Hypertextuality

I recently took some of my writing time to create a makefile (Novel Makefile) to manage work I hope to be doing on a new novel project. I've started outlining and researching the story in earnest after having spent the past few couple of years talking about it, and I think writing will commence soon. In another post I'd like to write up some thoughts on the tooling and technology of writing non-technical/non-manual long-form.

This post, drawing from the spending some time buried deep in production is about the state of (conceptually) longer form work in digital mediums. Or, at least a brief commentary on same.


The tools that I use to write technical materials do all sorts of cool things, like:

  • provide instant cross referencing,
  • generate great indexes, and
  • automatically generate and link glossaries.

This is not particularly unusual, and in fact Sphinx is somewhat under-featured relative to other documentation generation systems like DocBook. [1]

And yet people publish ebooks that virtually identical to paper books. Ebooks seem to say "*this electronic book is the best facsimile of a paper book that we can imagine right now,*" while totally ignoring anything more that a *hyper*text rightfully might be.

I enjoy reading ebooks, just as I have enjoyed reading paperbooks, but mostly because ebooks basically are paperbooks. I've written posts in the past challenging myself,and fiction writers in general, to actually do hypertext rather than recapitulating prior modalities in digital form.

At various points I've thought that wikis might be a good model of how to do hypertext, because the form is structurally novel. Any more, I don't think that this is the case: wikis are unstructured and chaotic, and I've come to believe that the secret to hypertext is structure. There are so many possibilities in hypertext, and I think much experimentation in hypertext has attempted to address the chaos of this experience. This does serve to highlight the extent to which "the future is here," but it obscures the fact that structure makes narratives understandable. Think about how much great, new, innovative (and successful!) fiction in the past decade (or so) is not structurally experimental or chaotic. (Answer: there's a lot of it.)

The not-so-secret of hypertext, is (I suspect,) tooling: without really good tools the mechanics of producing a complex, interactive textual experience [2] is difficult for a single writer, or even a small group of writers. Most tools that manage the publication and writing of text are not suited to helping the production of large-multi-page and mutli-component texts. One potential glimmer of hope is that tools for developing programs (IDEs, build systems, compilers, templating systems, introspection tools, pattern matching, etc.) are well developed and could modified for use in text production.

The second non-so-secret of hypertext is probably that hypertext is an evolution of text production and consumption, not a revolution. Which only seems reasonable. We have the technology now to produce really cool text product. While tooling needs to get better, the literature needs to do some catching up.

Lets start making things!

[1]It's not that Sphinx is "bad," but it's clearly designed for a specific kind of documentation project, and if you stray too far outside of those bounds, or need formats that aren't quite supported, then you end up without a lot of recourse. Having said that, the "normal," well supported and most projects--documentation or otherwise--will only very rarely hit upon an actual limitation of Sphinx itself.
[2]To be clear, I'm partial to the argument that today's computer games, particularly role-playing games, are the things that the futurists of the 1960s and 70s (e.g. Theodor Holm Nelson) called "hypertext."

Technical Writing Fiction

On Outer Alliance Podcast #8, David Levine talked about having worked as a technical writer for some 15 years and then said something to the effect of "It's a point of great personal pride that I've never put a bulleted list in a piece of fiction."

I laughed out loud. Perhaps frightening a woman walking her dog nearby.

In most ways, the kind of writing that I do for work, API references, tutorials, administration overviews, best-practice descriptions, is very different from the kinds of things I write away from work, or at least I like to think so.

The truth is that I've learned a bunch about writing and about communicating in general from writing documentation. While my "professional background," doesn't include formal technological training, I definitely "broke in" because I was familiar with technology and could write, rather than being a particularly skilled or trained writer. Any more (just 2.5 years on,) I think the inverse is more true, but that's conjecture.

Technical writing has definitely shaped the evolution of my taste: a couple years ago, I found myself most drawn to complex tightly constructed prose in fiction. These days I mostly go for sparse clear concise prose that isn't particularly ornamented. Perhaps it's only really possible to tune the internal editor for one kind of style at a time.

Having said that, I will confess to feeling--and resisting--the urge to put a bulleted list or some other structured convention of software manuals in fiction.

It's the little things, really.

Representation and Race Futurism

I had an item on my list of blog posts to write for a couple of years to write something reflecting on "RaceFail," and finally a gave up, because I didn't want to write a book, I didn't know what to say, and I was more interested in the actual discourse itself than finding the "side of right," in a conversation that was both way too simple and way too complex all at once.

So rather than reboot the conversation, which has ended in some senses and continues on in others, I want to start writing a bit here about race and representation in fiction, but also discussing the way that conversations transpire online. Here's part one. I'll figure out some way to index them all together once they're posted and assembled.


I wrote this scene a while back where a character who grew up on a small [1] outpost visits a space ship. Given relativistic space travel, from the character's perspective, the crew of the space ship are 750 years old or so, despite being in their subjective early forties. That means the character's 31st-great-grandparents (roughly) were cousins of the people he's looking at.

He notices a few things: the people on the ship are all taller than he is and also taller than everyone from the outpost. He also notices that there's more more skin tone variation amongst the people on the ship than there is among the people in the outpost.

There are a bunches of problems with this story. Including the fact that its not finished and that there are parts of the execution that I think need a lot work. But this part, I quite like. For this story (and I think in general,) I've drawn the following conclusion:

  • Race is temporally constrained. We understand racial difference and our own racial experiences in terms of our current reality. This changes.
  • The aspects of race which are the result of lineage (skin color, bone structure,) are likely to change over time as lineages continue. We can assume that these kinds of changes will be pronounced in smaller populations over longer periods of time.

To a large extent the tension between the "outpost people" and the "ship people" is the core of the conflict in this story. I've been thinking in this story about the impact of colonialism (and race as a result) on societies and political outlook. It's almost certainly not perfect, but I enjoy the possibilities, the story has its moments, and I'm finding the theory building productive.


I'm circling around a point: in-story diversity, particularly, diversity that reflects late 20th/early 21st century notions of difference alone cannot further thought race and racism. In other words, diversity is not criticism. There are many ways to productively further the discussion of difference in (genre) fiction, lets not stop with representation.

I'll be writing more about this in the future. Comments are very welcome!

[1]Under a billion people.

Cyberpunk Sunset

I'm not sure where I picked up the link to this post on the current state of cyberpunk, but I find myself returning to it frequently and becoming incredibly frustrated with the presentation.

In essence the author argues that while the originators of the cyberpunk genre (i.e. Gibson and Sterling, the "White Men") have pronounced cyberpunk "over," the genre is in fact quite vibrant and a prime location for non-mainstream ("other") voices and per perspectives. Also, somehow, the author argues that by denying that cyberpunk continues to be relevant and active we're impinging the diversity that's actively occurring in the space.

My thoughts are pretty simple:

  • This is old news. People have been pronouncing cyberpunk dead since 1992 or thereabouts. And they've largely been right. Cyberpunk died, because the technological horizon 1980s (e.g. BBSs) developed in a particular way. In someways the cyberpunks got it right (there is a digital reality, there are digital natives, and unique digital social conventions.) In many ways no one got it right: more people are using the internet per-capita than anyone thought in 1984 and no one predicted that the internet would be as commercial as it is.

    In light of this the kinds of things that the people active in technology and in cyberpunk are thinking about and addressing have changed a lot. In many ways, Cory Doctorow is a pretty fitting heir to the cyberpunk lineage, but I think it's also true that the cyberpunk tradition has shifted it's focus into other issues and ideas.

    That interest in the present and the near future has always been a significant defining characteristic of cyberpunk, at least as relevant as the DIY and outsider aspect. In this respect, cyberpunk's critique was accepted and quite transformative for the genre.

    At the same time, the "hackers," and "cyberpunks," grew out of academia (e.g. Free Software) and not the punk movement.

  • The cyberpunks, even when (white) men were the front men for the (sub)genre, have always been outsiders. In the 80s were the "Young Turks" of the science fiction world. Samuel Delany's Nova is often cited a key cyberpunk-precursor, and there are some pretty important precursors in Stars in My Pocket, Dhalgren, and The Einstein Intervention.

  • I want to be sure to not forget about Melissa Scott while we're at it. Trouble and her Friends is a great example of using cyberpunk to explore subcultures and experiences of people (queers, PoC, etc.) on the margins. While Trouble is almost on the late end for "original" cyberpunk I think it counts. The blogger seems to think that only queers and PoC and others have only recently taken up cyberpunk, and that seems particularly shortsighted, and not particularly true.

  • One of the most troubling aspects of the argument is the assumption that if "cyberpunk" is over than no one can write cyberpunk anymore and that to declare such would be to silence all of the would be *punks.

    This is absurd.

    Not only is this not true, but it's also not how literature works. I'm also pretty sure that this is not consistent with the origins of cyberpunk, or the way the genre memes play out.

    What I think happened when cyberpunk stopped being on the cutting edge and we realized that a critique of the present required different science fictional method (I think that resurgence in "New Space Opera" in the 90s is part of this, as well as a hard-SF turn in the form of Beggers in Spain and a turn toward alternate histories.) As a result, what's happening cyberpunk has become something closer to fantasy.

    The division (and implications) of the difference between "fantasy" and/or "super soft science fiction" and the science fiction mainstream is at play and probably out side of the scope of this post.

So I'm not that sure where we're left? Am I missing something? Lets hear it out in comments!

Wiki Fiction and Critical Futures

I'm starting preliminary development on a wiki fiction project that will eventually take over the criticalfutures.com domain. This post is a discussion of that history, my idea, and what I hope to accomplish.

My friend Julia and I have been corresponding on topics related to the future of publishing and genre fiction for a few weeks. When the topic turned to wikis, I spouted off the things I usually say about bootstrapping wiki participation (it's hard and pretty lonely,) then I had an idea.

I read wikis, mostly wikipeida, a lot. For fun. I'm sure a lot of people do this, as "getting lost in wikipedia," is a thing that happens. You say, "I'm interested in public transit in Iran," and you get lost clicking through various pages related to rapid transit systems in the middle east, and then an hour or two is past and you really ought to finish that blog post. The same thing happens on the c2 wiki for me.

While I wish I were less compulsive about it, reading wikis is a pleasurable reading experience, and since the format seems the web, why not run with it? The question becomes: why are we spending so much time figuring out the most ideal way to publish novels and short stories--forms that developed with the physicality of the book--in the digital age?

To be fair, I think there's a place for digital distribution of paper-centric forms (periodicals and monographs,) but I doubt that in 50 years "digital fiction," will mean eBook editions of novels. People have been making a similar point for some time about video games for a while. Interactive fiction is definitely a part of digital fiction, but I don't think it's the full story.

Meanwhile back at the point...

Here's the idea. We use wiki software to construct a website that is written as a light-hearted encyclopedia. In the vein of TV Tropes meets Wikipedia except with fictional content. But there needs to be more than just page after page of exposition and condensed blather: my current plan is to have a "dialogue" section, which will be bits of dialogue and scenes published with some contextual metadata (when it happened, who was present, where it happened.) The dialogues can then be linked to as quasi-citations in the more conventional expository wiki pages.

So basically I'm proposing a couple of things here. First, I want to splitting up all content into small self contained pages. This makes it better for multiple people to edit, because editing and writing can happen in a more parallel manner, and you don't need to agree to an outline, or write things in any sort of sequence. Second, shorter pages with more segmented content is easier to read for the attention limited.

Having said that, I'm not sure that collaborative, for all that will editing is really the way to go. The truth is that so few people edit wikis relative to the number of people who could edit wikis, that you might be better off having some sort of more select editorial community, just in terms of establishing buy-in from contributors and avoiding diffusion of responsibility. I'm undecided.

Along a similar line of thought, I'm considering releasing release updates and new content on a regular basis (e.g. bi-weekly or monthly?) rather than every time an edit is made. This will require some sort of closed-development process. At the same time new wiki projects often fail because there's little incentive to return to a wiki to "see what's changed. Blogs, contrast are good at securing return visits.

Thoughts? Anyone interested in being on the editorial board?

Fan Fiction is Criticism

Thanks to `Shaun Duke <http://skiffyandfanty.wordpress.com>`_ for inspiring this little rant.

I must confess that I'm mostly uninvolved in the world of fan fiction these days, though I have traveled in "fanish" circles at various points in my past. It's not because I don't think fans have interesting things to say about literature and media, or that I don't think what's happening in fandom important and fascinating. No, I'm mostly withdrawn because I have too much on my plate and participating in fandom doesn't really contribute to the specific goals I have at this moment. But I sometimes feel that way about social science.

In any case, I'd like to put forth the following arguments for viewing fan fiction as a form a literary criticism rather than a literary attempt in it's own right:

  • Fan fiction is a form of literary criticism. Sure it's casual, sure it's written in the forum of a story, but the fan fictioner and the critic both write from the same core interest in interpreting texts and using varying readings of texts to create larger understandings of our world.
  • The fact that fan fiction looks like a story, is mostly distracting to what's happening in these texts. Fan fiction, has always been written in communities. The people who read fan fiction are largely the people who write fan fiction. Fan fiction inspires
  • The quality of fan fiction is also largely irrelevant to the point of whether fan fiction is worthwhile. More so than other forms of writing, fan fiction is less about the technical merits of the text, and more about the discursive process under which the texts are created. Better quality writing makes better fan fiction, certainly but I don't think fan fiction centers on those kinds of values.
  • Copyright, and the "intellectual property" status of fan fiction is also sort of moot. It's true that if we're being honest fan fiction impinges upon the copyright of the original author. At the same time, fan fiction doesn't really hurt creators: people aren't confused that fan fiction is "real fiction," fan fiction by and large doesn't divert sales from "real fiction," and so forth. Sure, it's a bit weird for some others to find other people playing in their sand boxes, but the truth is that authors have never had a great deal of control over what happens to their work post-publication, so it's fair.

Additionally, I think that fan fiction accomplishes something that are incredibly powerful and worthwhile that "normal" fiction cannot accomplish. Writing fan fiction can be, I'd wager, an incredibly effective educational experience for new writers, particularly genre fiction writers. By providing a very fast feedback loop with an audience of readers and writers (and lovers of literature and story telling.) Not to mention the fact that because fan fiction tends to be somewhat ephemeral and there's a wealth of inspiration and impetus for fiction, fan writers can write a lot, and if they choose in a very productive sort of way.

And that is almost certainly a good thing.

Coming of Age In The Science Fiction Community

I said to a new writing friend "I'm young, particularly given that anyone under the age of 40 in the science fiction community is considered 'a young writer.'" Which is, more or less true (on both counts,) and brought on a couple of trains of thought that I'd like to explore in a bit more depth:

1. The "youth" of a writer is long, indeed much longer than one would expect.

2. I've found a community of science fiction writers. Admittedly I'm new and very much on the outside, but I find it delightful that all of the "things I do," are part of communities one sort or another: Sacred Harp singing, Morris Dancing (in the Midwest, particularly,) Contra Dancing (on the East Cost, particularly,) Free/Open Source software, blogging, and apparently Science Fiction writing. [1]

The Portrait of the Author During Youth

I've written here before about the challenges and inherent problems of "being a writer:" the work we do is potentially hard to understand, good writing is more than the sum of its parts, and because writing is a sign of education for most people, sometimes it's difficult to figure out (even those of us who "are writers") to figure out what's "writing," and what's just throwing words together.

Now to be fair, I'm not complaining that the period of "youth" as a writer is so long. This standard seems wrapped up in the idea that a large component of being a "real writer," is having lived long enough to have enjoyed a great deal of unique experiences (which can inform your work,) and also to have had enough time writing "crap" to be able to have the (learned) skill of being able to construct quality texts.

It's really hard to tell people, epically the young, that they need to "wait until they're older." But I think once we (I) get done with the pouting, there's a pretty strong silver lining: the extended adolescence of the writer provides a longer window to read, to experiment, to apprentice to other writers, and to grow as a writer. Additionally, if the "youth" of a science fiction writer is longer than it is for writers in other fields (and I suspect it is, slightly,) the science fiction community has created a way to compensate for the exclusion of science fiction from most academic writing programs. These are all largely good things, to my mind.

Community Discourses

I think communities are fascinating, and I'm delighted to touch so many different and interesting communities. It seems to me that the formation of communities is very much not a project for youth. As young people, our communities are local, and based on where we go to school, where we live, even where we work. The communities I'm thinking about there are, in turn based on what we're interested in and what we love to do. Although there's a potential for insularity and self-selecting qualities, there's also a great potential for diversity. There are a lot of different kinds of science fiction writers, sacred harp singers, folk dancers, open source hackers, and so forth.

There's another interesting set of common factors for these communities: they're all built around shared experiences and activities in the "real world" (as it is,) but the members of these communities tend to be scattered across a given geographic area. Though I don't have much to compare this to, personally, but I think the ways that these communities are supported and connected through the Internet. As much as Facebook irritates me on a technological level, its done it's job.

The principals under which communities function and adhere are not something I have a terribly firm grasp of, I must confess, but I know what I find myself in one, it's a good thing indeed.

[1]I have, it seems too many hobbies and avocations.

Some Future in your Science Fiction

I finished reading Kim Stanley Robinson's The Martians, on my Kindle the other day (the short review: It was great, I don't know how I felt about the poetry at the end, but I liked the collection.) and promptly began reading this month's Asimov's. The first story is an alternate history/fantastic history/I-think-there's-science-fiction-coming-but-it's-not-here-yet, piece and I can't bring myself to really read get into it. It's well written, and I even find myself delighting at the text (in a technical sense.) I think the issue that I'm running into is that I don't really get the alternate history thing.

Which is, you know, weird. I should break out and say that my fiction tends to be very historically concerned. I'm fascinated by history and there are a lot of historiographical themes and ideas in the stories I write. But they're all set in the future, and try as I might, I don't really have much interest in writing stories set in the past of our world. Alternate or otherwise.

Maybe it has something to do with my view of history. I tend to take a big picture approach to history and I tend to think that single events and single individuals rarely really affect history. If you called me a determinist I'd probably gnash my teeth for a few moments and then agree. Which makes constructing alternate histories sort of difficult. Add to that the fact that quasi-deterministic big pictures, though probably accurate and helpful, don't lend themselves to good stories. When you don't feel like your characters--any of them--have agency, it doesn't make for terribly interesting story telling.

At least for me. I think other people can pull it off.

This whole "I want my science fiction to be set in the future," thing isn't something I can rationalize or support very well. Clearly I don't find the past to be a very good "escape." The future is fun, vast, and full of possibilities and enables the sorts of things that I enjoy most in science fiction: the ability to engage in a critique of the present, high energy stories with adventure, and for lack of a better term, stories that impart a "sense of wonder." There's more out there, I just can't seem to muster the interest.

This isn't to say that I don't sometimes find myself enchanted by non-futuristic stories, it's just not a terribly frequent or predictable sort of experience. I should also be clear, I'm not of the opinion that when science fiction stories talk about the future and are set in a future, that they are about anything except the present at all.

And I'm not terribly proud of this. I suppose we all have our things.

I worry that my tastes aren't sophisticated enough, that I enjoy stories for the wrong reasons, or that I get too caught up in the scenery and forget to pay attention to what really matters. Despite this whole "writer thing," that I have going on these days I don't have very much formal training in literature. It's sort of awkward to say "I feel like I'm not a very good reader," that's definitely something that I battle with.

For those of you who are part of the larger community of science fiction/fantasy/genre fiction readers (which I think necessarily includes writers,) I'd be very interested to learn your thoughts on this subject: how do you relate to the future in the stories that you write and read? The past? Alternate histories? Is there some connection that I've mostly failed to see? Am I not alone in this?

Thank you (preemptively) for your feedback.