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 salon.com 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.