The Reading Pill

Question: When you hear “turn of the century,” do you think about the year 2000, or the year 1900?

Earlier in the month I found used copies of episodes 5 and 6 of Star Wars at a local venue. They were pretty good movies, falling above the “I’m willing to pay five bucks for them” mark, but just shy of “I’m willing to pay five bucks and shipping to Amazon in order to complete the trilogy.” These were the digitally remastered versions, but I couldn’t put aside the thought that the future seemed so out of date.

Okay, we don’t have hyper-drive systems. But if you disregard the sci-fi staples, most of their future we already have. The real versions just have Apple logos on them.

And the things to come – oh, nobody thought of the internet back then. We’re probably not that far off from being able to replace a severed hand with a realistic robotic one. But the robotic hand of the future will have Facebook connectivity, so all your friends can stay up to date on what you’re touching. If you applaud at a concert, a “like” is added to the performer’s fan page.

The future is fun to think about, since it’s often our best hope of solving all our problems. Here’s a little gem. Today, predicted 90 years ago:

 

 

Whenever I see videos like these, I’m usually more amused by what they get right than what they get wrong.

 

 

Photon bi-planes

In the 21st century, biplanes will still be all the rage. And they shoot photon torpedoes. Oooh, swish!

 

 

Last week’s post was, more or less, about science fiction turned reality. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, from the similarly-named novel? Totally a Kindle.

This week, let’s project ourselves into the distant future. Strap yourselves into your Chronoskimmer 450SL. We’re headed to:

 

 

Tulsa, OK in the future

Tulsa, OK, The future.

1 November, 2112

 

 


The iHand is a success. The current election is at a stalemate. Don’t blame the iHand for that. Blame the iMouth, which filters all speech through factcheck.org. And debate is currently surrounding the pill. The so-called reading pill is a marvelous little wonder. When the “reader” swallows the pill, they instantly have the entire contents of a book bestowed upon them.

“In a little bookstore in South Durham, I found, in the corner, a display full of the classics. I’ve always wanted to swallow Lord of the Flies. I paid for my purchase, and a bottle of water.

“I was a little nervous about trying this new method of ‘reading,’ if you want to call it that. I closed my eyes and swallowed. Instantly, I could recall, with perfection, the plight of Jack.

“The book left me rather queasy. I then noticed the instructions: Take with food. Inexplicably, I had a sudden craving for bacon.”

Certainly, this would make learning much quicker. Math, science, history – learn it all in a pill that can be swallowed in twelve seconds. There was a Calvin and Hobbes strip where Calvin gets a “knowledge implant,” providing him twelve years’ worth of education in ten minutes. The little pill would be even more convenient.

But how much information could we fit onto a pill? We could start by figuring out exactly how the brain absorbs it. Or, we could not.

Since we’re being hypothetical anyway, let’s set aside the issue of information density and just put the sum of all human writings into a pill. Library of Congress? The entire Internet? All in one pill.

Here’s the question: Would you take such a pill?

Nobody should be surprised about resistance to the e-reader. Every new technology seems to be the “death of the current medium.” What do you want to bet that the development of the written word was initially blamed for the “inevitable” death of oral storytelling. After all, simply reading the words couldn’t ever be the same as hearing them. Humanity is richer for having stepped further, despite what initial concerns may have arisen. Imagine what history would say if it were passed through thousands of years of “telephone.”

At some point, though, enough is enough. What do we hope to gain out of reading a story, or studying a textbook – and when is that defeated by the medium it is delivered on? The so-called reading pill provides nearly instant consumption of a book. Is it too far?

Take your pick:

 

Status Quo, 2112

 

The Hybrid Novel

The Text, with apologies to MunchThe Kindle, Amazon’s ubiquitous e-reader, is less than a decade old. e-Readers, and in a larger sense, tablet computers, have become so ingrained in our culture that one would be hard-pressed to find someone who hadn’t at least heard of them. But it would also be hard to find someone who couldn’t remember a time when “books” and “paper” had a unanimously-agreed upon alliance.

That’s because the “e-book generation,” the people who could have potentially had access to e-books their entire lives, have barely started elementary school. But, realistically speaking, anyone younger than four probably came from a household that hadn’t hopped on the bandwagon.

While some of us have taken to the electronic book like a cat takes to water, we can all probably agree that the future looks bright for the pocket-library.

Remember the buzzword of choice that reigned in the mid to late 90’s: multimedia? Sound! Video! Text! Together at last. Supposedly, we had just been thrust from the age of easels, slides, and overhead projectors to the world of clip-art and diamond transitions. Like with any new technology, a halo of fantasy projected our wildest dreams into the not-so-distant future. Here’s Apple’s vision, from the past:

 

 

 

 

Tacky, the talking tack

Your office software friend. Meet Tacky!

Too bad multimedia, at the time, had more to do with talking office supplies. I’ll emphasize at the time just in case you hadn’t noticed that much of the forecasted technology was put to use in this blog article. If you don’t believe me, just click the “cyberlink” above and watch it again.

Actually, we’ve surpassed that future. I can go out and purchase a single device that will let me do all of that, and order a pizza.

But what about the novel? Where does it fit in the world of “cyberlinks” and You-Tube?

My wife was a library science graduate student from 2006 to 2008, the two year period that brought in the age of the e-book and saw the close of the twentieth century literary world. During her first semester she told me about something called a “hybrid novel.” The hybrid novel would combine text, video, sound, and interactive software to tell a story. The user could read some text, then watch a video. Perhaps the novel would have an interactive map. It seemed like a fantasy vision of what the unproven “e-reader” was capable of.

But early e-readers primarily supported text, and maybe some limited internet browsing capabilities. As the boundary between e-readers and full-blown tablet computers becomes more blurred, the age of the hybrid novel may be upon us.

It turns out that in 2011, NPR released an article about Melville House, a publisher offering “illuminations”, described as “the equivalent of DVD extras to books”

{ Hybrid Books: ‘Illuminations’ And The Future Of The E-Reader }

Although it is interesting to see the idea still alive four years after I first heard about it, the “hybrid book” I remember was more of an experience that was part of the story, rather than supplementing it.

 

My Own Experiences with the Hybrid Novel

 

girl with page of textWith the 2013 publication of my novel, A Foundation in Wisdom, the last remnants of the 2011 version have all but disappeared entirely. The 2011 version was, in fact, set to be released as a hybrid novel.

Self-dubbed an “illuminated hypertext manuscript,” it combined the concepts of an illustrated novel with a hypertext novel.

It was designed as a game of sorts, somewhere between a standard, linear story, and a “choose your own adventure” written in third person. There was only one story. The “game” aspect came into play through “extras”, hidden links the reader could discover that lead to alternate story arcs and complementary content. These side stories didn’t change the main story itself. However, they could alter the reader’s perception of the main story – for example, through the introduction of dramatic irony.

The reader had only two controls – a “next” button, and a “previous” button – nothing that a standard e-reader didn’t provide.

rules excerpt

One of the story arcs was that which the image above is an excerpt from – in which the characters explain the “rules” of the “game”.

Alternate arcs were discovered through hidden links in the illustrations. The entire project was put together using image maps and HTML – nothing a late 90’s web browser couldn’t handle.

If an arc lead to information that contradicted the main story-line, the story would terminate – usually via the death of the narrator. The observant reader could avoid this by learning which types of images usually lead to “death”, which was a rare event anyway. Most of the arcs didn’t last long, and immediately dumped back into the main story.

Alternate story arc map

Alternate story arc map. Click to zoom in.

One problem with the hybrid novel design was that the 2011 version was really building off of the original 2008 novel draft. The alternate arcs felt forced, because they were. They were an afterthought, tacked onto an already complete story.

The true state of A Foundation in Wisdom is a traditional novel. That’s how it was designed in 2006, before the age of the e-reader, and certainly before the hybrid novel. That’s not to say it couldn’t be done. But would it be worth it? Sometimes it’s easier to build from the ground up, rather than repurpose an existing structure.

It’s also easier to experiment with something less gargantuan than a novel. Not that A Foundation in Wisdom is that long. It’s closer to a novella, than a novel, in length. But it seems more appropriate to the spirit of the “illuminated hypertext manuscript” to design a (short) story with a rich tapestry of arcs, rather than an arc structure that mimics a rural stretch of Interstate 40.

arc structure comparison

Pick the more interesting design.

 

What is the Future of the Traditional Book?

 

“Traditional,” in this sense, refers to the linear structure of the story itself, not the way it is presented. I think you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who will claim the traditional story is on its way out. Perhaps we’ll see more “illuminations” as publishers find new ways to sell the content consumers bought those fancy gadgets to access. Even if it’s on an e-reader, sometimes one just wants to read a good story.

That said, there’s no telling what the future will have in store for storytelling. We are already seeing the fusion of movies, video games, and hypertext. It’s just a matter of time before we see novels regularly hopping into the mix. There’s no guarantee we’ll all like the results, especially those of us who still like the feel and smell of a paper book. But whenever we’re ready to experiment with the hybrid book, certainly we will be able to access them on our phones.

The Good Advice That You Just Didn’t Take

Remember, you must behave in life as you would at a potluck lunch. If something disgusting is brought to you by a friend or superior, put your hand out politely and pretend to eat. After your friend or superior turns around, you may discretely feed the food to the dog.

 

A recurring novelty in A Foundation in Wisdom is Aspen’s little philosophy handbook.  The Philosophy of Many Hands, sometimes dubbed, “The Pseudo-Random Philosophy,” is a little guide to life produced from unknown* origins.

It’s not quite as extensive as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and it lacks the large, friendly letters. But it gets the job done.

The Philosophy is actually a parody of The Handbook, by Epictetus. Epictetus was a Greek philosopher who wrote the precursor to Life’s Little Instruction Book.

I learned about Epictetus during my senior of college. I took a philosophy course from a professor who had a reputation for not being able to make it through an entire 50-minute class without a cigarette.

On one cool, crisp autumn day – the sort of weather that is perfect for a long cigarette break – class ended early. A couple friends and I sat in the field, trying to not let the nice weather distract us from reading. I had my copy of The Handbook which soon became dotted with – flies.

At some point I closed the book and realized I had inadvertently smashed a couple flies in the pages.

Never to let a smashed fly get me down, we renamed the book The Philosophy of the Flies, which could have been a play on Lord of the Flies, but with fewer conchs and more onions and crustaceans. It was a suitable title. Most of the flies were smashed on the quotes about death.

Some years later I merged the quotes into the predecessor to An Orthogonal Universe, “The History of the Wiener Dog.”

In any case, this little piece of the world of A Foundation in Wisdom can now be downloaded on the “My Books” page.

 

* perhaps the origins are discovered in the book. 😉