April 19, 2017

Writing And Electronic Literature

From Kyle Rowan’s hypertext opera, “Not Quite A Sunset” (via Em Short)

The dehydrated food of the first astronauts were a thing of the past, they were proudly told during training, but these meals were clearly developed to favor ease of storage and transport over flavor. It took quite a bit of creativity to alter them for personal taste, as the kitchen next door was not much more than a glorified microwave, but after a shift she was usually so hungry it didn’t matter. Ration Pack 5A/Chicken – good enough. She moved next door and placed the Pack in the food preparer.

We have interstellar travel, it seems, but our points of reference remain NASA space food and the kitchen appliances of the 1970s. We have artificial gravity: why do we not have a spice rack? Hell, we probably have a hydroponics bay to do CO2 exchange and stuff like that: we can grow some fresh thyme there, because if thyme grows in Provence it’ll grow anywhere. Take it from me, no future with interstellar travel will feature machines called “food preparers.” Autokitchen? Robochef? Escoffier-bot? Dave? Replicator? PFC Mies N. Place? I’ll buy any of them, but not “the food preparer.”

For that matter, why label the thing “Ration Pack”? It’s planned interstellar exploration, not the flight into Egypt. Also, the tenses of those verbs won’t really stand up to interrogation, enhanced or otherwise, and “food” is singular.

Part of the trouble in this passage is that we’re employing past tense throughout, so NASA has to be past perfect and it’s not. But that trouble is a sign: why are we in past tense in the first place? Music never happens in the past tense: it’s always now, and this is an opera. Also, you’re making choices for the narrator, and if this whole thing is past tense, then you've already chosen which link to follow and that messes with our head. Present tense narrative brings its own woes, and I have the scars to show for it, but I wish we were sure it was a thoughtful, argued choice we could learn from, rather than just what came to hand.


"Morning." The sun was beginning to emerge from behind the planet, which was still shrouded in a slowly receding shadow. As she moved to join Ada, a glint of color caught Sara's eye. On the table in the far corner of the room, there was a vase with a single yellow sunflower that Sara didn't remember ever seeing before. She stared at it for a moment, then walked behind the couch and slowly over to the table, never breaking her gaze. She placed her coffee down on the table, and cocked her head, considering the sunflower. It looked real enough.

Consider the sunflower that Sara didn’t remember ever seeing before. What is the meaning of “ever” here? The Haggadah is full of analysis like this:

And with an outstretched arm: this refers to the sword, as it is said: “His sword was drawn, in his hand, stretched out over Jerusalem.”

“Ever” can only mean that Sara had never seen this specific, individual flower before. Why is that surprising? What makes this sunflower different from all other sunflowers? From sunflowers we once knew? (Alternatively, I suppose this could turn into a time travel story and Sara didn’t remember seeing that particular flower either in her present or in her past, but on the whole I don’t think that’s very likely. )

But this too shall pass.

Nothing, not even an early morning wakeup, ever fazed Ada, she thought to herself, smiling softly. She finished her coffee, then slowly got up and followed Ada out the door, taking her empty mug to the kitchen before heading to the control room for her shift.

We’re on an interstellar space ship on a voyage of discovery, in orbit around a Strange New Planet which has a Mysterious Alloy, which might harbor tiny little life forms, and Ada is remarkable because nothing fazes her – not even an alarm clock?

The music strikes me as impressive. There’s a lot of recitative – I think it’s all pretty much recitative – and it reminds me a bit of Adam Guettel’s Light In The Piazza. But Guettel’s book gives him some rhythm to work with:

But it's there

It is there

All I see is

All I want is tearing from inside

I see it

Now I see it everywhere

It's everywhere

It's everything and everywhere


The Light in the Piazza

Poor Kyle Rowan saddles himself with the task of setting lines like

Eventually my path narrows, and the river with it; I can no longer avoid getting my feet wet.

All that said, the idea of hypertext opera is fascinating. I think there are intriguing possibilities for hypertextuality at much finer scale, for choices that affect tonal modulation, for example. How about a melodic idea that can be turned on its head by adding a different inner part? Or a different bass line? Discuss.

There’s the famous passage in Don Giovanni where Mozart has three bands, simultaneously playing three different dances, and yet staying within the boundaries of classical form for measure after measure. That feels a lot like Sleep No More, Punchdrunk’s wonderful hyper drama. What could be done with it? Discuss.

Or, suppose we have a family of constraints on the sound track to our hypertext. We avoid singing the text – acting the text has been tried from the first Voyager Expanded Books and it’s seldom been convincing. (Exceptions: language instruction and acting lessons, in which I’d include the remarkable readings of The Sonnets in the Faber ebook). But suppose you have rules when different characters are on stage. When Emily is around, G# is a constantly iterated note. Steve brings 3/4 time. Where we find Madison, we also find sustained diminished fifths. It might be impossible, but it might be interesting to try. Discuss.