March 27, 2006

E-FEST 2: First I Saw the Surface

by Nick Montfort · , 4:51 pm

At E-FEST 2006 I understood the main connection between postmodern writing and hypertext. It took being on a panel that included – along with computer scientist Lutz Hamel – George Landow, Stuart Moulthrop, and our own Scott Rettberg. This purported “Game of Fiction” panel was actually a veritable hypertext brainwashing session! I probably should have figured out this connection when I first read Landow’s classic Hypertext, just out in its third edition, or from Scott’s repeated statements of what I now seem to recall as this very point. But I think it was the comment from Robert Coover after the presenters spoke that finally made the Super Hypertext Club click.

As I’ve come to see it: When your starting point as a writer is language, and what language does as a complex and connected surface of words, it makes sense to engage the computer by using a technology that can describe a new topology of this surface. An underlying model of a simulated world, of the sort IF provides, is not the first nice capability that you’d desire.

In Coover’s 1968 The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J.Henry Waugh, Prop., the main character is a creature who writes in a way that is exactly opposite from the postmodern novelist’s engagement with language and where it leads. He begins by simulating events in a world, tossing dice and consulting charts, and then narrates these copiously. But it would be a great surprise if Waugh himself was generated by this novel’s author using dice-based storytelling schemes. Everything suggests to me that Waugh is an anti-Coover, and that his “existence” was determined along the way as he was written, not the other way around.

Now, this realization doesn’t lead me to abandon IF, but it does remind me that a pipelined process of world building followed by text generation does not model the idealized postmodern writing process, and it doesn’t model my own, for that matter. This isn’t an argument against, for instance, the abstraction of simulation and narration in IF, but it does mean that it’s important to not assume that everyone will want to build a particular “fundamental” part of an electronic literary work first.