May 13, 2003

‘Literary Devices’

by Andrew Stern · , 11:59 pm

At the Chicago Humanities Festival last winter, I heard Richard Powers give a reading called “Literary Devices”. Powers is an unusual writer, perhaps best known for his humanistic novels about artificial intelligence (Galatea 2.2) and virtual reality (Plowing the Dark).

As Powers began his reading, he described how he recently received an email from an MIT Media Lab dropout who wanted him to beta-test some new web-based story-generation software. After repeated requests, Powers gave in and began tinkering around with the software, which involved sending emails to some server, and waiting a few hours for a response. Eventually Powers begins an email conversation with this mysterious story software, that grows and builds in amazing ways over time…

Turns out his reading was all a fictional short story. But he *really* had me going there for a while. Seriously. It’s an amazing story, one of the most interesting and surprising visions of interactive story that I’ve ever come across. Even more useful than the The Diamond Age‘s vision, in that Powers’ vision is grounded in a present-day context – you could almost imagine this existing in the not-too-distant future.

The story was briefly online on last December, but unfortunately is now only available in print, through the journal Zoetrope. It’s $5.95, but well worth it. I highly, highly recommend it.

5 Responses to “‘Literary Devices’”

  1. Matt K. Says:

    Yes, it is an amazing story. I was lucky to catch it when it ran on Salon. I think of it as kind of a narrative Turing test: rather than ask us to suspend disbelief, the text delicately compounds it.

    I’m increasingly convinced that one of the more interesting futures for digital fiction lies with narrative forms that colonize our existing media spaces, playing off of documentary expectations: for example, the Flight Risk story/blog.

  2. nick Says:

    I’m actually reading Plowing the Dark; reading or barely reading, since I started it before my last crunch of studying for preliminary exams and now I’m leaving for DAC in two days. Chapter 16, which intersperses text from Adventure with nostalgia and musings about game design, is particuarly worth a look, even for those who aren’t going to read the whole novel.

    I’ve realized in reading this that you might call Powers a writer of literary nerdcore.

  3. John Tolva Says:

    I attended this reading in Chicago as well. I was so taken by it (yes, I was duped) that I sent him an e-mail which began a fairly fascinating correspondence (as well as, in some ways, structurally emulating the format of the tech-nerd-contacting-literary-guy in “Literary Devices”).

    Our discussion centered on code as narrative. That is, we talked about the idea of unexecuted code having formal artistic properties akin to narrative. Conversely there’s the possibility of a traditional story as nothing more than a set of code that executes in the “run-time” of a person’s head.

    As an aside, I’d recommend any of Powers works, especially Galatea 2.2, Goldbug Variations, and The Time of Our Singing. He has a magical way of weaving art and technology and blurring the two.

  4. Jason Says:

    I really like the chapter (16) of Plowing that Nick mentions, although I would think it a shame to divorce from the rest of the novel. The 2nd person narrative that Powers weaves throughout the novel strikes me as a fascinating counterpoint to the collective nostalgia evoked during that wonderful Adventure scene.

  5. Lisa Says:


    Okay, so I was sufficiently intriqued by Andrew’s description to order the issue of Zoetrope, which, arrived by snailmail this week. I remembered ordering it, remembered that something in it pertaining to Grand Text Auto, but just enough time had passed that I succeeded in forgetting the particulars….

    Perfect. “Literary Devices” is the first piece in the magazine, and I started right in, not sure if this was the referenced work or not. And was thoroughly and deliciously conned. Thanks muchly for pointing me towards this story.

    Interestingly, it reminds me of a lecture I heard delivered at a Bread Loaf conference nearly 20 years ago… “What’s in a Name?” by Stanley Elkin. It purports to be, and is, finally, about the associations and connections the reader forms with names, but it is also a story, which at first appears to be merely an irritatingly long digression from the topic at hand. Really, quite cunning and similar in effect to what Richard Powers does.

    Anyway. FWIW.

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