratives emerge in digital environments …

“Fixed sequence does not play a crucial role in determining meaning in network fictions. Rather, the experience of reading a network fiction is analogous to Hayles’ discussion of an engagement with complex systems, whereby repeated encounters with local structure give rise to an emergent global structure (l999a, 214).

“The parts, or nodes, of network narratives are self-contained semantic entities – and each screen-full of narrative material must be combined and re-combined in order for a higher level of coherence to emerge. Network fictions are emergent and recombinatory, and they exploit digital technology toward these ends.”

[Emphasis mine.]

I’m not sure how much it matters, but it felt good to get an even more specific category for the Shade of the Morning Sun project than merely “hypertext fiction”, much less “electronic literature”. And if I have understood David correctly, the definition above is spot on for what I do.

P.S. Here is a shorter paper with some of the same themes: “The Electronic Writing and Reading Interface: Gateway to the Mainstream for Digital Born Fiction” by Beverly Morris (2011).

 

Hypertext Fiction’s no. 1 problem?

Hypertext Fiction’s no. 1 problem?

From an article in Wired in 2013:

“It turned out that nonlinear reading spaces had a problem: They were incredibly difficult to write. When you tried to make an argument or tell a journalistic story in which any individual section could be a starting or ending point, it wound up creating a whole host of technical problems, the main one being that you had to reintroduce characters or concepts in every section. Feed did manage other interesting hypertext experiments: We annotated important documents or passages from new books, and we held multithreaded hypertext debates. But we never managed to publish a true branching-path narrative. This wound up being true across the early web and remains true of our hypertext today. At last count, there are somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 trillion web pages, all connected through the axons and dendrites of hypertext. How many of those pages involve real nonlinear storytelling? Almost none—the rounding error of a rounding error.”

Read the rest here.

And check some pseudo-nonlinear storytelling here.

2011 Verdict: Hypertext failed because Writers Weren’t Good Enough

2011 Verdict: Hypertext failed because Writers Weren’t Good Enough

Paul LaFarge opined this a decade ago:  

“One conclusion you might draw from the recent total lack of hypertext fiction is that the genre is not viable: that the literary experiment of the ’90s got what scientists would call a negative result. And in fact, if you read those fictions now (if you can read them: I’ve got a copy of “Victory Garden” on my desk, but when I try to play it, my computer tells me that “the classic environment is no longer supported,” a strangely portentous phrase), they seem difficult and problematic and not encouraging of successors. For one thing, the interfaces are terrible. Michael Joyce’s “Afternoon, A Story” (1988) offers the reader short passages of monospaced text, in which some words lead to other passages, and some words don’t, and the only way to find out which words are which is to click on every word in a passage, one by one. It’s interesting in a John-Cage-like, if-it’s-boring-for-two-hours-do-it-for-four kind of way, but the appeal of endless clicking was perhaps greater in 1988 than it is now, when we click plenty at the office, thank you.

“What’s more, too many of the early hypertexts relied on the novelty of their form to do literary work, particularly in the keeping-the-reader-interested department. (The same might have been true of the first bound books. Who cared what was written in your codex? Wasn’t it cool that you could turn the pages?) Here, e.g., is a passage from Moulthrop’s “Victory Garden”:

Thea studied Veronica’s face in the flare of a long drag. There was concern in her face tonight, along with what looked like raw weariness — as if, this early on, she’d already been in some tight scrape. The resemblance to Emily was vivid: the same high cheekbones and long, stepped nose, the ash-blonde complexion a shade more delicate in the younger sister. Emily was the slender, elegant one driven crazy by endless comparisons to La Streep. Veronica’s looks were less easily put down to type, a touch androgynous like a femme Lennon, especially in these granny glasses she’d taken to wearing.

“Drilling down into the hyperlinks doesn’t yield what you think it might. “Tight scrape” takes you to a snippet of dialogue between Veronica and Thea about generational difference; “nose” drops you into the middle of a scene between Veronica and someone named Harley: another time, another place. The effect is kaleidoscopic. It’s also one of overwhelming stasis. “Victory Garden” refers several times to Jorge Luis Borges’ short story “The Garden of Forking Paths,” but the spy-versus-spy intrigue that lures the reader into Borges’ dangerous garden (which, by the way, is not a hypertext: its forking paths are, like so many of Borges’ creations, only gestured at) is absent here. In its place we get snippets of description, snatches of quotation, academic conversations, and, in flashes, the first Gulf War, which is supposed to make us feel that the world has fundamentally changed, but somehow doesn’t. True, the hypertext offers you the puzzle-solving pleasure of making sense of the story, arranging the pieces in your head to see the whole mosaic, but why would you do that, if the pieces don’t suggest a picture you care to see? Not every puzzle has an interesting solution.

“This is not a flaw in the medium, though; it’s a failure of craft. With two exceptions (Shelley Jackson and Geoff Ryman, whose hypertexts “Patchwork Girl” and “253,” respectively, may be the first classics of the genre, both for the quality of their prose and because they found ways to make their fragmentary forms feel purposeful), the early hypertextualists just weren’t good enough writers to carry off such a difficult form. Because it is a difficult form. Hard as it is to write novels, hypertexts are harder, because you don’t have the spring-loaded crutch of linearity and “arc” to support your work; the sections have to be readable along multiple paths; they have to be richly related in multiple ways; and they have to keep you reading. It’s a tall order, but it can be done: think of Nabokov’s “Pale Fire” (1962) or Cortázar’s “Hopscotch” (1963), two great non-linear novels that were published before Ted Nelson coined the word “hypermedia.” Or Laurence Sterne’s “Tristram Shandy” (1759-69), a novel written almost entirely in digressions. Or Jacques Roubaud’s heartbreaking “The Great Fire of London” (1989), a story “with interpolations and bifurcations,” which chronicles Roubaud’s grief at the death of his young wife, and the failure of the “project of his existence” — an unfinished work called “The Great Fire of London.” You need six bookmarks to read it, but you can’t put it down.

“Hypertext fiction is in a tough place now. Born into a world that wasn’t quite ready for it, and encumbered with lousy technology and user-hostile interface design, it got a bad reputation, at least outside of specialized reading circles. At the same time, it’s impossibly hard to create, one of the only modes of fiction I know of which is more demanding than the novel. (And then add to that the need to create a user interface, and maybe a content-management system, and is it going to be an app? Suddenly your antidepressants aren’t nearly strong enough to get you out of bed.)”

Strangely prescient, I’m afraid. Read the rest here.

What Will It Take for Readers to Enjoy Hypertext Fiction More?

What Will It Take for Readers to Enjoy Hypertext Fiction More?

And off we go with my little blog … which will be about hypertext fiction and novels in stories / linked short stories.

No so much recommendations, as considerations about what these forms are and how I am developing my own unique take here on Shade of the Morning Sun.

If you dropped by and want some definitions of these forms, do check out my FAQ. You can get an overview of the basics there. 🙂

Anyway, let’s get right into the fray and start this blog with some still ongoing hypertext fiction challenges, shall we? Below is a summary of the main conclusions from a 2010 dissertation about why people don’t like hypertext fiction. They are almost certainly still very relevant:

• Readers are not averse to hypertext fiction but prefer text-only works.

• Readers found the multimedia and gaming elements distracting and felt they
prevented absorption and use of their imagination.

• To be enjoyable multimedia and gaming elements must be seamlessly integrated
into the reading, easy to use/control and, if possible, should be optional.

• Readers want more control than hypertext fiction gives, particularly with regard to
pace, interaction, reading time, multimedia and gaming.

• Readers found embedded links distracting and irrelevant links disorientating.

• Readers require bookmarking facilities and some indication of the length of the
work.

• Hypertext fiction’s failure to meet reader expectations with regard to their
experiences with other media led to frustration and disappointment.

• Interface usability and visual design are important to users, especially when they are
poor.

– from “A Step Towards Reader Acceptance of Hypertext Fiction: From Annoying Distraction
to Enjoyable Experience” by Michelle Beatty

Read the rest here.

This is not the first study I read with similar conclusions, and it makes me think I definitely shouldn’t experiment much more than I already do with the hypertext properties of Shade of the Morning Sun. Most of the stories can be read fairly conventionally and usually don’t contain more than a few links that offer you to explore some background or a related story.

Also, multimedia is kept to a minimum. I have really only inserted videos in two stories or so, and I did that because they both dealt with topical pop-cultural references, e.g. what was on the hitlist and in the cinemas at the time. For example, I did it in the little story “Clear Horizon” where there is a thematic relationship between the horror scifi schlock movie that Carrie and Lin have watched in the cinema and then their own relationship.

If there is one thing I want to find out, it is how to use the qualities of hypertext to enhance the reading experience for most people, who may be used to reading the traditional book or ebook.

The Seven Words Left On Paper

The Seven Words Left On Paper

“Isn’t that the bag dad uses for his guns?” 

“No, it’s an ordinary bag,” Carrie said, “like yours.”

Emma had her own new pink bag with the large Japanese letters slung over her shoulder, so it was obvious that she was going over to Mika, probably to try again to make a positive impression on the new smart girl in class.  

Emma nodded at the bed again. “It looks like dad’s bag.”

Carrie adjusted her ear ring, even though she had already done it. But at least she had somewhere to put her hands. “I’m going shopping. Is there anything special you want for dinner, sweetie?”

“Dinner?” Emma still tripped in the doorway to her parents’ bedroom, staring at the big black bag her mother had on the bed.

“Yes, is there anything you want?”

“Er, for dinner?” Emma repeated as if her mother had asked her about the site of an alien landing.

“Yes, I was thinking about fries and chicken … ” 

“We had that yesterday.”

“Oh, right.” Carrie left the earring alone and pretend she was all clear. “Well, your brother likes it so no harm in having it again.”

Emma smiled briefly. “I think I will eat over at Mika’s … if you don’t mind?”

“The rest of us will certainly miss your excellent company, but we will try to manage.” Carrie was about to say something more, but it was already too late.

“Okay. Bye now!” And away she was. Carrie could hear the stair groaning in protest as Emma flew down to the front door, like a soldier to battle.

Carrie hooked up in the straps of the black bag and felt its weight. It didn’t feel like going off to battle, although perhaps it should. The bag was there, but it did not feel it belonged to her. 

Her summer dress with the knee-length skirt—that belonged to her, even if she’d rather have a newer one. Her sandals that were a little too tight, and which she had to replace soon. A whiff of nail polish, deodorant, lipstick, all familiar. All belonged to her. She had just dressed for shopping, after all.  But she did not feel like it.

She felt like an intruder in her own life. And it wasn’t the first time. She wondered if it would make a difference what was in the bag or that she was going to give it to Jenna, before going anywhere near Costco. In fact, she felt no appetite at all … 

After a moment of hesitation, Carrie heaved the bag up once more, felt the strap bite into her naked shoulder but ignored it. She listened instead. There were the expected sounds. Michael was playing his games. This time it was strategy-something. And he was well into his own autistic world, as usual. He probably wouldn’t notice if she knocked on his door, anyway.

She went out, to do what she had to do.

*

Emma watched her mom walk over to the car, heels click-clacking on the sun-cracked cement that made for a driveway to their small house. 

She was in her usual hide-out behind Mr. Taylor’s fence, which he luckily never got around to replacing. The old planks had long since come apart as rain and sun had done their job, each season, and it was easy to find an opening wide enough to look through, but not wide enough to be seen. Or at least she reckoned so.

Mr. Taylor himself was at the nursing home, looking after his wife, as usual. Or at least she reckoned so.

There were a lot of routines in Emma’s world that she depended on to get by and crazy as it sounded one of the routines was that she knew her mother’s dark moods well enough to be able to predict fairly well, when Carrie would be angry or just distant. Emma also knew when to look out for worse things. Her father had had a long conversation about that one night when Carrie had been at her friend, Jenna’s, with some other of her friends.

That conversation had frightened Emma, and she had felt crushingly alone, and her father as usual had kind of left it there and didn’t seem like he wanted to talk about it again, although she desperately needed to.

Her mother started the car and it pulled out onto the street and then quickly disappeared between the boxes that went for houses in their suburb. She didn’t make the usual turn at the end, so Emma knew she wasn’t going into town. She was heading out of it. The only person in eastern Yuma that Emma knew her mom knew was Jenna Banks. Otherwise there was nothing for her there.

The sun was in the sky, as it was so often here in Arizona, but it felt cold.

Emma pulled her phone from her Japanese bag and called Mika.

“Look, I can’t come over now.”

“What?” Mika sounded both disappointed and a bit like it was what she had expected. “Not again!”

Emma bit her lip. “I’m really sorry. It’s mom. She’s gone over to a friend, I think, but something is wrong.”

“Last time you thought your mom would kill herself, she went to a barbecue party.” Emma could hear Mika chewing gum, and … someone else in the background. Were there other girls from her class? Mika had said that tonight was ‘their night’.

“It’s not her this time. I think she might kill … I don’t know.” Emma stalled. She couldn’t say it. And it was crazy, wasn’t it? The only clue she had was dad’s black bag. But it had looked … heavy.

“You think she’ll go on a shooting spree?” Mika’s voice became serious, all of a sudden. “Is that what you are saying?”

“I don’t know what I am saying … ” Emma felt something in her stomach, like acid. It was eating away at her insides. “I don’t know, I’m just worried. She has had a lot of arguments with Jenna recently.”

“Maybe you should call your dad. Isn’t he a police man?” Mika chewed the gum again. “I want to help. Tell me if I can do anything.”

“I’ll call my dad. It’s probably all right. She hasn’t been doing pills or booze or anything … ” Emma hung up, but the acid was still there and it was spreading.

It was that feeling that she had had more and more often. It was both acrid and ice cold at the same time, and it nailed her to the spot.

She couldn’t move. She felt her heart beat faster and she had trouble breathing. Doctor Maryam had called it anxiety attacks and had given her some pills, too, but the only pills Emma could think of was the ones she knew her mother sometimes had in her drawer. The ones against depression. Had she taken them recently? Were they enough? 

Despite what she had told Mika, she really didn’t know if her mother had been skipping her pills or if she had been drinking again or anything else. It was easier to keep an eye on mom due to COVID 19, of all things, because they had been home so much, but on the other hand, it wasn’t as if Emma could survey the attic or the bedroom 24/7. Emma suspected mom already knew that she was sometimes watching her.

She finally tore herself loose of the cold and started walking down the street, her pink bag bopping at her hip. She was only 15 but it felt like she had already spent whatever life had been allotted to her. She wanted to go over to Mika’s and have fun and watch those series they had talked about, because Mika and her brother had both Netflix and HBO.

But instead she got on her bike and began half-heartedly cycling in east, towards the Foothills where she knew Jenna lived. She wrestled with the question.

Should I call dad?

There could be a million reasons her mother had borrowed that bag. It was one of the biggest they had. Maybe her mother would go to Costco on her way back? Maybe her mother thought it was none of Emma’s business that she was going to Jenna’s first? Maybe she wasn’t going to Jenna’s but somewhere else?

Emma knew it was stupid to continue biking. She had to do something. Stop and call. Decide this was normal and ignore it. Go back to talk to Michael. But as long as she was biking at least she felt she had direction, as crazy as it was.

If only she felt that her own life in general was heading in some kind of direction. A direction that gave you hope. Not one that made you feel like you were driving towards a deep dark tunnel that nobody knew the length of.

Perhaps one that never ended.

Then the thought struck her. 

If mom really wanted to do something crazy, she would have left a note, right? That’s what they always do.

It was pretty absurd, but the thought gave Emma what she needed. Hope and another direction. She went back to the house to search for a sign, some indication. Then she would call her father.

I might be ten thousand times too late … but I have to do this right.

The doctor said she should always think twice. Think about what really could have happened. The possibilities. Not just the worst-case scenario. If only the latter wasn’t so hard.

For a moment, she considered calling mom. It would be the obvious thing to do. Except that her mom would probably lie, as she had done so often before. No, not lie. Lie was a bad word. More like her mom was always hiding, not telling her how she really felt.

Emma went to the bedroom. There was nothing.

Then she went to the locker in the basement where her father kept his guns. It was locked. But her mother knew where the key was. She knocked on the locker. It sounded as if there was something inside. She tried moving it a little bit. It felt heavy, as usual. There was definitely something inside. Yet, her father had many guns … 

She couldn’t stand it any longer. She went upstairs to get a better signal for her cell phone and began punching her dad’s number. She wondered if she should take the extra pills, Dr. Maryam had prescribed for ‘difficult situations’, but she wanted to call first.

Then she saw the note in the hallway.

It had to have fallen out of mom’s purse. No, it looked crumpled, like she had thrown it away. She sometimes did that with the strangest of things in the strangest of places. Once her mom had left an entire Happy Meal on the pavement, because she had decided she wasn’t hungry, and then went home to cook late. It had been one of the bad days, so nobody had said anything about how hungry they were and things had dissolved into workable normalcy the next day.

Emma picked up the note. It said:

Chicken 
Juice
Rice
Chocolate
Milk
Michael
Emma

One Step Closer

One Step Closer

The morning was really good for once – until the phone rang.

She didn’t take it. Not yet. She was not going to answer that damn phone. She had any number of excuses in the back of her mind, vague, dreamily, like nothing else mattered than here and now. And everything else could magically take care of itself. You could say – think – anything to shape your world and it would do as you pleased.

In the end she took it. Her lips still tasted salty and she allowed herself a second to remember that …

“Carrie – ? Are you there, honey?”

Okay, now there was no way back:

“Mum – what is it? Has something happened?”

She almost wished for it, although her gut told her it was not like that. And her heart that it should not be like that.

But it was something that would make her perfect, salty day all dry up.

Carrie seated herself upright in the bed, with the cell phone pressed hard to her ear. She soon pulled her legs up under herself, pressing her jaw equally hard towards her knees as she listened. It had only taken 10 seconds and now she was curled up like a steel spring.

Jon did not wait long before he rolled out and began looking for his socks and jeans as if nothing had happened. He knew it was now the only thing he could do.

The quiet morning before the suburban beehive woke up was still quiet. But in Carrie’s mind storms were raging.

Why could it never be different with mum, after all these years?

“Please, could you say that again?”

Carrie had to ask because from the moment she had picked up the phone, everything had become more and more unreal.

Her mother was happy to prolong that reality:

“Look, I know it’s hard to wrap your head around, and they have hundreds, if not thousands, of candidates. But this time it is you!” 

“Me … “

“Yes! Marcus will give you a 100,000 dollars as part of the Church Universal’s yearly Give Way-Event. The only condition is that you’ll use them to improve, well, anything really. Start that business. Draw … whatever.”

“Uh … I don’t know if,” Carrie tried, but it was really too late.

“Don’t you think that it is awesome, darling?” her mother beat on. “I am really glad Marcus and I kept contact all those years. And you know, last year there was a widow who lived on welfare in Boston who received the Event Money and she has a small salon today that – “

“Look,” Carrie said, “I’m really not sure that – “

“I mean,” her mother continued undaunted, as always, “with you leaving college like that and never becoming a lawyer and then – “ she hesitated ever so slightly ” – that problem down in Florida, and all the hard work afterwards … I think you deserve it, Carrie.”

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