Hypertext and Science Fiction
Gareth Branwyn, Peter Sugarman, et al.
Beyond Cyberpunk: A Do-It-Yourself Guide to the Future.
The Computer Lab, Rt. 4, Box 54C, Louisa, VA 23093. $35.00 (plus $2.50 S&H).
Better add "hypertext" either to the list of words you've already heard waaaay too
many times or to the list you know you'll be hearing waaaay too many times in years to
come. You know the list; top-heavy with "de-" and "post-" prefixes, it has recently
grown fond of "hyper-" and "cyber-" anything. Former nosebleed theory words like
"deconstruction," "decenteredness." "poststructuralism," "postmodernism," "posthumanism," now have to compete in the buzzword marketplace with
"hypertext," "hypermedia," "cyberarts," "cybercrud," "cyberculture," and, yes, that
golden-oldie-- "cyberpunk." These are words that have oozed down from the ivory tower or
up from once marginal subcultures to pave the floor of our cultural consciousness--like
the Ju Jus, Junior Mints, Sweet Tarts, and Twizzlers that stick to our feet at the local
neighborhood theater. Yet these are all words of vital importance for the study and
understanding of late science fiction, if not of contemporary culture, and it may turn out
that "hypertext" is the most important of the lot. Indeed, if SF, the fabled "literature of change," is to continue to deserve the cultural authority it has codified
during the last few decades, it will almost certainly need to confront the changed status
of writing made possible by hypertext technology. Or, to put this another way, science
fiction, the literature with a special relationship to technology, will have to recognize
that writing is itself a fundamental technology--one that is undergoing massive change.
Or, to put this yet another way, not all "cold equations" have to do with weight in
space. As Avital Ronell in her Mondo 2000 interview broke the tough news to SF's
nostalgic stowaways, "There is no off switch to the technological."
Accordingly, it should be a matter of pride to the SF community that one of the first
well-developed discursive hypertexts, Beyond Cyberpunk,* a HyperCard stack
system, is firmly grounded not just in cyberpunk, one mode of SF thinking, but in the
basic attitude toward the world that makes SF an epistemology rather than just a genre.
Which is to say that even if Beyond Cyberpunk were a terrible hypertext, it would
still deserve our respect and applause for representing the present, if not the future, in
a cutting-edge field that has ironically looked almost exclusively to the past in
developing exploratory hypertexts such as the Perseus Project and George Landow's
Memoriam" and "Victorianism" webs. It is a relief to see that SF has not completely
ceded the future of electronic multimedia--if not the future of writing itself--to
classicists and Victorian scholars. But, relax, no circuitous theoretical justifications
are needed here: Beyond Cyberpunk is a most impressive hypertext--well-designed,
well-programmed, easy to use, filled with useful, engaging, entertaining information (as
well as a goodly number of multimedia surprises), and it is sure to take its place along
with Michael Joyce's "Afternoon," and George Landow's "Dickens Web" in the first
generation of canonical hypertexts. Or, to put this another way: Buy Beyond Cyberpunk,
jack in, and learn a lot of the stuff you need to know to get--in Rudy Rucker's brilliant
A brief digression on hypertext: (On the outside chance that "hypertext" is not a
term you know well, this digression may be useful.) Put most simply, hypertext is a new
stage or kind of writing made possible by computers. No less than did the invention of
this printing press, this new stage of writing offers revolutionary changes in the way we
understand the world and, of course, in the way we write, read, and teach. Despite the
fact that hypertext has now been widely and popularly theorized (including the
persuasively argued claim that in providing a nonlinear, non-hierarchical, and nonpatriarchal reading experience hypertext is inherently deconstructive and delivers
almost all of the desiderata of postructuralist literary theory), few of us have much
hands-on experience either in constructing or in accessing hypertexts. In this sense, Beyond
Cyberpunk serves an important double function, as it introduces its own
technology--the form, syntax, and feel of hypertext--as well as cyberpunk/cyberculture.
Editor Gareth Branwyn acknowledges as much when he suggests of his construction:
"Perhaps the most interesting manifesto here is the stack itself."
Hypertext serves as a metaphor for a range of textual and multimedia configurations
that arise from the ability to link any place in text stored in a computer with any other
place in the same or different texts. Ted Nelson, who coined the term "hypertext,"
defines it most simply as "non-sequential writing." George Landow elaborates:
Hypertext denotes an information medium that links verbal and nonverbal information....
Electronic links connect lexias "external" to a work--say, commentary on it by another
author or parallel or contrasting texts--as well as within it and thereby create text that
is experienced as nonlinear, or, more properly, as multilinear or multisequential.
Hypertext frees us from economies of scale in both time and space that have always made
impractical more than limited allusions to the contexts in which literature lives. In
hypertext a footnote can be longer than the work it annotates, be a complete work itself,
and be linked to other notes or annotations that are themselves complete texts.
Moreover, the hypertext annotation can be print, illustrations, sound, or even movies.
Hypertext is in great part a new way of writing because it allows one to "write" with a
full range of multimedia tools, extending the idea of hypertext to photos, paintings, (all
manner of graphics), Quicktime movies, animation, sound files, etc. Hypertexts can be
fictional, such as Michael Joyce's "Afternoon," Stuart Moulthrup's "Victory Garden,"
Sarah Smith's "King of Space," or Carolyn Guyer's and Martha Petry's "Izme Pass," or
they can be discursive or exploratory such as the "Dickens Web" or the "In Memoriam
Web" developed at Brown by Landow and others. Beyond Cyberpunk, then, is a
discursive or exploratory multimedia hypertext. While strong claims can be made for the
novelty of the hypertext reading experience, discursive hypertexts such as BCP
can be thought of as embodying the kind of linking, contextualization, formal recognition,
and annotation that has always been the backbone of literary education in general and in
particular of the "conjectural reading" at the heart of the SF intertext.
Curiously enough, the BCP stack is almost completely silent on the subject of
hypertext, missing a bet for suggesting just how important and pervasive one of the key
technologies of cyberculture may become. The other bet BCP misses is noting the
phenomenon of proto-hypertext novels such as Le Guin's Always Coming Home or
Pavic's Dictionary of the Khazars. Nor do its many source notes include a
reference to Eastgate Systems, the hands-down industry leader in developing,
"publishing," and marketing hypertext products, including BCP, just as BCP
represents both a challenge to and opportunity for SF "scholarship," hypertext
technology and interactive fictions such as Sarah Smith's "King of Space" confront SF
writing with both challenge and opportunity. If the possibilities of BCP attract you,
check out Eastgate Systems' hypertext offerings. Eastgate Systems, Inc., 134 Main Street,
Watertown, MA 02172.
A brief digression on brief digressions: Of course in a hypertext digressions of any
length can be hidden in the cyberspace "behind" any word or image on the screen, to be
sampled only if the reader/user wishes to follow that path. One of the most frustrating
aspects of reviewing BCP is to realize again and again that to move the
discussion of nonsequential and nonhierarchical hypertext back into the linear and
hierarchical world of fixed print is definitely a retrograde step. One of the most
embarrassing aspects of reviewing BCP is to realize how much closer to taking
advantage of this powerful and exciting technology are zines such as bOING, bOING than are
"cutting-edge" academic journals such as SCIENCE-FICTION
A brief digression on cyberpunk/cyberculture: (On the outside chance that
"cyberpunk" and "cyberculture" are not terms you know well, this digression won't be of any use at
all.) The "Beyond" part of Beyond Cyberpunk pretty clearly refers to cyberpunk
considered purely as a literary phenomenon. BCP offers no readings of Neuromancer
or any other cyberpunk novel or story, no attempts to explain Gibson, Sterling, et al., no
attempt to locate cyberpunk fiction in the context of postmodernism or of SF. Instead, the
focus of this hypertext is on cyberculture. It does offer information about music, body
editing, comics, graphic novels, anime, zines, techno-slang, performance art-- all
"strains of this curious cultural mutation" that was first clearly articulated in
cyberpunk fiction. "In the tunnels of the underground, in the halls of academe, and in
pop culture," notes Gareth Branwyn, "people are taking Cyberpunk seriously." He
explains "that Goddamn Cyber-word...has come to mean simply the grafting of
high-technology onto underground, street, and avant pop culture":
Cyberculture is the lack-of-better word label that is given to the place where computer
technology meets popular culture. The current generation of young people have grown up
with PCs, LEDS, and MTV. Technology is a seamless part of their lives. Computers are no
more foreign to them than transistor radios were to the last generation. As technology has
saturated it, youth culture (and avant garde culture) has started to express itself
through a "techno-symbiosis." For good AND ill, a new cult of the machine is arising.
This is an exciting time where a new domain of cultural expression is being created,
debated, and negated. The purpose of this stack is to help fuel this critical debate in
NOT A DIGRESSION--What You Need and What You Get: To experience BCP you need a
Mac with a hard drive (I understand that a DOS version is in the works), 1.5 Megs of RAM,
5.5 Megs of free disk space, HyperCard 2 or 2.1 (be sure that you've allocated at least
1.5 Megs to HyperCard's memory), and a good bit of time. This stack contains over 300
pieces of writing by lots of people worth reading, countless hypertextual links, a lot of
fairly useless but aesthetically pleasing and fun animation and sound effects, and an
invaluable database/dadabase of information about cyberpunk/cyberculture
resources. The version I have took a few minutes and several steps to install,
but newer versions can apparently be installed by a one-click installation
process. Once the stack system is installed and you've clicked to open the "CyberDeck" stack, sit back for a
minute-and-a-half Macromind Player animation (by using the Preferences option in the Tools
menu you can shorten this sequence, determine the frequency of unexpected appearances by
the cyber-wisdom-spouting cartoon character, Kata Sutra, and determine the level of sound
effects that accompany all moves within the stack) that puts a very busy screen design
through a number of kinetic moves accompanied by vaguely industrial sound effects that
crescendo and strobe their way to a basic screen menu. From this basic screen you can
choose HELP (the Question Mark Icon in the upper left corner) or
one of the stack's four primary zones of information: Media, Manifestoes, Street Tech, and
CyberCulture. Each zone contains essays, reviews, artwork, sounds, and animations--some
invoked randomly. I recommend checking out the Help screen before you try the zones,
however navigating in this stack is a breeze--no "feature shock" here. Click on a zone,
say Manifestoes, then click on one of its essays, say Bruce Sterling's "Cyberpunk in the
Nineties." You can page through the nineteen screens that make up that essay as Sterling
has us imagine "a cyberpunk version of Frankenstein" ("The Monster would have been
copyrighted through the new genetics laws, and manufactured worldwide in many thousands.
Soon the Monsters would all have lousy night jobs mopping up at fast-food restaurants."),
follow any or all of the bold-faced words in the essay to their links elsewhere in the
stack (examples: Lewis Shiner, Interzone, anti-humanist), or you can go to the index or
glossary to find other Sterling references. Each screen contains underneath the text
windows four buttons--ZONES, TOOLS, LOCATION, and HELP--that
insure you not only never get lost in the stack, but can also easily move from any point
to any other point. For instance, hitting the HELP button pops up a
menu that lets you choose to go to either Credits, Purchase (more on this later),
Glossary, Contents, Index, or Help. At the lower right corner of each screen are
forward/backward arrows that can be toggled to move you through each page of each essay
(Page mode) or from first page to first page of each offering (Browse mode). At the lower
right corner of each screen is an EXIT button. The resulting
interface is about as user-friendly and foolproof as things get in hypertext.
After the eleven essays (anytime you wish you can print out essays and reviews, using
the pop-up menu for the Tools button) in this zone, you can browse through the zone's
Resources section, where books including Haraway's Simians, Cyborgs, and Women
and Ronell's The Telephone Book are briefly described. The tone of these
descriptions is delightfully refreshing. For example, the entry on The Telephone Book
Warning: If you do not speak 'pomo,' and do not care to learn, please avoid this book.
Otherwise, you'll bay like a hound and ninny like a goat about how pretentious,
impenetrable, and down-right stupid it is.
However, the crucial next paragraph adds:
If you take life (and postmodernism) considerably less seriously, AND you love language
sado-masochism ('beat me, club me, make me read word salad!') and concrete book art, The
Telephone Book will blow your mind!
Here, as elsewhere, BCP masterfully walks the line between rigor and
irreverence, occasionally crossing toward the latter as in the text annotation for Apocalypse
Culture, where toggling the text icon makes the following screen appear: "We Didn't
Bother To Include Any Excerpts from Apocalypse Culture 'Cause We're
*Way* Bored With This Shock-Schlock Bullshit! Get A Life!" However, even the
rigorous side of that line is frequently amusing as in the description for "deconstructionism" that contains
Walter Truett Anderson's view:
Deconstruction...goes...well beyond right-you-are-if-you-think-you are. Its message is
closer to wrong you are whatever you think, unless you think you're wrong, in which case
you may be right--but you don't really mean what you think you do anyway.
Obviously, BCP never takes itself too seriously, but that is not to say that
it is not a most earnest and committed project. "These are the radio days of
cyberspace," Branwyn observes in one of the stack's essays. "We are gearing up to enter
a new world of our own creation that has slowly been installing itself since the days of
telegraph, radio, and telephone." And for most of us, the "radio days of cyberspace"
will for a good while to come have much more to do with hypertext than with the
conceptually flashier but economically and technologically less accessible appeals of
virtual reality. Indeed, it is important to realize that hypertext technology--as an
example of what Bruce Sterling calls "science that sticks to the skin"--may be even more
a legacy of cyberpunk than is cyberspace.
To fully appreciate the significance of this pioneering HyperCard stack for the way we
write and conduct scholarship, you probably should also read George Landow's Hypertext:
The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology and Jay David Bolter's
Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext, and the History of Writing, but this step
is in no way necessary for appreciating BCP as our most generally savvy guide to
cyberpunk/cyberculture. In the moving-toward-the-docuverse world that can't be that far
off but that will have to defang a phalanx of copyright lawyers, the BCP hypertext
would contain and cross-reference the text of Larry McCaffery's Storming the Reality
Studio, Slusser's and Shippey's Fiction 2000: Cyberpunk and the Future of
Narrative, Mondo 2000's A User's Guide to the New Edge, Sterling's Mirrorshades
anthology, Islands in the Net, and Hacker Crackdown, Gibson's Neuromancer
trilogy, Burning Chrome, and Agrippa, and forty-eleven dozen other
seminal texts, zines, catalogues, songs, and images. For now, however, BCP offers the
fastest/densest introduction to and overview of the many-faceted cultural phenomena
invoked by "cyberpunk."
BCP offers no sustained or systematic analysis, advances no particular
argument, and does not pretend to be exhaustive. What makes it so attractive is the
unpretentious geniality of its essays and reviews and its almost palpable generosity--it's
obvious desire to share information its makers feel important. Unlike Storming the
Reality Studio or Fiction 2000, BCP brings together pieces of writing that
are not contesting with each other to establish a particular take on cyberpunk or to score
points for brilliance or critical adroitness. Indeed, unlike standard academic discourse
that must grind a thesis the pieces in BCP usually posit an idea or two and then
move on, embodying one of its own slogans: "Cyberpunk is endless skimming."
Nevertheless, BCP brings together the words and views of a stunning array of
essayists and reviewers. Consider the list of essayists: Reva Basch, Hakim Bey, Kevin
Bloom, Stephen Brown, Paul Di Filippo, Joan Gordon, Mike Gunderloy, Steve Jackson, Richard
Kadrey, Bruce Kotz, Marc Laidlaw, Andrew Mayer, Luke McGuff, Steve Roberts, Rudy Rucker,
Steve Steinberg, Stelarc, Bruce Sterling, and Robert Anton Wilson. Anyone who hasn't been
asleep for the last decade will probably recognize quite a few of those names. If not, BCP
is a great way to be introduced to this amazingly broad sample of expert skimmers. I was
particularly impressed by the savvy of pieces by Richard Kadrey, Marc Laidlaw, Bruce
Sterling, and by Branwyn himself-better Virgils to lead us through the zones of
cyberculture will be hard to find.
There's no point in trying to summarize or criticize individual entries in this stack,
since it is finally the environment of the stack, its density, its "feel" of texture and
expertise that most recommends it. In this sense, reviewing a well-constructed hypertext
is much more like reviewing an encyclopedia than like reviewing a collection of essays.
Nor is there any way to describe the feel (bliss?) of being able to range freely back and
forth among layers of linked information in the stack. "Exploring this stack is like
scuba diving in an Encyclopedia," enthused one reviewer. "It's not reading information
so much as romping in it!" I'd describe it as more of a theme park tour.
Jay David Bolter explains that hypertext creates a new "space" for writing, and what BCP creates is a space for browsing like no library this side of Borges. Rather than
presenting its views of literature and culture as a series of arguments, this hypertext
provides an environment of information in which readers explore or tour or browse,
according to their own interests and needs. In 1893 the planners of the World's Columbian
Exposition, the first of a series of great and highly symbolic world's fairs at the turn
of the century wanted to make their utopian White City a "walk-in encyclopedia," a space
where visitors would learn by walking from subject-oriented building to subject-oriented
building. Hypertext seems to be the modern embodiment of that ideal, and BCP is a
walk on the wild side of techno-culture. Like some theme park of the mind, BCP
lets you tour a densely textured environment filled with displays of many kinds. Each path
of linkings you follow, each trail of related screens or lexias, each world behind any
single word on the screen offers no less than a conceptual ride. But unlike a physical
theme park, each of these rides has multiple access points and from each point of entry
the ride takes on new meaning, offers a new experience. You might be able to do Disney
World in a day, but BCP provides enough paths and cross-references to keep you
busy and engaged for a lot longer than that. And what you carry away from this electronic
theme park is much more than memories of a good time. It may not be the rusty can opener
that Gibson claims Burroughs waved against society, but it is definitely a nifty Swiss
army knife of a tool.
A brief digression for an E-mail update on BCP from Gareth Branwyn:
We wanted to create something that designed itself around the ideas and aesthetics that
it contained--a street-level information space that one could climb into and wander
around. We felt that HyperCard was such a nifty little people's multimedia environment.
Pushing this low-end MM technology to the limit, while at the same time making it
available to all Mac users, was our design brief.
Aesthetically we were inspired by Gilliam's
Brazil. We wanted our cyberspace to have a
"steampunk" feel and a sense that the whole thing was held together with bailing wire
and hot glue. "Information Contraption" was one of the descriptions we came up with. We
tried to shoe horn in all sort of gimmicks, buttons and switches to press, and several
types of random occurrences. A lot of HyperCard stacks are too shallow and quickly
exhausted by the user. Our goal was to create something that you could come back to again
and again and still discover new things. A world with a life of its own.
The main idea behind Beyond Cyberpunk was three-fold:
1) To create a one-stop shop for absolutely anything having to do with cyberpunk (and
related pomo) science fiction in all its forms (books, movies, comics, zines).
2) To look "beyond cyberpunk," to track where some of the 80s c-punk authors had gone
(Rucker's Transrealism, Kadrey's explorations of fringe culture, Di Filippo's Ribofunk,
Laidlaw's Freestyle, etc.) and to look at how cyberpunk had inspired a new real-world
subculture. The BEYOND part seems even more apropos as the cyber word is being beaten to
death by new-found mainstream interest. (Witness Billy Idol's new "Cyberpunk" record).
Time to move on.
3) To create a new kind of manifesto for a movement that has no center. We wanted the
mapping of this territory to be done by the user, not by us. We provided the raw
information, some basic (often arbitrary) categories (the zones), and lots of linkages and
different ways of navigating through the space. Hypermedia is perfect for this. People
talk a lot about how hypermedia can create a non-linear narrative space for fiction, but
very little has been said about the use of hypermedia for the nomadic exploration of
ideas. We continue to be excited by these possibilities. Gareth Branwyn, firstname.lastname@example.org,
26 June 93
A final digression-on T-shirts: And, when you do finally exhaust this environment of
information (or get exhausted by its eclectic offerings), you can use one of its features
to print out your order form to buy, among other nifties, a T-shirt featuring BCP's
neo-wobbly heroine emblem and pop-up comic-book-wisegal, Kata Sutra. And even here these
guys are disarmingly self-reflective. How's this for a hip sales pitch?
Guilt-Free Commodities: We've done everything we can to make all this stuff sound as
cool and as cutting edge as possible so that you won't feel like you're copping out by
forking over. It's radical hip, cyber-chic, avant pop. This is an anti-advertisement where
we point out the shameless hustle of consumerism and the perils of late capitalism. If
this is done right, you'll experience just the right balance of righteous indignation,
cynicism, and a sense of warmth towards us and our sense of meta-humor. All the negatives
will be cleverly negated, and all you'll be left with is the overwhelming desire to buy
these products. But hey, trust us when we tell you that all the
merchandise IS as cool as it sounds. We've gone that extra mile (which most cut-throat
capitalists skip in order to make more profits), to bring you guilt-free commodities. So
stock up. Don't worry, if we run out, we'll just make more.
My order is in the mail (E-mail, of course).
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