UTNE READER March/April 1994


Despite its dramatic name, hyperfiction—the latest craze in high-tech literature—is basically software: You load it onto your computer and use certain tools to navigate through it. And what a ride it is.

In hyperfiction, you don’t just read, you make choices. It’s the classic existentialist dilemma manifested in the reading process. You’re at least partially responsible for creating (by choice or actual writing) what you read, so you can never just snuggle up with your laptop and get lost in the story. Rather, you can get lost in the story, but it’s your responsibility to find a way out, if indeed you want to get out, which is all up to you. There’s no comfort in watching the pages between you and the end of the book evaporate in the sure knowledge that the end is in sight. And there’s no such thing as reading the last page to find out who killed whom. There is no closure to a work of hyperfiction. When you stop reading, that’s the end—of that particular work of fiction.

Some works, such as Quibbling or Hypertext Quarterly, give you a reading map of the hypertext—a sort of topographical representation of the blocks of text, or lexias. By clicking on links—highlighted words or phrases—you can zoom into another set of lexias (and characters and storylines). Other hyperfictions allow you to type in a word, which may lead you anywhere. And almost all hyperfictions allow you to point the mouse, click on any word that might strike your fancy, and see where that takes you. Several hyperfictions indicate, by means of underlining, boxes, or boldface, certain words or phrases that have a link to another part of the hypertext.

Most readers, conditioned by novels and short stories, have traditional expectations when they first encounter hyperfiction: They want to know who did what, and why. Hyperfiction plays with these expectations, especially with the need to perceive an established order. You still read for plot, for characters and their motivations, and for the key to the mystery, but hyperfiction demands a spatial rather than linear reading. Each lexia consists of several surfaces that interact differently with other text blocks and links, resulting in an almost boundless web of interconnections. Not only is there room for a vast range of interpretations, but hyperfiction actively encourages multiplex reactions and interactions.

Hyperfiction constitutes a radically new genre, quite distinct from the so-called expanded novels (published by Voyager, 478 Broadway, New York, NY 10012)—novels adapted for computers and souped up with hypertext components, but which you read more or less as you would a book between covers. Hyperfiction empowers readers and overturns traditional notions of author and reader. Stuart Moulthrop, hypertext critic and author of Victory Garden, distinguishes between two kinds of hyperfiction—exploratory and constructive—in his essay "Polymers, paranoia and the Rhetoric of Hypertext" in the spring 1991 issue of Writing on the Edge (Campus Writing Center, University of California, Davis, CA 95616). According to Moulthrop, an exploratory hyperfiction—which includes most commercially available hypertexts—allows the reader to "’transform’ the textual body by following alternative paths or linkways" while the hyperfiction "retains its fundamental identity under all transformations…The maze may have many permutations, the circuit many switchings, but in all of them the user still circulates through the same mechanized volume." Constructive hyperfiction, which arrived in the commercial sphere with the November 1993 publication of Deena Larsen’s Marble Springs, allows you to add your own words to the hypertext and send your additions back to the publisher to be included in subsequent editions. Marble Springs points to the future of constructive hyperfiction, which lies in the proliferation of computer networks where many reader/writers will collaborate on projects made open-ended by virtue of their virtual existence as malleable data in cyberspace.

Hyperfiction addresses a fundamental issue that faces all writers: In a society where people are more willing to consume images than read, hypertext seems like a wordsmith’s dream. Finally, here’s a vehicle for writing that is as fast as the microprocessor that paints the words on the screens, the words taking on a visual quality that can compete with pictures. Ultimately, however, hyperfictions must still succeed first as writing: Are the characters worth following through the labyrinth of a hyperfiction? Is the narrative structure engaging, its complexity challenging or its simplicity aesthetically pleasing? Is the language fresh? Most importantly, does the writer have something new to say in addition to having a new way to say it?

The hyperfictions reviewed here run on an Apple Macintosh Plus and more powerful models and are available for IBM compatibles in Windows format except where noted. Although they still run on 1 MB of RAM, they run slowly, so 2 MB is suggested, and required where indicated.

Ambulance: An Electronic Novel by Monica Moran (Electronic Hollywood, Box 448 Prince Street Station, New York, NY 10012, $17 ppd.). Produced by the prolific Jaime Levy, Ambulance is the latest in a series of cyberzines published by Levy’s New York-based Electronic Hollywood. Monica Moran’s very linear narrative tells the story of a group of twentysomethings who crash their car somewhere in the Hollywood Hills. A serial killer spies the accident from his house and decides to collect our band of hapless travelers and take them back to his house, where grim mayhem ensues. Ambulance combines Levy’s cinematic sensibility with hypertextual flashbacks and some engaging multimedia effects, including bass samples by Mike Watt and illustrations by Jaime Hernandez (of the Love and Rockets comic book series). By turns amusing and grisly, Ambulance requires less work on the part of the reader than hyperfictions more consciously concerned with putting into practice the theories of Barthes and Derrida and the fictional visions of Borges and Pynchon.

-Harry Goldstein