Winterlude 2: The Book You Haven’t Read

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I used to play in a band. We rehearsed for about a year and then split up without playing a single “proper” gig. I used to joke that we were the best band that you never heard.

The problem is that in my literary endeavors I’m not really any more prolific.

The problem of finishing something and having to live with your mistakes set in stone for the rest of eternity has been going on since, I would guess, at least biblical times and possibly longer.

Bob Dylan sometimes changes his songs years after he writes them and seems to feel that they’re never finished. Like living things, they exist open to interpretation. If you’re a fiction writer, this has usually been more difficult to do. Bringing back a character that you killed off by mistake and having to edit subsequent editions simply exposes the fact that you’re not a very good writer.

Now I am not saying that JK Rowling is not a very good writer. Only that she is an absolute hack, if she even wrote those books by herself. But I digress.

The computer world that we live in means that you don’t really need printed books any more at all, and I realise that it’s nice to have them, and that this is kind of heresy, but if we ever discover the ruins of an advanced civilisation I think it’s very likely that they won’t leave behind any kind of printed word at all.

I would probably expect to find some sort of very simple but rugged form of record keeping, such as we encounter with the Sumerian tablets that have come down to us from 6,000 years ago or more, but probably there would also exist a very high form of technology that would not have stood the test of time, that would very likely not be understood by us if we ever did find it, that would have been the means of any higher form of expression (if indeed self-expression is even an issue for most life-forms any more once you have the means to fly around the universe).

Why am I getting into this cosmic stuff now? Because technology is changing us, I suppose. In the early days of the novel, books would often be written as a series of correspondence between fictional characters (for example, Dracula), and if this now seems quaint we might imagine a series of emails instead as the makings of a book. But then why have a book at all?? The idea of the omniscient narrator, the voice of God as it were, comes later. The concept of the novel as social commentary or escapism comes largely from the existence of a large leisured class in the western world, but now the way that people spend their leisure time is changing (I spend most of what little I now have trying to connect to wifi devices), do we really have time to read Dickensian length books that contain thousands of whimsical characters that go nowhere and require entire forests worth of woodpulp to print any more?

Perhaps it is surprising, with the existence of so much printed ephemera around us over the last century or so, that the idea of the novel existed as a rigid concept for so long. Graphic novels are only just now in this (21st) century being accepted as literature with any value, for example. Oddly films, that used to be held up as works of art in the days of the auteur directors, seem to have devolved into immitating the very early days of “capeshit” graphic fiction.

I once wrote a book, for a college project, that was in the form of a series of objects like a map, a letter and a notepad. The bits could be read in any order. I guess if I had developed it, you might have had to go to an actual location to read the words, using “ugmented reality” or whatever. But no one wanted to read it. No one is interested in “novels” any more.

In this epoch entertainment has become very much more interactive, and with “smart” television it’s now possible to have TV in which the audience plays a major part. Charlie Brooker, as a former PC games journalist knows this, and the “Bandersnatch” episode of his Black Mirror series is a keen example of one possible future for the format.  But in many ways, it’s actually nothing new. And it’s more traditional than you think.

“Choose your own adventure” books have been around for years and years. And the early text games on PC were basically an evolution of this. But in Bandersnatch, it’s repeatedly and nihilistically made clear how little agency your decisions have in affecting a “positive” outcome at all.  By frustrating the viewer, and corrupting their good intentions at every chance, Brooker is actually making a very clever point about free will and the metaphysical concept of determinism. I think. Or he just hates us.

As with seemingly all technology, we probably also ought to acknowledge that pornography has been at the bleeding edge of the use of this kind of technical innovation for a while, things like 3D, callers directing what happens on screen, for example. But are any of these things more than novelties, soon to be forgotten for the next thing? The answer is that it probably depends what can be easily monetised. But if porn (and mainstream) movies are anything to go by, the answer is probably that things will take a step back before things like Bandersnatch become anything like the normal: interactive movies on CD never really took off. 3D movies have still not really become any good, and never will be until you can turn around and see what’s happening in the room behind you.

In any work of art, as in life, there is a point at which the choices of the individual end and the choices of the directors of this world begin. And yes, that is every bit as disturbing and dystopian a concept as it sounds.

I suppose we have to live with it.

 

Next up: our story resumes in 2019

 

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