#ELRBOOKS: Book reviews by Mark Bernstein

Originally published on WordPress on the 16th November 2018.

The second review of books related to electronic literature and digital culture is provided by Mark Bernstein, Chief Scientist at Eastgate Systems, Inc. The first publishing and software company to publish works of electronic literature and hypertext fiction appears already in one of the featured interviews. Scholars and fans of electronic literature know the historical significance of Eastgate Systems and for this reason Bernstein’s thorough and varied review of printed books is all the more surprising.

Good read!

Allegra Goodman, The Chalk Artist

This charming, sensitive and closely-observed novel is the most thoughtful examination to date of what computer games mean, and how meaning works in immersive media. Much academic study of narrative in games has been tendentious or indecisive, but Goodman seizes the moment (and the medium) by imagining the collision of a small, passionate group: a sidewalk chalk artist, a young high school teacher whose students won’t listen, a student whose online life is far more interesting than his classroom, and a teenage viral marketing maven. Sooner or later, they all wind up in the periphery of an immersive fiction, a massive multiplayer game in which each, in their different ways, become deeply involved and within which they each separately inscribe their stories.

Goodman understands and acknowledges, but ultimately avoids, the clichés and archetypes that distort so much writing about the video game world. Exceptionally, she draws game artists and coders well. Better still, she understands that games are a medium, and that we see all our questions about art refracted anew in the prism of computation. What is the use of a beautiful line, if that line is written on the back of a restaurant check or scrawled on the pavement? Can art matter if it is effortless? Can effort matter if — as is the case of our struggling school teacher — the audience doesn’t care? Most importantly for understanding new media, Goodman appreciates the hazards of flow, projection and transference in fictive worlds that (as fictive worlds always have) interpenetrate the fields we know.

Also: William Gibson, The Peripheral; Jennifer Egan, A Visit From The Goon Squad.

Lars Spuybroek, The Sympathy Of Things

A difficult book whose challenges are amply repaid by its insights, The Sympathy Of Things reimagines Ruskin’s aesthetics — and specifically his idea of Gothic architecture — in the context of the digital. Crucially, Spuybroek understands that Ruskin’s conception of the Gothic was ahistorical. He doesn’t attempt to repair Ruskin by explaining away the errors, discrepancies and misunderstandings; instead, Spurbroek develops a theory of what Ruskin meant — of the ideas he sought to illustrate and explain by reference to Gothic buildings — and recovers that meaning in a novel theory of digital design.

What Ruskin fundamentally rejected, in this view, was the industrial achievement of superficial finish through infinite replication of identical machine-made goods. A dime-store tumbler might well be superior in clarity and geometrical regularity to the finest 16th century Venetian glass, but the tumbler, made without thought or care, means nothing to us where the Venetian master’s work, flawed as it may seem, bears the mark of that master’s hand. A set of mass-produced flatware is better in almost every regard than our great-grandmother’s battered old ladle, but that ladle has magic simply because it is itself, and because there is none just like it.

Ruskin tried to revive a tradition of craft, of handmade items that might not be perfect but that would retain the mark of their creator’s thought. Arts and Crafts failed as a force for social revolution; we might prefer the hand-made but we also prefer to save money.

Spuybroek’s digital design allows infinite variation without requiring infinite human care and attention. A designer can set boundary conditions and initial parameters and then let algorithms and numerically-controlled machine tools manufacture as many items as we require, each of them unique. You can choose the one you like best, and I can choose another, and through that choice we might understand something about the item, or about ourselves, that neither you, nor I, nor the computer, nor Spuybroek knew before.

Though he never addresses narrative specifically, Spuybroek’s vision notion of a Gothic cathedral created by placing the bases of ribs and then allowing them to grow and intertwine autonomously fits precisely into the crafting of stories. We begin with characters, or with a dramatic situation: we set a stage in the imagination, and see what happens. Spuybroek’s approach, uniquely, explains the constructive hypertextuality of the embedded (and re-embedded) narratives of The Chalk Artist: in particular, how an actor/facilitator can enter into a player’s narrative world and, exploiting projection and transference, adjust the experience in new and unexpected directions.

The codex book is a product of mass production, of infinite, accurate reproduction of texts forever fixed in their canonical sequence, even if that sequence is arbitrary. Hypertext frees literature by allowing the work to reform itself under each reader’s guidance, and Spuybroek for the first time provides a framework for thinking carefully about that process.

Also: Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics for its intelligent reconciliation of distinct media without Mucluhanesque excess; Jo Walton; Among Others for understanding the magic of things and exploring Spuybroek’s underlying problem — that critique cannot be built.

Belinda Barnet, Memory Machines: The Evolution Of Hypertext

Electronic literature has long affected a deep interest in history, prehistory, and preservation. This interest may not always have been sincere: historicizing your rivals can let you put them in their place by placing them in a vanished world. Still, the grand universal library of the World Wide Web realizes an ancient dream, and the hypertext link is clearly the most important textual innovation since the medieval invention of the comma. The Web today may be a playground for bullies and villains, but this is the literary machine we have built: it behooves us to look carefully at how it came to be.

The conventional history of electronic media begins with Vannevar Bush’s popular science essay “As We May Think” and runs through the pioneering work of Ted Nelson, Andries van Dam, and Doug Engelbart. This familiar story is incomplete and arguably wrong: H. G. Wells had the world encyclopedia in the 1930s, Emanuel Goldberg built a Memex-like machine in the 1930s and used it to run a large company, and Murray Leinster (William Fitzgerald Jenkins) published a story about web porn and web-borne violence in 1946.

Still, no one contests the great importance of the canonical pioneers, and Barnet is by far the most careful and insightful historian of their work. Of particular importance is her insight into the central role played by van Dam, and her intelligent portrayal of the Bush, Engelbart and Nelson. She captures the underlying ideas well, and conveys both the strenuous work required to realize those ideas and the fact that our familiar answers were not always obvious and may not have been ideal.

Of course you’ve read: Ted Nelson, Computer Lib/Dream Machines. George P. Landow, Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology.

Also: The Proceedings of the ACM Hypertext Conference in 1987, 1989 and 1991 make fine reading — not exclusively for their historical interest. Silvio Gaggi’s From Text To Hypertext: Decentering the Subject in Fiction, Film, the Visual Arts, and Electronic Media is the best introduction to postmodern ideas for scientists and engineers.

Jason Morningstar, Night Witches

Non-sequential narrative has long been fragmented among rival schools who seldom pay much attention to those outside their familiar orchard: hypertext fiction, interactive fiction, electronic literature, interactive digital storytelling, digital memoir, hyperdrama. Tabletop role-playing games (which descend from Gary Gygax’s brilliant but unreadable Dungeons and Dragons) inspired interactive fiction and provided a foil against which hyperfiction defined itself, but the past decade has led a generation of extremely thoughtful (and theoretically-grounded writers) to explore the ramifications of malleable and socially-constructed narrative in the context of narratives tabletop games.

Among these theoreticians, Jason Morningstar stands out for his versatility, his prose, and for the ambition of his subjects. In Fiasco, Morningstar examined the off-kilter logic of the caper tragic-comedy. In Grey Ranks, he explored a game universe (the 1944 Warsaw uprising) that cannot and will not come to good. In Night Witches, he turns to the story of the Soviet 588th Night Bomber Regiment, an outfit in the Second World War that was staffed exclusively by women and that was, as a result, constantly at war with its own army as well as the Germans. Against this intolerable situation (for which see Svetlana Alexievich. The Unwomanly Face of War), Morningstar sets up a complex dramatic problem: how can these women perform their duties, avoid the snares of hostile bureaucrats and secret police, and still find love and meaning in the time available to them? Most interestingly, how can a group construct satisfactory stories about characters in a world where fate is not entirely in the author’s hands, a world where there is neither God nor Narrator?

Of particular interest in Morningstar’s work is his approach to creating characters from the intersecting tensions of multiple conflicts and multiple, disparate aspirations. In Grey Ranks we cannot hope to win in any conventional sense, but we can strive for desirable, contingent outcomes. We might sacrifice ourselves for love. We might do all we could, and more, and escape into madness. We might become a historic martyr, an inspiration to future generations. We might take arms against our sea of troubles. All these are conceivable and conceivably-acceptable outcomes, but which we can achieve is contingent not only on the outside world but also on our relations with other players. Night Witches is even more open: again, we cannot expect to win in any conventional sense and we cannot escape, but within the constraints of this terrible war, anything might happen.

A particular concern of narrativist games in this century has been the problematic role of the “game master” or dramaturg, and its replacement by some sort of emergent behavior. Just as recent years brought revived interest in the familiar pleasures of plot (Michael Chabon, Amor Towles, Nick Harkaway, and Jill Lepore are just four names that leap to mind), narrativist games have done remarkable work in exploring just what plots are, how the machinery works, and what characters actually want.

Also: D. Vincent Baker, Dogs In The Vineyard; Paul Czege, My Life With Master.

Iain Pears, Arcadia

No reading list about electronic literature is now conceivable without including at least one hypertext. As a publisher, though, I suppose I ought not to single out work we’ve published, like Michael Joyce’s pioneering afternoon, a story or Shelley Jackson’s evocative Patchwork Girl, much less my own school story, Those Trojan Girls. Hence Arcadia, which is hypertextually simple (though not without interest) but brilliantly and accessibly written.

Arcadia describes an Oxford don and his fantasy world, interleaving his own life with that of those who inhabit his portal fiction. That Oxfordian himself might be a fictive subject, imagined (or constructed?) in a dystopia future. These interpenetrating stories are woven into a textual tapestry (for which compare Michael Joyce’s web fiction Twelve Blue) and are intended for reading on a phone or tablet. The framework was lovingly developed and implemented by Faber & Faber, once implacably hostile to literature on computers. Times change.