Digital Fiction 1.0: Hardly prophetic

I've had a long piece knocking around in my computer for a while now and I thought I should probably get it out there before everything in it becomes outdated. Most of this was written earlier this year after a ton of research into the publishing industry and its approach to the digital form. Most of the alarmist malarky referenced comes from traditional media, which I suspect has a vested interest in fanning the flames of discontent. You'll see more of said malarkey later. Anyway, here's part one-point-oh. Once upon a time, I wrote something called e-fiction. At least I think it was called that. Somewhere in the year 2000, the year that once served as shorthand for ‘the future’, a short story of mine won a minor award for something called ‘cyber-writing’. The name recalls a simpler time, before the turn of the millennium, when ‘cyber’ served as shorthand for ‘electronic’. At least that’s my recollection. The story, titled Hemmingway, offered a quirky twist on the old adage that robots will eventually become our masters:

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The story itself is hardly prophetic. I have never considered myself a science fiction writer, let alone a futurist, and I don’t expect my job to wind up outsourced to software any time soon. But, for me at least, Hemmingway became a signpost to my future in writing and publishing. Hemmingway was a story both presented and delivered electronically to its audience.

Hemmingway mostly centres on a conversation between the titular ‘virtual writer’ and one of the programmers who helped create him. To present on screen, I broke the narrative into smaller chunks, using images and animations to provide suitable atmospherics. I presented the dialogue on screen in real time, as though readers were eavesdropping on a real interaction between man and machine.

Following its success in the ‘cyber-writing’ competition, Hemmingway was adapted and published as an ‘e-novel’ by an online literary journal.

The times were exciting for digital publishing: the dot com boom made anything vaguely web-based seem successful, big name authors were experimenting with electronic texts, and e-book readers seemed to be finally making progress after ten years of hype.

For a short time, it seemed that my little story formed another part of an inexorable digital publishing revolution. It was only a matter of time.

But, for all the excitement it generated at the time, Hemmingway remains little more than a dolled-up short story. With the benefit of hindsight, the e-novel’s images, animations, and audio now seem like desperate attempts to draw attention away from the fact that the story is as linear and passive as any dog-eared paperback.

The promise of the web and the challenge it presents to writers is to consider moving beyond traditional unidirectional storytelling. ‘Surfing’ the web may prove to be one of the more incisive coinages of the last two decades. The picture of the web surfer may also be akin to a bowerbird, Readers skim over information on the web, picking through pieces of information before link hopping to the next chunk. While arguments rage over whether web surfing destroys the ability to read or creates a new kind of reading, the idea of a single, sustained narrative arc—even a relatively short one—takes on a faintly archaic sepia tone in the web’s relentless chunk bombardment.

With this in mind, I set out to take my e-novel and push the character of Hemmingway as far as the web allowed. Both the character and the story interface were based on an artificial intelligence ‘chatter-bot’ platform and it seemed a logical extension of the story to insert the character into a more complex chat-based program. The result that project, Hemmingway 0.5, is today available to chat on just about any topic, responding in character to whatever you say via the text input. The technology is a simple, but sophisticated response mechanism, moving beyond pat answers to analyse the patterns of language and formulate its responses to be consistent, broad-ranging, and most of all intelligible.

The three-year project to create Hemmingway 0.5 was challenging to a fiction writer used to working with character, setting, and plot. Creating a ‘chatter-bot’ involves long hours of laborious data entry: pre-empting all possible variations of potential inputs from users and determining how the character would respond.

While both fun and distracting, Hemmingway 0.5 also led me to deconstruct the language into smaller components, to think about the various ways information in English can be repackaged, depending on who is talking, and the similarities and differences between plain spoken English and off-the-cuff sentences plugged into a web page form field.

It’s as far from a typical narrative as one can get. Some may question if it qualifies as fiction at all.

Hemmingway 0.5 launched in 2005. For months, I watched Hemmingway provoke, engage, and occasionally harass anyone who addressed him. The project attracted attention from other writers, web geeks, and other random individuals and my web site flooded with traffic from people keen to lock horns with the cranky virtual writer. But soon I realised that Hemmingway’s knowledge base was only a start. Other authors of chatter-bots on the web continually update their bots with new knowledge and new strategies for responding to users. I had already written for the project over the previous three years. I was not prepared to make one single character my life’s work.

Around the same time, my first published short stories—and their associated pay cheques—arrived in the post. Hemmingway 0.5, a project that required as much time and energy as a novel, offered little more than a brief, amusing distraction for nothing.

Without a way to live off kudos, pushing the limits of digital publishing was hardly a great career move. I would never make a living as a writer with Hemmingway 0.5.

Subscription and pay-per-view web sites are rarely successful in a world where readers expect web-based writing to be freely available. And yet, web users have shown they are willing to pay for high quality download content to enjoy on a portable device such as an iPod.

Digital Fiction 2.0: No iPod of Books to come...

Hemmingway the short story is available to download with web site subscriptions.

Hemmingway 0.5 is still available to chat 24/7.