Thursday, February 16, 2006

Random book thoughts

Breathlessly anticipating a pearl of a book. Actually, a book of a Pearl. *smiles* After that most excellent, exhilirating literary fiction, The Dante Club, Random is soon set to release Matthew Pearl's The Poe Shadow. We don't know much about it yet except what tells us:

Trust the author of The Dante Club to turn in another stylish-sounding thriller, this one starring Poe fanatic Quentin Clark. Clark wants the real-life model for C. Auguste Dupin, Poe's fictional master of detection, to look into the author's suspicious death. But then someone else claims to be the actual Dupin. With a 14-city tour.

Ah yes, I have very fond memories of Pearl's debut novel, The Dante Club. How can one forget that graphic, heart-stopping opening chapter? Maybe I have been watching too much CSI, but I swear Gil Grissom and company would have had a field day with that murder scene. Grissom particularly, as the first victim was being gutted alive by maggots -- and if only the setting had not been 1865 Boston. The detectives of the novel are none other than the famed Boston Brahmins: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and James Russell Lowell. Picture it: a group of well-respected poets, celebrities in their own right in their heyday, running against time to find a serial killer who patterns his murders after the punishments in Dante's Inferno, a curious detail, since they themselves had been working on Longfellow's English translation of Alighieri's epic poem. Pearl ingeniously mixes historical fact with fiction, not only writing beautifully and fluidly, but pacing his story like a jaw-dropping movie. Who could have thought the novel sprang from his graduate thesis? *sigh* I'm so excited I almost feel like reading the book again, if only I hadn't lent it. Yeah, as if I didn't have enough unread books already. And why read that one again, when there's a similarly-styled second book coming soon? The Poe Shadow will be out May 2006.

Book publishing made easy. Speaking of debuts, Kabayang Kyo has come out with his first book, Chroma, produced through that marvel of a site, Bookmaking has never been as accessible as now. With lulu, you can publish and sell your own books for free. What's more, you have full creative control, you retain the rights of your work, and you can set your own royalty fee. Sounds too good to be true? It probably is, so read the terms carefully. (I will write more about this some time, hopefully when I've had some firsthand experience. *wink*)

Chroma is a collection of color photographs taken around the San Francisco Bay Area. Go check it out and take a peek inside the book from here. If you want to see more of Kyo's images, go visit his website.

Beam me up, Willy (eck, doesn't have as nice a ring to it as Scotty does, but you catch my drift, `ya?). And speaking of creativity. My friend Queena Lee-Chua invited me to her Irwin Chair lecture, Venturing into Science: Creative Writing by Non-specialists, on Tuesday, Feb. 21 at 3:00 p.m. at the Social Sciences Conference Rooms 1 & 2 of Ateneo. To be presented during the lecture are the steps taken by her 15 students, all non-science majors, the challenges they faced and the techniques they utilized (drama, analogy, definition, process, character, scene, real-life applications) as they tried their hands at creative science writing this semester under the English Department. Excerpts from their works will be read.

Talking to Queena about this special writing class of hers reminded me of a book I enjoyed a few years ago that goes into a related topic, that is, the impact of emerging technologies on storytelling. Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace by Janet H. Murray, takes off from Star Trek: The Next Generation’s notion of a holodeck: a computer’s projection of “elaborate simulations by combining holography with magnetic `force fields’ and energy-to-matter conversions”. With a holodeck, you can program any world you want into the computer, step in, and join in the creation of a story. Take it as a very high-tech virtual world that you can actually experience with all of your senses. (Needless to say, the holodeck is only one among the many reasons why Star Trek: TNG is the best ever sci-fi tv series in my book. *beams* *Oh hey, that's a pun!* *amused*)

In the book, Murray envisions the future Shakespeare as half hacker, half bard. Considering how so many more advancements have been introduced since Murray wrote it in 1997, Hamlet on the Holodeck merely touches the tip of the iceberg with its discussion of hypertext narratives, interactive fiction, electronic games (games as stories or stories as games), and various hypermedia productions. Even so, today the book still remains a compelling and relevant read.

Murray wonders about whether the world is ready for a new narrative format that is delivered in a fully digital environment. Will hypertext fiction, for instance, ever be an accepted art form? I did try a couple of hypertext stories myself, (e.g. Jackson’s The Body), but I must admit that I never got to finish any. I was thinking (at least five years ago when I first tried them), it may be that my brain had not yet evolved to the point where I could efficiently absorb and process the narrative and still appreciate the art form – heck, I couldn’t even get past a third of Danielewski’s House of Leaves, and that was in print, an experimental fiction that relied on a lot of extraneous bits of information scattered in the form of footnotes, images, lists, diary entries and such other scraps thrown into a dictionary-sized tome. It is the scourge of linear thinkers, surely! But I digress. The point is, who knows, perhaps now I’ve been able to adapt to calling up several references at the same time (e.g. opening window after window of not necessarily related webpages), processing data and filing some latent meaning into the brain that I can later appreciate and contemplate?

Taking the subject of hypertext fiction alone, think of the challenges that are posed to the author: how does one create a non-linear story that will still be coherent in the end, no matter how your reader proceeds with it? And how in heck do you still make the end surprising? Or hmm, ok, the concept of an “ending” presupposes a structure like that of the printed word. Let’s just say, how do you construct your story such that your audience will still get a satisfying revelation when they are done? One random thought: the idea of postmodern hypermedia creations is mindblowing. How can one take advantage of the nature of digital environments in creating a narrative that refers to itself? If the computer takes its position as the storyteller, in how many ways can you muck up your audience, eh?

But seriously now, beyond Murray’s discussion of the aesthetic aspect (the chapter on the characteristics of digital media is quite riveting, imo) of the digital narrative are fascinating questions that such a device raises, questions that touch on moral issues even. Since the future of storytelling increases the stakes and makes us participants, each and every format carries with it its own issues. Some questions are old, some are new. (I am now going into forms that Murray did not necessarily refer to since they either did not exist yet or were not prevalent at the time she wrote the book.) One may wonder: Are we in danger of losing our humanity in the virtual world? Does it reduce us it into nothing more than unthinking hedonistic animals? Does electronic gaming promote violence? Is blogging essentially narcissistic? Are cyber-relationships destructive? Is `social' interaction within a virtual environment as valid as human contact? Is a person being unfaithful to a real life partner if he has an online significant other? Are Mary Suisms* in virtual fan fictions potentially pathological (I mean if such existed, I just made this up; but hey, surely we aren’t far off from multi-user virtual fan fiction environments (maybe there already are MUVE** fan fictions, I haven't checked yet)? Think Counterstrike or World of Warcraft or Ragnarok meets Me-as-my-favorite-celebrity’s-lover-in-a-fan-fiction-made-
especially-for-me-cyber-novella. Yiiicks, scare you much?)?

Don’t get me wrong, Murray starts off on an optimistic note, and ends her book still hopeful. And then again, all that scary, negative stuff, it also came with the advent of the printed word hundreds of years ago. Come to think of it, they’re still the same issues, albeit draped in fancy techno-talk. But the difference, imo, is that this time around, there’s much greater risk of losing this thing we call reality.

Hmm. Perhaps that wasn’t particularly uplifting. Let me get back to this later. *sigh*


*In fan fiction, a Mary Suism is that propensity to insert a new character into an already established fiction/world that in truth represents the fan fiction writer himself/herself. Thus, for example, a Princess Arianna can write herself into a Lord of the Rings fan fiction say as the tenth member of the fellowship, the elven love interest of Legolas. I kid you not, such things do exist on this earth and can be found in the worldwideweb. If you want to know more, google fan fiction.

**MUVE stands for Multi-user virtual environment, a.ka. MUD or multi-user domains or multi-user dungeons. Check the definition here, and its history here.


kyo suayan said...


salamat sa pagbanggit mo ng bagong kong libro! :-)


Anonymous said...

Very interesting post my dear.
I have not read Hamlet on the holodeck yet, not have I treid the House of Leaves yet (it is in my library, I have heard tons about it, but I have no time to experience it myself though.... *sigh*)

it seems to me that in your reticences against this type of postmodern fiction, you regret mainly one thing: the loss of linearity.
However, when you think of it, a narrative doesn't need to be linear. It perhaps is the most comfortable postulate about a narrative, in a kind of geometrical fashion, like the best way between two points is the straight line, right; but in fact our thought, I would argue, is never linear.
Linearity could be equated with a commodity allowing us to go faster.
I think we are all formatted to linearity, just like a majority of people are formatted to Quattrocento Italian perspective in painting for instance.... ok, ok, I'll stop my ramblings....

the contessa