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Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace

Author: Janet H. Murray
Publisher: New York: The Free Press, 1997
Review Published: October 1997

 REVIEW 1: Paul Rosenberg

"In short, he so buried himself in his books that he spent nights reading from twilight till daybreak and the days from dawn till dark; and so from little sleep and much reading, his brain dried up and he lost his wits..." So wrote Cervantes about Don Quixote and the pernicious influence of books nearly 400 years ago.

Change the terms just slightly and he could have been writing today about MUDs, videogames or the Internet. The analogy isn't accidental. Books were still a relatively new phenomena, barely 150 years old in an age when the pace of change was far slower. Don Quixote was the first European novel, the first piece of writing that truly expressed the possibilities inherent in being a book, even as it drew on decades of previous books -- the ones Don Quixote read -- that made it possible.

We're still far from the cybernetic equivalent of Don Quixote. But, in Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace, MIT Professor Janet H. Murray has given us version 1.0 of a manual on how to get there. It doesn't have hard-coded instructions -- they might not show up till version 4.0 or later -- but it does contain the beginnings of understanding what the journey will be like, what kinds of obstacles lie along the way, and what kinds of feelings, values and ideals motivate the journey. Perhaps the single most important thing she has to tell us is that such a destination exists: a fully realized work of narrative art grounded in the nature of cybernetic media as well as the human heart. This goes directly against a popular view shared by critics and enthusiasts alike, which sees narrative as a casualty of the information age.

Murray has a two-fold background. Her hacker side includes a stint as an IBM systems programmer after college in the late 60s before going back to graduate school in Victorian literature. It bloomed again in the early 80s and encompasses an encyclopedic familiarity with different kinds of computer programs, languages and environments. Her literary side, while centered in Victorian literature, is equally diverse in scope, from the oral poetry of Homer to narrative frontiers of cyberspace today. Hamlet on the Holodeck draws on that broad background to illuminate the current state and future promise of narrative computer art with rare subtlety, accuracy and candor.

She draws on two past media revolutions to illuminate the present -- both characterized by narrative confusion and impoverishment until appropriate conventions were developed. It took over 50 years from the invention of the printing press till the modern form of the book emerged with, she explains, "such conventions as legible typefaces and proof sheet corrections; page numbering and paragraphing; and title pages, prefaces, and chapter divisions, which together make a book a coherent means of communications." Earlier books are called "incunabula," Latin for "swaddling clothes," an apt term for works of a technological infancy, like the computer media of today.

The second revolution Murray invokes is the birth of film. At first it was an additive form (photography plus drama) called 'photoplay,' much like today's 'multimedia.' It evolved from additive form -- poorer, in fact, than both it's parents -- to expressive form -- form determined by it's own expressive possibilities -- in about 30 years. Of course we've got more than two media being added together, but Murray's point is clearly relevant. We can't avoid the earlier stages when, for example, we've got Web TV, computer windows for watching TV, and websites for TV shows. Nor can we jump ahead 30 years and create the fused media of the future in a single stroke. There's no avoiding the period of trial-and-error shot through with strokes of genius that lies ahead of us.

At the same time, there are some things we do know about computer media. For one thing, they are suited to telling what Murray calls the "multiform story" -- a story containing more than one version. Examples include high art short stories like Borges's "The Garden of Forking Paths," and Delmore Schawrtz's "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities" as well as films like It's a Wonderful Life, Roshomon, Groundhog Day or Back to The Future. While prose or movies can tell these kinds of stories, it's obvious that computers are inherently suited to them. Two other basic facts emerge: first, that such stories can serve an incredibly wide array of artistic purposes and carry many different emotional tones; second, that the presence of too many different possibilities can produce confusion, boredom, or exhaustion. Murray considers a number of examples of hypertext stories, showing some of the pitfalls and problems (how one builds dramatic tension or deep emotion, for example) along with some promising examples that suggest directions of future development.

Murray also deepens our appreciation of multiform storytelling with some venerable predecessors. First is the bardic oral tradition that produced Homer's Iliad and Oddessy, which is supported by "devices for patterning language into units that make it easier for bards to memorize and recall" that "we in a literate era devalue as repetition, redundancy and cliché," but that make it possible for each performance to be improvised on the spot, so that they are essentially multiform, with "no single canonical version."

Second is the example of Russian folktales, which have been analyzed "into variants of a single core tale composed of twenty-five basic 'functions,' or plot events." By studying 450 such folktales it was possible to write an algorithm that encompassed them all -- and could produce new folktales in the same traditional form. In a sense, then, all the tales were multiform versions of a single story. Thus informed, we cannot help but see multiform stories in a different light -- not as some modern innovation, but as something deeply representative of human consciousness. It's not just a hacker's fantasy that computers can liberate the human spirit: they can do so in ways that are simultaneously ancient and new.

Another inherent facet of computer media is character simulation, a topic Murray takes up with a famous quote from E.M. Forrester describing characters as "word masses," reminding us that literary character has always been a kind of simulation. The forms she considers run the gamut from the selection of pre-determined characters in a videogame to character creation in role-playing games to the programming of autonomous computer characters that started 30 years ago with ELIZA, the computer program written to emulate a non-directive therapist. Typically, her discussion of multi-character environments includes a dialogue created by having ELIZA psychoanalyze Zippy The Pinhead, placed in context by a discussion of the inherent problems of improvisation and ways to deal with them, which takes us back to the commedia dell'arte of Renaissance Italy. Murray's perspective is clear and persuasive: character improvisation has long adapted itself across genres, and will continue to do so.

Three other facets of computer media are aesthetic characteristics, each considered in a separate chapter. The first is "Immersion," introduced by an extended version of the Cervantes quote with which I began thisreview. Clearly, computer media have no exclusive claim on the powers of immersion, yet their immersive powers go to the heart of their appeal. The second facet, "Agency" is more specifically cybernetic. Other art forms have audience participation, but agency is more than that, more analogous to the role of a jazz musician interpreting a melody than that of any audience. Whatever the form of computer art, the desire to take an active role is crucially involved in our degree of enjoyment, and flows directly from our experience of immersion. The third facet, "Transformation" is more difficult to define. At first, Murray speaks of "countless ways of shape-shifting," but how transformational is it to simply to adopt a fantasy persona? Not very, Murray herself suggests in a later discussion of how Charlotte Bronte's vivid, but formulaic adolescent fantasy developed a vocabulary that only later was put to truly artistic ends.

In summary, Hamlet on the Holodeck is a treasurehouse of insights, suggestions, heuristic observations and revealing historical vistas. Like the media it describes, the kaleidoscopic experience of navigating through it defies normal attempts to summarize and condense -- I've only touched on a few of its most basic insights. One thing is certain: it conveys a deeply-informed spirit of adventure that does justice to our emerging cyberculture as few other works have done.

Paul Rosenberg:
Paul Rosenberg ...  <rad@gte.net>

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