HYPERTEXT FICTION, THAT FORM of storytelling available on the Internet and CD-ROM in which narratives are embellished and enhanced by links, branching, interactivity, and multi-media, has existed for only about 10 years. Robert Coover pointed out that he was able to read all of American hypertext in four hours. The form is always, it seems, at a point of redefinition. Is it valid literature?

Like much of the Internet (and like so many books), lots of hypertext fiction is pure junk, and not even entertaining. It leans so heavily on form that slick production can start to stand in for content. But in keeping with the Internet's communication modes -- bulletin boards, MUDs, Moos, Internet Relay Chat, and the like -- hypertext (like virtual reality) does not assume a Lockean objectivity or neutrality of the human senses. Every hypertext piece of narrative, by virtue of its existence, implies the postmodern-cool critique that traditional narrative form (i.e., bound paper) is but one limited way to experience text.

Hypertext re-imagines fiction as a pathway through a series of doors, or a moving target the reader fixes upon that might change based on the personal proclivities of the reader, or not. A hypertext fiction, in its very inception, is a fragmented tale -- and that's an exciting place to begin.

The form is surrounded by controversy. I don't know of any official forum or editorial discussion place for this argument, but the disagreements crop up socially, say at parties: Opponents of hypertext are aghast at the thought that computer-generated narratives might replace the form of literature that's been constant since the printing press was invented. Opponents hold superstitious fears that literature produced this way and swirled freely around the globe via electronics will bring dehumanization. In some ways, the pro and con literature/technology camps are simply a territorial war, animal style, and neither side wants to give in a little.

The worries are not all aesthetic. Among publishers, there's concern about copyright changes and financial losses: How will the industry stop people from passing around instant copies of new literature on the Net? If books lose their physicality, it will become much easier to manufacture and distribute them, but more difficult to convince people to buy them.

We can always go back to scrolls, or farther back, to mud tablets: Books, at one time, were a threatening new technology. Likewise, the modern invention of painting on canvas is bad -- if one must do flat painting, at least do it on walls as god intended. Why do things change? Why do mediums change?

A good place to get a handle on the CD-ROM hyperfiction world is at www.eastgate.com, which markets and sells works like Michael Joyce's Afternoon, A Story, possibly the first commercial hypertext. Eastgate has a slick-looking catalogue of other offerings, too, including Nine Vicious Little Hypertexts by Deena Larsen. Eastgate also sells Storyspace, a program for writing hypertext fiction.

The Electronic Book Review's issues 5, 6, 7, and 9 (www.altx.com/ebr/) are devoted to hypertext, "electropoetics," and image/narrative, with thoughtful theoretical writings and samples of fiction experiments, including Nicole Brossard's feminist "Holographic Hyperfiction," The Three-Dimensional Woman.

An example of a more prosaic site is the Company Therapist (www.thetherapist.com), which amounts to an exhaustive soap opera ostensibly from the files of a counselor/therapist who routinely sees employees of a fictional company. The sheer volume of notes, letters, appointment book, and files is both impressive and off-putting; though the site has won a number of Internet awards, including Net Magazine's Site of the Year, much of this material is uncompressed and artless, without threads of emphasis marbled through the whole. The massive numbers of authors of the Company Therapist ultimately constitutes a weakness, but this is one of the key issues at stake in hypertext creation, and what, in part, makes it an exciting medium: At best, it's a commie laboratory for creativity.

An example of this is a site from Vancouver, BC: Tim McLaughlin's Light Assemblage at Knossos.com. It's an architectural proposal for a "Canadian pavilion," featuring whimsical but structural drawings of a graceful, imaginary public space. McLaughlin goes to great lengths with this dream, providing elevations and floor plans linked with sheer and lambent poetry describing the place he envisions. Some of the savory ruminations on types of light:

"Canadian light

This light is peculiar,

as if it were a dime caught in a snowbank,

as if it lacked a name."

Another compelling photo/essay site concerns the history and current life of the L.A. Century Freeway, and how the L.A electric car system of the early 1900s was usurped by automakers and the waxing American dream of independent mobility. This site (tmn.com/iop/), designed by photographer Jeff Gates, is sort of unintentional hypertext: It's not named as such, but it incorporates a sprawling flow of words, interactive maps, and haunted, airless, humanless photos in a configuration that fulfills the potential and spirit of hypertext.

Research assistance by John BraleyBOOKS

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