Hypertext fiction takes us back to the future

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First aired on Spark (15/1/12)

iPads. Kindles. kobos. Nooks. These tablets are becoming increasingly popular and they are changing the way people read books. But, for the most part, these tablets are designed to model the experience of reading a traditional paper novel. They might have dictionaries and links to other content, but it's an experience that should feel familiar to readers.

But what if these devices gave us the opportunity to push the medium of the book and give us an entirely new experience? If we have devices that can do so much more than reproduce text, where is the new kind of fiction, the novel 2.0?

That's where Paul LaFarge comes in. His novel, Luminous Airplanes, comes in two editions. There's the paperback version, available in your local bookstore. Then there's the online version, which LaFarge calls "an indefinitely extensible non-linear story told in a digital medium." It's part Choose-Your-Own Adventure, part linked short stories collection: the online version of Luminous Airplanes is a branching, non-linear story that unfolds based on the links you click.

This idea of a "hypertext" novel isn't a new one. In fact, the concept was buzzed about in the 1990s, but the genre quickly fizzled out. Twenty years later, with the emergence of e-readers and tablets, hypertext novels seem primed to launch a new age of fiction.

Except LaFarge doesn't want you to call it a "hypertext" novel. Since the original hypertext fiction projects "didn't go anywhere," LaFarge and his publishers chose to call it immersive fiction because "you can get quite deep in exploring the different branches of the story."

LaFarge chalks up the failure of the first incarnation of hypertext fiction to a single reason: the technology simply wasn't ready. Computers were large and clunky, and screen resolution was low. "There wasn't any pleasant way to read a long electronic document," he said in a recent interview on Spark. "That discouraged people from both writing in the form and from getting involved as readers."

This kind of writing seems tailor-made for tablets, and that's why LaFarge went back to the future with his writing. He wants to give readers possibility and make then an active participant in the storytelling process. He wants fiction to closely model our contemporary lives. "Fiction is about representing what it's like to be in the world," he said. That world has changed rapidly since the 1990s. Hypertext is everywhere else: where you bank, where you research, where you shop. So why not where you read?

"The immersive text has the power to represent...this enormous multiplicity of information that is always there for you," he said. "This is a lot like what it's like to be alive."


Luminous Airplanes

by Paul LaFarge

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From the publisher:

"In September 2000, a young programmer comes home from a fes­tival in the Nevada desert and learns that his grandfather has died, and that he has to return to Thebes, a town which is so isolated that its inhabitants have their own language, in order to clean out the house where his family lived for five generations. While he's there, he runs into Yesim, a Turkish American woman whom he loved as a child, and begins a romance in which past and present are dangerously confused. At the same time, he remembers San Francisco in the wild years of the Internet boom, and mourns the loss of Swan, a madman who may have been the only person to understand what was happening to the city, and to the world."

Read more at MacMillan.