Interactive Fiction That Doesn't Work

I had a play around with a new website called We Tell Stories, set up by the UK publisher Penguin; it's a step into interactive fiction, and just won an award at South by Southwest, which I've only vaguely heard of, but apparently hands out awards for innovative websites. There are several of these interactive projects you can play around with on the website. One tells a story imposed over a google map of London, so that with each click on 'next' a line is drawn to another point on the map. There's another called 'Fairy Stories', where you get to fill in the name of the characters as you go along.

I'm all for innovation in fiction, but here's why We Tell Stories doesn't work, and why I don't expect the website to still be around in a year's time, if even that long. Fiction is a passive experience; the internet is an interactive experience. If you tell a story where you keep having to click 'next' just to watch a silly blue line scroll across a map, you lose your reader in five minutes flat, because it's a hell of a lot more 'immersive' to just read the damn story without any whistles and bells attached. That's why ereaders have proved so popular, despite their prohibitive cost and associated software/format problems; they come the closest to recreating the passive experience of reading an actual paper book. I don't want to have to come up with the names of characters for stories, because that's the writer's job, to draw me into a world of their creation. If I have to keep coming up with names, I'm going to get annoyed and bored. Which I did, by the way. Don't believe me? Next time you're in the pub and someone's telling a really good story, see if it's improved by them showing you a google map of where they went on that particular day. Er, no.

That's not to say I'm entirely against it. Like I say, innovation is a good thing, and experimenting is always worthwhile. However, as most scientists will tell you, most experiments provide 'fail' results. Where I can see some of these fiction models working is with very young children, where story-time is in fact a collaborative process between child and parent. I'd have loved something like this as a wee kid, and obviously slanted for my age. But 'We Tell Stories', I'm afraid, isn't it, and what particularly set alarm bells ringing was a Mr Hon's statement (according to the BBC report where I first learned of the site, anyway) that '"E-books are boring - they are just taking a manuscript and turning it into a PDF.'

Oh dear. And I suppose reading is a bit boring too, isn't it, Mr Hon? Here's the deal; if you need bells and whistles to persuade you to sit down and read a story, then frankly, nothing's going to make you want to read it. Not even that, er, great aid to reading, Google Maps.


Audrey Niffenegger gets $5m for second novel

Dear Ms. Niffenegger;

As you may be aware, a recent financial crisis in the United Kingdom has caused tumbling shares and the public pillorying of over-paid bank executives. In order to free personal funds trapped in various HBOS and Lloyds accounts, I need to find an overseas partner who is prepared to deposit, purely by way of a demonstration of trust, the sum of $5 million US dollars into an anonymous Swiss bank account, details to follow ...


Spent two weeks in Tainan down south visiting Emma's mum, then back up for a few days, then off to Hong Kong to get some visa stuff sorted out. I don't travel at all well, and I more or less crashed out the past day or two until I felt like a functioning human being again. It's been almost a week since I last set eyes on the third Dakota book, which for me is a long time. I feel just about fit enough to start working on it again.

My agent's been slightly urging me in the direction of returning to the UK, at least briefly, for publicity reasons, for Nova War. I think she's referring primarily to magazine interviews and stuff like that, but every single one I've ever done was either over the phone or by email and didn't actually require my physical presence. When it comes to other kinds of publicity work - readings and signings, for instance - I've never quite made up my mind about either the necessity or effectiveness of such, at least for a mostly unknown author like myself. I've been to readings and signings by the likes of Neal Stephenson, and they tended to be fairly underwhelming in terms of their attendance (mind you, it was several years ago, about the time Cryptonomicon came out), and if the man who wrote Snow Crash can still get a bare few dozen to turn up at an event, what hope is there for the rest of us?

I'm inclined to the belief that author events are only really any good when the author has already developed a name; Greg Egan seems to have done just fine as a SF writer without ever showing his face. Online interviews, reviews and interviews in glossy publications like SFX, sure, but I've never been motivated one way or the other to buy someone's book because they happened to be doing a reading at my local Waterstone's. In this day and age, it's an online presence that really counts. Giving stuff away free, posting sample chapters; that's where it's at now.


On Hard SF

A couple of things got me thinking recently about the distinction between 'hard' sf and everything else, particularly after finishing reading an anthology called 'The Hard SF Renaissance', edited by David Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer. Put slightly crudely, a popular distinction of Hard SF is that it's based on plausible scientific ideas and conjecture, whereas everything in the fantasy box isn't. Again, this isn't a criticism, it's an observation.

When I became a published writer, I had a bit of an identity crisis. Some reviewers referred to me as a writer of 'hard sf'. How could I be, if I couldn't do an Egan and spend half a year working out the physics of my next book? In that case, did that make me a writer of fantasy, or science fantasy at the very least? After all, I had faster than light travel, worm holes, and force fields - all stuff firmly in the realm of fantasy according to those more scientifically literate.

I was therefore enormously relieved to find not one but two thoroughly clear-eyed summaries of the essential spirit of science fiction in the aforementioned anthology in the form of Peter Watts' and Ted Chiang's introductions to their own stories.

From Ted Chiang's introduction to 'Understand':

"SF needn’t have any­thing to do with sci­ence, but to the ex­tent that a work of SF re­flects sci­ence, it’s hard SF. And re­flect­ing sci­ence doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily mean con­sis­ten­cy with a cer­tain set of facts; more es­sen­tial­ly, it means con­sis­ten­cy with a cer­tain strat­egy for un­der­stand­ing the uni­verse. Sci­ence seeks a type of ex­pla­na­tion dif­fer­ent from those sought by art or re­li­gion, an ex­pla­na­tion where ob­jec­tive mea­sure­ment takes prece­dence over sub­jec­tive ex­pe­ri­ence. And though hard SF can take many dif­fer­ent forms, it al­ways de­scribes peo­ple look­ing for or work­ing with that type of ex­pla­na­tion.”

The second quote is from Peter Watts' introduction to one of two stories he has in the anthology:

"... hard SF is of­ten dis­tin­guished from its soft­er, in­fe­ri­or cousins by virtue of ad­her­ence to rig­or­ous — or at least, plau­si­ble — sci­ence. Plau­si­ble, is it? Okay, then: Good­bye Niv­en, good­bye Her­bert and Vinge. Be­gone with your genes that code for luck, your space­ships pi­lot­ed by psy­chics, and your galac­tic Slow Zones. Good­bye Brin: A Ph.D. should’ve known bet­ter than to re­sort to ftl. You’re not plau­si­ble enough for this sand­box.

But of course I’m at­tack­ing a straw man here — be­cause as we all know, it’s not the math that counts, it’s the at­ti­tude. (...) we may not have the blueprints for a warp en­gine handy, but you’d bet­ter be­lieve that our fu­ture tech­nolo­gies have sprung from the same em­pir­ical sci­ence that gave us Teflon and chemother­apy. Our tales abide by the spir­it of sci­ence, if not the let­ter."

Our tales abide by the spirit of science, if not the letter. How great is that? There's more - a lot more - Watts has to say, but I've taken a fat enough quote out of the book as it is. For my tastes, these two arguments represent what I believe is the best analysis yet both of what sf is and what it's for. Does that mean I'm a 'hard sf' writer? I suspect not, at least certainly not compared to those authors who have the relative advantage of a working background in the sciences. But then am I a writer of science fiction, or technological fantasy? Given the above arguments, I think it's safe to say I do indeed write sf.
And it gives me a much more certain sense of what it is I do, and why I do it.