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hyperfiction: past and future

I’ve been an ardent fan of hypertext for about as long as I can remember, even before I’d ever been exposed to the web.

I’ve had this Salon article on hyperfiction open in a browser tab for a full year, wanting to write about it. I think it gets the sentiment largely right. “Then nothing happened,” and that’s a shame. I still can’t figure out why hyperfiction isn’t a bigger thing by now.

The folks who pioneered this in the 80s and 90s are brilliant people, both in technology and literary chops. Such is the logic of technology–arrive too early to the party and miss the boat (to fuse two metaphors by way of blunt force trauma). Today the market for hyperfiction is thinly populated, I can confidently say as one who’s shopped hyperfiction around. The wonderful exception is Eastgate, perhaps the single company I most admire. But even there, obvious signs tell the story that this isn’t a thriving marketplace of ideas. Hypertexts sell for full retail–there’s not much of a secondary market, or anything like mass market paperback pricing. Those based on StorySpace still aren’t compatible with the two latest verisions of OSX. A few libraries have the classics of the hypertextual genre, but often these are treated as part of the “media” collection–more like a DVD than a novel–and may not be available for interlibrary loans. All of these combine to make it difficult for new readers to get up to speed with what’s been done in the field.

You’d think there’s a natural fit between speculative fiction hangouts (where I’m likely to be seen) and hyperfiction. It still seems more of a theoretical idea than an actual thing though. For instance, the submission guidelines for Strange Horizons state:

We like the idea of hypertext fiction, but we have not yet published any. If you want to send us a hypertext story, query us to discuss how to submit it.

Ideomancer’s guidelines state:

 We are especially interested in non-traditional formats, hyperfiction, and work that explores the boundaries not just of its situation but of the internet-as-page.

Though to my knowledge, they haven’t published any yet. UPDATE: yes, they have–see comments.

Technology has moved a great distance in a short time. Everyday browsers now common on every desktop have much better rendering and scripting engines than the dedicated hyperfiction-reader-apps of a few years ago. There’s some encouraging signs, for example the open source Undum engine, which works in any “HTML5” browser and is readily customizable. Modern browsers can do a ridiculous amount of cool stuff.

I have this crazy dream of getting a new generation of technologically-savvy readers (many of whom weren’t even yet born when Michael Joyce’s seminal Afternoon, a Story was published) hooked on hypertext. I want to see YA and middle-grade hypertexts getting published. Horror and skiffy and fantasy and literary and humor and westerns and you name it. I want there to the a dozen different online hypertext magazines per genre, all thriving. I want the basics of hypertext to be taught in grammar school.

As a small initial step, I’m happy to announce that one of my hypertexts has been published, Through the Mirror, Darkly at TheNewerYork magazine, also featured in their Electric Encyclopedia of Experimental Literature. My fellow Viable Paradise alumni Jake Kerr wrote the story initially, and I get the blame for carving it up.

Go read. Go write some nodes and link ’em up. I want see what your brilliant mind can come up with.

P.S. If you want to read more hypertexts, check out Eastgate’s reading room and the Electronic Literature Foundation. For a more academic treatment of hypertext, Eastgate’s collection Reading Hypertext is hard to beat.

1 Comment

  1. Hi Micah. We have published two hyperfiction stories — the most recent one was “Neural Net” by Kenneth Schneyer in issue 10:4.


    We also have the recent “The Artist in the Tower” in the current issue by author Adam Mills, which isn’t specifically hyperfiction but does make use of footnotes in a way that I think is at least slightly metafictional.


    As you’ve seen we do actively solicit hyperfiction, we just receive very very little of it, so by the numbers we publish it rarely, as the work itself has to be up to the standards of the rest of the magazine. We love when that happens, though. 🙂

    Thanks for mentioning us in your post!

Micah Joel

Purveyor of things geeky