Science Fiction Studies

#61 = Volume 20, Part 3 = November 1993

Brooks Landon

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 "In 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 term--"culturally online."

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 STUDIES.

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 the 1990's.

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 begins:

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,, 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 Beyond Cyberpunk 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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