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An Interactive Novelist’s Wishlist

New Media Magazine February 1993 by Charles Wehrenberg

     “Fiction versus non-fiction isn’t significant. It’s all fiction, all just viewpoints. What is history but differing perspectives about times past?” – Timothy Leary

     Leary’s willingness to blend fact and fiction is his charm, and maybe 20th century aesthetic is the metamorphosis of dada into data. Yet, to my mind, there is a difference, which might explain why most CD-ROM titles are non-fiction. Database integrity and database bias are key issues in non-fiction, where facts rather than anecdotes guide events. With fiction, other issues take priority.

     Debates over the proper role of interactive fiction continue: Should readers choose their own plot lines or should the interactivity be limited to assuming different points of view? Would a reader want to pop up a character’s family tree or play a Quicktime movie of the author in her home office? Will interactive fiction turn the reader into the author and relegate the author to the status of librarian?

     Graham Nash, a photographer and writer as well as musician of Crosby Stills and Nash fame, has created a digital fine art atelier in Manhattan Beach, California, called Nash Editions to develop interactive CD-ROM titles. He and I are working together on an upcoming series based on a detective named Sam Thrasher. In these “books” we’re creating interactions that are more akin to casting a movie than helping the reader share authorship.

     “We are less interested in multiple pathways than in providing ever-expanding access to Sam Thrasher’s mind at any one time, like his forensic knowledge, or his ladies underwear fantasies, or his vintage Dusenberg restoration project, or what song is rattling around in his head, “Nash explains. “For me, it always comes around to the music.”

     To Nash, audio is multimedia’s neglected ingredient. “Novels originate in language, they are about voices,” he says. “Unfortunately, Silicon Valley seems intent on perpetuating the video equivalent of silent films. Silent films were only a curiosity, while adding a voice track gave Hollywood what was needed to become the voice of the 20th century.”

     Where is the voice of the electronic novel? Let’s consider what it is to curl up for a good read – how would that translate to the world of electronic books. If I were to produce the ultimate playback tool for the interactive novel, I would call it the Stoyteller’s Peripheral Utterance Device (SPUD). The SPUD must be light. Sony’s Multimedia CD player is close at 2 pounds, but for people to get comfortable, the hardware had better weigh less than a pound.

     The battery-powered SPUD would look like a TV infrared remote mated with a 12 - by 80- character LCD. It would command multimedia playback units from across the room, such as a smart CD-ROM drive. Text would automatically be downloaded into the SPUD’s two megabytes of RAM. Each page would hold 100 words - 30 to 60 seconds for the average reader. (Most people read fiction more slowly than non-fiction, less than 200 words per minute.) The SPUD will also need a trackball, a command key and functions like Go To, Turn Page, Search and Define. For more control, SPUD will let you activate a big, beautiful GUI on your TV screen.

     Synopsis support is a must. How often have you had to put down a book for weeks at a time? What you need is a customized synopsis that can refresh your memory – or let you cheat and look ahead.

     But the most critical feature is sound, not only CD-quality music but the option to have text read to you on the spot, in a variety of voices. Fiction readers literally hear voices in their head as they read, so why not bring those voices to life?

     The problem is that even with compression, the narrative volume of a novel would be immense. That’s why on-the-fly, text-to-speech translation is so critical, especially to implement a “casting” type of interaction that requires multiple narrative interpretations.

     “You should be able to load different speech fonts like you load printer fonts,” says Richard Jacks of First Byte which licenses text-to-speech software to Creative Labs and others. Very nice idea. Rumor has it that Apple and IBM are working on text-to-speech.

     Narration would allow the electronic novel to retain its kernel of magic; the directed dream of the stylish narrative would survive more vividly than ever. Anything both heard and read is easier to remember because two parts of the brain have inventoried it. After all, this is how storytelling began.

[Charles Wehrenberg is a writer, art dealer, and multi-media developer living in San Francisco]

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     NOTE: The article above is as it was published in 1993, anachronisms and all. It is 2011; Leary is now a was, having died in 1996. Nash went his own way with Nash Editions while the wireless paradigm has changed absolutely everything. After Jeffrey Bezos of Amazon brought the Kindle reader into play; the iPad, Blackberry and Android soon followed. Interesting times. Not quite everything I would have wanted, yet, but I am optimistic. You will see if you check out the Solo Zone Publishing titles available at the Amazon.com Kindle store.

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