Sep 15 29 2015

Bird By Bird

by Anne Lamott

I began this writer’s handbook years ago, stalled, and it’s been somewhere in my stack ever since. I saw a nice used copy at Herridge’s Books in Wellfleet – a very pleasant and intelligently-stocked store, incidentally – and this time saw my way through. There is good advice here, and some very fine writing, and Lamott’s humor makes her good company.

Bird by Bird describes a path to a good book, but I’m not convinced it’s the broad way. A career of work that might reach the pinnacle of publication, but whose rewards must even then be merely the work itself because, after all, how many published books get any notice: is that really the best literary world for which we can hope?

by Terry Pratchett

Long-overdue homework for last July’s Readercon. Tiffany Aching is twelve, a young witch whom the local pictsies have adopted. They are the Nac Mac Feeble, a rambunctious crew who are fond of strong liquor and who can get into and out of anything – except they do have trouble getting out of a pub.

Was Terry Pratchett the P. G. Wodehouse of our era? I’ve never quite warmed to Pratchett as intensely as most, but then I find Jeeves cracks the occasional smile and the very occasional guffaw but mostly leaves me scratching my head. There’s lots here that is schematic, sentimental, mawkish, or simply silly, but it’s presented with such a charming a lovely voice that it scarcely matters.

Sep 15 25 2015

Gone Home

Fulbright’s Gone Home is a fascinating transitional artifact. The main story is a linear tale that is carefully contrived to appear to be a hypertext – indeed, it looks exactly the sort of hypertext that Bolter imagined in his “memory palace” keynote at ECHT90, but the network is contrived to force you to experience the story linearly. The subplot, though, is a real hypertext, told in artifactual cues scattered throughout the house. (In a good GDC talk, the lead writer and lead architect agree that some of the cues, and some of the artifacts, were too subtle).

There main story is the return of our player-protagonist, Katie, from her student backpacking excursion across Europe. She arrives at the family’s new home – they’ve moved while she’s been away – past midnight. It’s empty. The family is gone, and Katie wanders through the empty house trying to find out what’s happened.

What’s happened involves Katie’s younger sister, Sam. And it involves – as family stories do – her father’s own damaged and broken family. Sam’s story is told from audio journal entries (with superb voice acting); Dad’s story through old letters and scraps and newspaper clippings and, in the end, through the environment of the house.

There’s a third story, too: the question of what sort of story this actually is. Katie’s wandering through an empty house; in the end, we expect that she could find (a) a ghost, or the Elder Gods, or a madwoman in the attic, (b) a body – either her sister’s or her father’s, or (c) the story that explains everything. We don’t know if this is horror, mystery, or romantic melodrama, and Gone Home is very careful not to let you know until very, very late in the game.

Don’t miss the Strandbeests at the Peabody Essex Museum. We went to the member’s breakfast last week, which meant we got to meet Theo Jansen – a fascinating fellow – and play a bit with these PVC critters.

Also worth mentioning: the Peabody Essex members breakfast had great food and very thoughtful logistics; everyone got face time with the artist, and everyone had very tasty little scones (clotted cream) and worthwhile brunch sandwiches (lox, cucumber, egg) and tiny little potato pancakes. The docents were absolutely the best docents I’ve ever seen – knowledgable and helpful, with real expertise about the construction and maintenance of these kinetic sculptures.

Broadway tryout, now at the ART, and certainly worth seeing. Some nifty singing and inspired sets, a book that stays one step ahead of the game, and some fine actresses; this is what Diane Paulus does, and she does it well.

I’m still not quite sure why Harvard’s repertory company needs to stage Broadway tryouts, but this one’s a keeper.

Sep 15 24 2015

The Watch

by Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya

Antigone in Afghanistan, part of a planned cycle that will include novels based on Seven Against Thebes and Ajax. Skillful and showy writing teases out the many strands of conflict outside a US Army outpost in Kandahar province, where a legless but determined young woman has come to bury the body of her slain brother.

The Watch appears to be the most highly-regarded story of our recent wars, and one of the few stories that do not chiefly concern the tribulations of the damaged soldier returned from battle. It’s well done, if somewhat schematic; the prequel based on Seven Against Thebes will be interesting. (Eteocles is Lt. Nick Frobenius, a Vassar graduate who has let his wife slip away and who carries a copy of Antigone through Kandahar province.)

Still, at this point after WW2 we had The Naked And The Dead and The Caine Mutiny and From Here to Eternity.

by James Salter and Robert Phelps

Just when my bookstack seems completely insupportable – as it threatens to collapse entirely in a thunderous clatter causing further damage to the joists and unexpected medical bills – Michael Dirda suggests a volume of letters by two writers I have not (yet) read. Naturally, I order this volume immediately, forcing the Kipling back onto the queue. This means that, at the moment, I am reading (and enjoying) give books at once. Is this any way to live, I ask you?

I’m a sucker for reading volumes of letters. So is Dirda: he’s the only fellow I know who reliably writes about letters, and he led me to the Mitford-Waugh correspondence which is absolutely first class.

Salter and Phelps were two talented writers who happened to meet, in passing almost, in New York. They hit it off. Phelps lived mostly in New York, Salter in Aspen before it was quite Aspen. These are good, companionable letters, not filled with advice like Shaw’s or with gossip like Mitford’s, but they’re fun to read.

For years, Xerox PARC hosted a summary and slides of Frank Halasz’s important keynote, “Seven Issues” Revisited, from the ACM Hypertext ’91 conference. That link broke recently. With the help of Mark Anderson, a reconstituted pdf is now available at .

I’m in favor of responsible participation in places like Wikipedia and Twitter. If you’re going to publish things, you should take responsibility for what you say. In particular, you should not hide between anonymity to threaten to rape or murder your opponents, to spread rumors about their sex lives, or to extort their silence.

One of the main Gamergate targets at Wikipedia, Tarc, has been banned from Wikipedia over something he twittered which Wikipedia’s arbitration committee has termed “harassment”. Tarc is a responsible editor: his work at Wikipedia is connected to his real work. I’m responsible in this way, too.

The problem with accepting responsibility on Wikipedia is that tea-party movement conservatives who are not responsible are free to threaten and harass you, but you must not retaliate in kind or you will be permanently cast out. (In practice, is helps to be a well-connected guy who supports the libertarian GOP, while progressives, women, and gay editors seem to be more vulnerable.) This asymmetry alone may explain Wikipedia's increasing tendency to embrace right-wing fantasies: for example, 14-year-old clockmaker Ahmed Mohamed has a page which the usual suspects want to see deleted: one Gamergater suggested that the page be deleted and "if he uses his clock to blow something up, we can add it later."

The decision to be responsible is probably irrevocable and should not be made lightly. It must be made when you set up your Wikipedia account. Children cannot make this sort of choice. Just as we keep children from signing up for anonymous chat rooms, it’s getting to be time to think about the importance of keeping Reddit and Wikipedia accounts away from children. Permitting kids to use Wikipedia could tempt them to sign up, with dangerous consequences.

Wikipedia won’t address this voluntarily. I’d welcome opinions on whether this problem is best addressed through legislation, regulation or education.

by Michael Dirda

A delightful collection of a year’s worth of brief notes about reading by a consummate bookman, originally written as a weekly Web column for The American Scholar. Dirda’s embrace of forgotten writers and, especially, old plot-driven adventures is instructive, and his central concerns – where to put all these book? how on earth to pay for them? – are refreshingly familiar. I was particularly interested in the way Dirda arranges his future reading by project, with piles and cartons of books all set for the day when some long-awaited project begins.

Sep 15 17 2015

The Martian

by Andy Weir

The core problem of science fiction today is that no thoughtful science fiction writer can really envision a future of any sort, much less one that fits with the SF’s expectation that understanding problems will solve them. The Martian attacks the problem by writing a science fiction story that is so thoroughly near-future that it’s scarcely speculative: a Mars landing mission that’s basically a scaled-up long-term Apollo lander gets caught in a windstorm and aborts, losing one astronaut. That astronaut miraculously recovers, wakes up, and there he is, alone, on Mars. He sets out to make the best of things, and things are not quite as dire as you’d think. The science and engineering is mostly familiar and it’s deployed cleverly; indeed, in this world our privatization of space travel hasn’t yet occurred.

This interesting mix of techno-utopian dreaming, escapism, action, and good sense was written to be a movie and will shortly be one.

Sep 15 16 2015


Here’s another part of what I’ve been working on: an approach to painterly hypertext. I want to suggest that it would be interesting to let go of some details of the way scenes are rendered in fiction, much as Impressionism sought to let go of some details of the way scenes are rendered in painting.

Let me tell you about a party.

Lady Daphne Laplace surveys her morning room, populated this afternoon by many of the guests she’d invited to this August’s party at Brecon Park. Outside, the splendid African sun shines down on her splendid green lawn, turning her elder daughter Mary that splendid shade of nutty brown she gets each summer. Mary herself has invited a lovely group of young people, all of whom will be heading up to Hill Academy in a few weeks for their final year before University. Mary is not to be head girl, as Lady Daphne had been in her day (Orie was a prefect at Marlton but no husband is perfect) but Mary has taken the blow well, and the headmaster’s surprising choice – an indigent but charmingly spiky young lady named Polly Xena whom Mary has invited and to whom Daphne has assigned her most patient and tactful maid – seems to be a acclimating well.

On the whole, Lady Laplace thinks this year’s party is doomed. It is not her fault. Last year’s party was very nice, the year before was terrific, and next year, perhaps things will be easier. Right now, everyone is on edge.

A big part of the problem is that the young people are having a very good time indeed, and their parents don’t quite know what to make of that. From her Head Girl days, Daphne has always been expert at the real mystery of house parties: who is fucking whom, and why. It’s all very well to understand that the kids are grown up now, and most of them are gorgeous, but it’s still very odd. The Hunters both seem especially edgy – Amy’s a dear, though underneath she’s every inch as middle-class as her parents – and poor old Marlow Randolph seems terribly preoccupied even though his girl Cassie (who has been very odd ever since her mother, poor Heshie, died) appears to be sleeping alone. Mary’s given up her friend Mason West – as prefect he belongs with the new head girl if she’ll have him – and Mary is being a sport about it. Daphne suspects that she’s sporting with Jacob Demarr, who is gorgeous and charming and captain of the ball team, though his father is just an administrator of one of the Senneterre’s estates. Daphne reminds herself to have a talk with Mary about the perils of sex with the middle classes.

The political climate isn’t ideal for a party, either. Orie’s been Minister of Culture for more than two years now and has been having a ball, but no government lasts forever and Daphne can see that they’re all nervous about the coming session. They always get like this, afraid that if once they lose they’ll be cast out forever. Minister of Culture is nice, yes, but it’s not everything, and one can’t move up until you’ve moved out for a bit. She’s tempted to ask Marlow to have a word with Orie, but Marlow himself has been more thoroughly out of sorts than she’s seen him in ages – far worse than when his own Ministry was tottering. Lord Randolph keeps going on about the rebels in the hills.

There have always been rebels in the hills: that’s what hills are for, and the rebels give the Army something to do.

There are the usual tensions, of course. The Hunters have never liked the Wests, perhaps because in their wild youth they liked each other rather more than was prudent. Their kids seem to like each other fine; that’s something, anyway. The Cormyns don’t get along – they never have – and Aspen Cormyn is constantly asking advice about anything that comes into her head from anyone who happens to have a title or two in the family. Poor Grenton, the butler here at Brecon, is overstrained by these parties and never hires enough help: Daphne is sure that she’s never laid eyes on the fellow passing those cheese pastries (remember to praise Mrs. Benson), and even for an informal Saturday afternoon, serving in a chef’s jacket and army boots seems a bit much. She won’t mention that to Grenton or to Jackson, the housekeeper; they notice everything, anyway. No doubt there is some unprecedented crisis in the kitchen.

OK: I told you about the scene. But maybe that’s not the best idea. Perhaps we should show this stuff, carry some of it in dialogue.

Where do we begin? With poor Lord Randolph, worrying about the rebels and telling any man who will listen what he’d be doing if he were still Prime Minister? With Aspen Cormyn pestering Vic Senneterre for advice on managing maids and daughters – subjects about which Vic has seldom spared a thought? With poor butler Grenton, dragooning some messenger sent to find “Colonel Pasternak,” who is not here and who is not expected, into serving as an extra footman because, if the man must be underfoot, he might at least be of use? Or outside with the kids as they joke and play games and figure out their sleeping arrangements?

Where do we begin? Who speaks first?

The received wisdom holds that this question has an answer, that if we write and rewrite, edit and revise, eventually we will arrive at the one true dialogue, the dialogue the rings true. Or, if we can’t find the right answer, we’re just not good enough.

But perhaps it doesn’t matter. They’re all going to get a chance to talk, we’ll meet them all eventually. Perhaps one sequence is just as good as another. We can just write it one way, and then perhaps convince ourselves and the world that this is the one true way.

My very bad sketch of a sidewalk scene in Provincetown.

Sculptural hypertext could let us write this dialogue in all the ways it might work. We write some speeches and some exchanges, perhaps some descriptive passages as well. We add just the constraints needed to keep things coherent: the kids are outdoors, the adults are not, and so kids talk to kids and the grownups talk to each other. Perhaps we add some constraints to keep the discussion on topic, but maybe we don’t; maybe it’s that kind of party.

What the camera saw. More information, more accuracy, but also less.

Instead of trying to get the dialogue sequence right, we’re accepting any sequence that isn’t wrong. Moving from the morning room to the lawn without transition is wrong, so we won’t do that. Letting one character drone on without interruption is wrong; we won’t do that, either. But starting with Lady Daphne is fine, and starting with Lord Randolph would be fine, too, as far as I can see: we’ll try it all and see what works and what doesn’t.

We could start outdoors with the kids, or below stairs where the cook and the butler are coping with the current catastrophe, or we could start with the irritating Aspen Cormyn or with our patient and witty hostess. Let things play out. If we notice a bad combination, we’ll prohibit it. If we need more ways to move indoors and out, we’ll write them.

In painting, it’s not always necessary to specify everything. Perhaps it’s not necessary in hypertext narrative, either.

by Micah Joel

This short ebook by Micah Joel opens on Matheson Station, orbiting high above an earth where Wall Street now trades probability flows. There, a recently-deceased industrial titan is just entering the next life. “He wasn’t sure what to expect. The wood cannot see the ashes. Above him, a tiny porthole ringed the blackness of space. ‘Oh, wow,’ he said.”

Steve Jobs is back, and he’s got to put together a product team. He’s got Ada Lovelace to do software. He’s got Bill Shockley to do hardware. He’s got a deadline, too, because the world economy is going to collapse. Good fun is had in this series opener: Jobs is superbly drawn and Shockley is pretty good, too. Ada is, at this point at least, a bit of a problem: just how is a Victorian countess supposed to relate to her manager when her manager is Steve Jobs? Remember, Ada is old enough to be Violet Crawley’s grandmother, and on the whole it might have been easier to reach for Admiral Hopper or NASA’s Margaret Hamilton. Still, the opportunity to have Byron’s daughter on a space station must be hard to resist.

Currently free at Amazon.

Sep 15 15 2015

Why We Link

It is Friday night dinner again, and the Business Professor asks straight out why anyone would want to bother with hypertext narrative. I handle this question badly in social settings. I understand the underlying family traumas; sorry, Freud, but knowing doesn’t help that much.

It’s time for a fresh tilt at that windmill; here are some thoughts for an introduction to Getting Started With Hypertext Narrative.

Comments and improvements welcome: Email me.

The future of serious writing lies on the computer screen. That future, indeed, is already upon us. We compose on the computers, we read our mail on computers, and increasingly we read our novels and textbooks on computers.

Today, most of what we read is written as if it would be read on paper. We no longer write on paper and we no longer read on paper, yet our computers, our tablets, and our ebook readers simulate paper. Indeed, they go to great lengths to copy the inconveniences of paper, the awkwardness of turning the page, or the arbitrary limits it imposes on our margin notes. Most significantly, we still write books as if they were to be mass-produced by factories, one page forever following another in a fixed and inalterable sequence, one size fits all. We don’t use links much, and we don’t use them wisely.

Hypertext is, simply, writing that uses links; hypertext narrative is telling stories (and histories) that use links. Links let us write in new ways for new audiences. Links should let us tell stories that were once difficult to tell. Though links can sometimes let us alter the story, changing “what happens” in different readings, we more frequently will use links to change the plot, changing “how we explain what happened.”

Why does this matter?

  • The audience is ever more diverse, and the fragility of our planet makes reaching our audience ever more critical. We cannot assume that every reader has attended the same schools, read the same books, or will ask the same questions. The work must be ready to provide answers to each reader.
  • The importance of writing truly for a diverse audience is clear and pressing in nonfiction, especially when writing to influence public policy for an audience of legislators that ranges from experts to cultivators of ignorance. Fiction, which addresses emotional truth, is not less important.
  • Each reader brings to their reading distinct constraints and attitudes. Today, your audience is calm, attentive, and critical. Tomorrow, your audience is agitated, anxious, and eager for distraction. The work must be prepared to satisfy both audiences – especially as they might be the same person. Homer understood this.
  • A central lesson of modernism was that artists should exercise tight control in matters that matter, but may relax their grip elsewhere and let the material or the brushstroke show. Links explore a looser approach to narrative.
  • Serious reading has always encompassed rereading. Hypertext requires rereading, and makes manifest the way changes in the reader change the work.

These notes explore some lessons we have learned from the first twenty-five years of hypertext narrative.

Sep 15 13 2015

Old Software

Moses Malone is dead.

Dave Winer complains that we can’t run software from just 25 years ago.

We can still play music written by people who lived in the 1700s. But for some reason we can't run software written 25 years ago. Technically, if we wanted to develop in a way that made this possible, we could. But each generation apparently believes there's not enough value in the software written by previous generations. Which probably has something to do with why so much know-how is lost every decade or so.

Dave is insightful, intelligent, observant – and wrong.

This summer, I wrote Storyspace again. The original Storyspace was written by Jay Bolter and Michael Joyce and John B. Smith in the mid-1980s, we ended up publishing it in 1991. It was written in Pascal. Not a line of the original remains in Storyspace 2 or Storyspace 2.5. Not a line of Storyspace 2 remains in the new Storyspace 3.

Writing Storyspace 3 was easy. Almost all the heavy lifting involved gratuitously eliminating constraints in the old Storyspace that would be inconvenient or simply embarrassing to preserve. Storyspace used to have lots of rigid limits on the length of strings; the young Jay Bolter just didn’t bother with variable-length buffers. Storyspace used to use a file format optimized for rapid unpacking from incredibly slow disk storage, a format that was vulnerable to losing everything, without hope of recovery, if a single bit was written or read incorrectly. Replacing that with XML was a good idea, and added a day or two.

“OK, Bernstein, if it was easy, where is it?” While I was polishing the brass, I figured out a way to extend the underlying formalism to encompass sculptural hypertexts, as well as the elements we know as “interactive fiction,” and to do so without changing the original Storyspace formalism and without setting a mode switch. Implementing that was fairly straightforward, as it turned out, but documenting it has been a a bear. Soon.”

Do you have a HyperCard stack you really, really want to run. Come visit, and we’ll run it. Want to run it on your machine, which won’t run HyperCard? Send me the stack and a check, and I’ll write it for you.

Why don’t we write software that will run 25 years from now without any effort or expense or bother?

We don’t write software that way because Moses Malone is dead.

Time’s winged fucking chariot is why we don’t write software that old way. We have things to do, there’s not enough time, and the old way we wrote software was clumsy and slow. It didn’t seem slow to us back then: we didn’t know better. Back then, Dave, you and I were writing English prose without using the letter “e”, and we were good at it – you were better, OK, but we were both pretty good. Sure, Turbo Pascal was dandy, and Think C was terrific, and Zmacs was a revelation. Give me Xcode and the STL and ruby any day, thanks.

by Arthur Conan Doyle

In a book ripped from the headlines. a group of tourists – a recent Smith graduate and her aunt, a Wall Street attorney, a retired British Special Forces colonel, a Frenchman of means – are enjoying a package tour of the Nile when Moslem extremists swoop down, capture them, and threaten to behead any who do not embrace Islam. Published in 1897, originally as The Tragedy of the Korosko, and recommended tangentially in one of the Michael Dirda collections I’ve been enjoying lately this month. One sometimes wishes the characters had a little more space, and that we had a little more intimacy with them, and that they had a few more ideas and a lot less racism. Still, it’s a rollicking time.

At Wikipedia, Gamergate’s been demanding greater attention to its claims that Gamergate is concerned with ethics, demanding that if Wikipedia is to dismiss the ethics claims, it must first explain in detail how Gamergate views itself as a crusade against corruption.

I respond:

My local diner might call its fried chicken "world famous", but Wikipedia would want confirmation of that fame in the consensus of reliable sources. Here, the consensus of reliable sources holds that the chicken is not famous, or is only famous because people say it’s famous chicken when it's not particularly famous and probably also not chicken.

Actually, it’s all about the chicken.

Since our previous update, Gamergate’s launched two formal efforts to boot your humble correspondent for making funny faces, or perhaps for writing things that people sometimes read. A major plank in the latest case against me was that I intentionally sought a treaty or truce from Gamergate’s most voluble spokesman, which was thought shockingly uncivil. The fact that I include contact information in my business emails is cited on Wikipedia as evidence that I am gay and have established a liaison with certain administrators: I kid you not.

Back in the real world of Wikipedia, an extortion scam was recently uncovered in which a network of hundreds of sock puppet accounts colluded to demand monthly fees from small businesses to protect their pages from being deleted. This has led to lots of attention to petty fraud in Wikipedia, which I suspect is a snare: the real problem is not the extortion of $30/month from small businesses, it’s the $30,000/mo retainers from big businesses and political campaigns.

by Stephanie Clifford

A wicked satire of social media marketing, as a Evelyn Beegan, a young and underqualified ex-preppie, is hired as director of recruitment by a Facebook clone for the ultra-elite, “People Like Us.” This is in many ways this is an odd and antiquated book, centered on a marriage plot and fixated on Old Money in New York; the book knows it – one character excoriates Evelyn for chasing a social scene out of Edith Wharton – but doesn’t know what to do with its own knowledge. Evelyn desperately wants to shed her upper-middle-class Baltimore background to be accepted by people who have inherited Camps in the Adirondacks and Cottages at Newport, to run with the bright young things who are the children of the Ladies Who Lunch. In that frantic pursuit, she loses herself, becomes a monster, and then (perhaps) finds a future of sorts.

It’s 2008, the bubble is about to burst, and those bright young things are all in banks and hedge funds: change is in the air but nothing really changes.

by Rudyard Kipling

Kipling’s two science fiction stories, from 1905 and 1912, concerning the year 2000 and the development of a planetary government out of the necessity for an international air traffic control system. The first, “With The Night Mail,” is brilliant fun: a lowbrow magazine feature in which our intrepid reporter journeys with the new dirigible express from London to Quebec, interviewing captains and engineers, experiencing terrifying air storms, witnessing arcane engineering. The story wraps up with all sorts of terrific fake ads from a hobby magazine of the far future – 2000 AD! The later “Easy as A. B. C.” is a story of world-government as seen by a crank, a vision of the future where the leading problem is Kipling’s personal headache: people keep bothering him. The afterword by Bruce Sterling is nearly worth the price of admission.

I’ve been writing about Getting Started With Hypertext Narrative lately, slogging out my minimum daily adult requirement of a couple of thousand words in addition to my customary duties, and I’m finding there’s a ton we don’t know. Here’s an example.

Imagine that we’re in the middle of a narrative sequence; default links (pressing Return, using the Next button) got us here and default links will lead us forward. But we could pause here for a bit more explanation, a story inside the story.

Let’s say we’re with a bunch of college friends waiting for brunch at a bar near Clark and Diversey and we’re talking about our friend Howard, who is late again. Howard is often unlucky in love.

Since Barbara, Howard had dated Claire (who left him to have a fling with her shrink), Tiff (who took his Xbox as reparations), Steff (who may have been fictitious), Mei (who left him for a job in Palo Alto), and Cassie (who left him to dig dinosaur bones in Idaho after ‘borrowing’ a grand from Amy and $2500 from Bob). Howard told us about them in excruciating and embarrassing detail every Sunday, but we seldom saw them. After Cassie, none of us was that eager. After Cassie, who could afford it? But Barbara, that was a hell of a story.

We’ve got an optional club story, a useful supplement we can include for the benefit of patient readers, but which we might omit if tonight we’re in a hurry. We offer a text link to the beginning of the story, and perhaps put a guard field on the text link just in case we’ve already told that story.

Doubling The Anchor

The reader’s first question when she sees a text link is, “what does this offer? After following a text link, the reader’s first care is to confirm their theory of the link and, if their theory proves to be mistaken, to discover an explanation consistent with what is actually there. This is the core of the first great paper on hypertext writing, Landow’s “Rhetoric of Arrival and Departure” paper from Hypertext ’87, so we’ve known that much for a long time.

When writing this sort of hypertextual club story, how do we handle this problem? The destination of the text link should typically repeat the link anchor. The repetition need not be literal; we can restate, extend, paraphrase, parody, or invert the link anchor. We can turn the link anchor into a title, or change it from exposition to dialogue. We can occasionally defer the restatement, and sometimes we can omit it, but the restatement is part of the grammar of this kind of text link.

But where is this written? I’m quite certain this is a rule of craft, and like all rules for writer’s it’s made to be bent and resisted and it’s fun to discuss. But for the life of me, I can’t think of a place I’ve seen this stated. It’s not in the Nanards’ “Should Link Anchors Be Typed”, it’s not in “Scripted Paths,” it’s not in “Patterns of Hypertext” or “Canyons, Deltas and Plains” or, as far as I can see, in Abba and Bjarnason’s new and intriguing hypertext, Writing In The Age Of The Web. We’ve been writing hypertext for a generation and this simple matter of craft seems never to have been codified.

What else are we missing?

Well, there’s this: Iain Pears has written a hypertext fiction, reviewed here by the redoubtable Em Short.

And Stacey Mason, the Eugene Cota-Robles Fellow at UC Santa Cruz, responds to my earlier suggestion that we sometimes want to Let Go Of The Line with an intriguing case for Allusive Games.

Sep 15 2 2015

Two Boyfriends

In an interesting essay in Interactive Digital Narrative (Hartmut Koenitz et al., eds.), Janet Murray works to schematize the romantic plot, “A Tale Of Two Boyfriends” that encompasses all stories about love triangles. (Someone is supposed to have said that the Bloomsbury crowd lived in squares, painted in circles, and loved in triangles.) She starts out by frankly pointing out a problem in McCoy’s highly-respected Prom Week: the dialogue.

Zack: Do you want to date or whatever?

Monica: I kinda only should be seen dating people you know popular people.

Murray complains that these characters are “under-dramatized and over-specified”, and she is not wrong. These characters are backed by a set of thousands of sociocultural considerations and constraints, but not only do the seams show, we can hardly see anything except seams.

First, we’re using dialect to reinforce the idea that these are high school kids negotiating the prom. Dialect can be powerful, but it’s extremely tricky because it requires close observation and a degree of exactitude. Do high school kids say “date”? Would these high school kids say “date”, not “go out” or “hook up” or “hang out” or “do something”? Wouldn’t a more specific invitation be more sensible: “Do you want to see the new Star Wars, or something?” If “date” is probably wrong era, “whatever” is simply the wrong word; I believe a kid might say that, but no kid would mean to say that. “Whatever” deprecates the activity:

Mom: Get up dear! We’ve got to go to granny’s flute recital and it starts at 9am.”

Monica: Whatever.

Monica’s misplaced hesitations are simply condescending; not only is she shallow, but she doesn’t know how to say “uh” or where to put her “uh’s”. What a doofus.

Worse, we don’t need to reinforce the notion that these are high school kids. The premise and setting say “kids” at every turn. There’s no imperative that the kids speak with strict realism: Buffy The Vampire Slayer doesn’t. Romeo and Juliet don’t, either. No one has to be reminded that Juliet’s a kid.

Each line shouts “I am a speech act!” in every sentence: the character has a state and a goal and the line either advances that goal or describes the state. Yes, people say things for a reason, and they do things to get ahead, but it’s more complicated. Zack wants to “date” Monica: OK. It’s that kind of story -- fine. Zack is a guy who wants to date Monica. But, does Zack want to date Monica because he adores Monica, because it’d be prestigious to be dating Monica, because he really wants to sleep with Monica, because he really wants to sleep with someone, because he doesn’t want his Mom to know he’s gay and he thinks she’s beginning to suspect, because Sarah bet him box seats for the Knicks game that he wouldn’t get to second base? And besides Zack being the boy who wants to date Monica, he’s also the boy who is pretty good at Math, has a promising jump shot that might play in Div III, is worried that his uncle’s fooling around with his younger sister, thinks the novels of Susan Sontag are overrated and that Black Lives Matter.

You may object that neither Susan Sontag and Trayvon Martin will get him forwarder with Project Monica. But my coolest cousin met her husband in jail at Berkeley in the 1960s; you never know. People talk about ideas while they negotiate these things; otherwise, school kids would just ask each other, “wanna fuck sometime?” And they talk about ideas the rest of the time, too; that’s what makes these things love stories and not just genetic records.

A further problem is that so many interactive narratives – Prom Week, Façade – use a ton of screen space for crudely animated enactments. Others – A Dark Room, Blood and Laurels – avoid most of the artwork but wind up using lots of screen space for mechanics. The result is that almost everything needs to be carried in dialogue, and the dialogues need to be very, very short. There’s just not enough air to let the characters be themselves.

One alternative involves a lot of words: give the characters some air, let them have ideas. Murray’s most of the way there with her schematic of the Boyfriend of ObliGation (BOG) and the Boyfriend of Desire (BOD – the interactive narrative people love acronyms). We can use archetypes but we don’t want to hear about archetypes: we want to hear about people, and to do that, we have to give the people space to do and say things.

If all those words are just too much, you could do a lot with art – but again the art is going to have to be very specific because it’s got to convey a ton of information. It’s going to need to tell you about Sontag and Trayvon without the words.

Two Boyfriends
"Cesar Santos, Incredulity of St. Thomas. There are ideas here, and there’s narrative. But I think you’re going to need this level of thoughtfulness, and perhaps even more detail in setting, to make it work.

by John Buchan

John Buchan’s classic thriller begins when young and wealthy Colonial miner Richard Hannay, a man about London, comes home to his Picaddilly flat to meet a terrified neighbor who says that he is a dead man. The neighbor tells Hannay a convincing story of espionage – it’s 1912 – and Hannay gives him refuge. The next day, the visitor is murdered and Hannay, framed, is on the run. A classic.

Aug 15 31 2015

The Forever War

by Joe Haldeman

A fresh visit to this popular and influential military SF tale, which refracts Haldeman’s experience of Vietnam through an Iowa MFA and also through Starship Troopers. Haldeman, in turn, is clearly the touchstone for such later work as Scalzi’s Old Man’s War and perhaps for Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga. Beyond his adventure-filled but unjingoistic use of combat to drive the narrative, Haldeman’s story of the soldier’s progressive alienation from mankind – by the time he comes back, everyone has changed and the world for which he was fighting is a strange and alien place – anticipate’s Stross’s singularity stories and also anticipates what has become the mainstream narrative form of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars.