Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace
Why do so many chicks play bass? Because six strings are too complicated.
Ah. Such a bad joke. And such an unmentionable truism: men play guitars. Women don't. Why's that? Because men were those 13-year-old boys sitting in their bedrooms learning Sabbath riffs. By the time women get into the game and join a band, they're ten years behind the adolescent Yngvies. So they do what Sid Vicious did when he wanted to be in a band but had absolutely no talent or musical ability--they pick up their boyfriend's discarded bass and learn how to play on-the-job.
In Hamlet on the Holodeck, Janet H. Murray suffers from a similar developmental disadvantage. While she takes pain to note her brushes with computers some 20 years ago ("The tape drives alone...were the size of refrigerators" Can you imagine that?!), she never had the hardcore computer experiences of most people who are currently offering the astute commentary on the "role of computers." She's too old to have been raised with a bedroom PC, yet too young to have become one with the academic print loyalists.
But all that may be irrelevant. It could be that this book, subtitled "The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace," is actually ahead of its time. Murray is examining the role of computers in academic arenas which are traditionally non-computer, if not outright militantly ludditious. No big trick, I suppose. But, maybe, her lack of computer expertise is to her credit. Is it possible that discussing these cognitive issues is actually more difficult with her coming from a pulp--not cathode--background?
Maybe. But, unfortunately, all that aside, her repeated reliance on computer culture cliches -- namely, that all computer people watch Star Trek and will be amazed to read that Huxley's "feelies" were proto-VR -- undermines the entire volume. It seems as if she's trying to catch up to the computer people by watching the Sci-Fi Channel 24-7 and taking notes. Hell, when even the title invokes Star Trek's holodeck, you can only imagine how bad it gets inside.
Murray tries to transplant literary issues from the established academic field and plant them in a garden of tech hegemony. Noble enough, as a book pitch in outline form. In execution, though, she is fumbling to the point of embarrassment.
Out of the gate, true to the title, she recounts an episode of Star Trek: Voyager in which a character enjoys an interactive novel made by possible by immersive holographic technology far beyond our current capabilities. This lasts a scant three pages, but it's already too much for non-Trek readers. Just as Monty Python skits are sometimes funny on TV, they are never funny when a bunch of college theater majors recreate them at the next table in the bar. So goes Star Trek. It's all fine and dandy for Murray to compare this particular "holonovel" to Jane Eyre, and it's even excusable when she notes the importance of William Shatner's Tek War series (such loyalty!) on the next page. But when she describes Lawnmower Man as "[p]erhaps the most explicit filmic statement of the dangers of cyberspace," I'm jumping ship.
Again, it's all very embarrassing. And quite trying on one's nerves, so similar to an AP English term paper which pointlessly examines pop culture, desperately applying larger meaning in the all the wrong places.
In the second chapter, Murray outlines a history of cyberspace and compares the current state of technology to early books. Ho hum. This territory has already been covered by a hundred other writers in 1000-word columns. It is only when Murray explains the multiform story, first citing It's a Wonderful Life and then Borges' "The Garden of Forking Paths" that one begins to suspect she is actually writing to a whole other crowd. Is it possible that she's not preaching to the converted after all? That she doesn't expect the Star Trek crowd to ever read these adolescent allusions? That she over-elucidates because she needs to--her intended readers are actually the ludditious print purists who scoff at television and dismiss science fiction as frivolity? Hey! I think I'm in the wrong room!
With that in mind, the book is far less annoying. It's even unintentionally whimsical, what with all high-falutin' attention paid to frivolous pop culture. Her crew of grad students must've worked triple-time to come with so many lost nerd-culture artifacts. You name it, she references it: What If... comics, King's Quest, Dungeons & Dragons, Infocom's Zork and Planetfall and ELIZA -- all the ding-ding-ding's which raise my eyebrows and make me smile with appreciation. And she makes some real clever observations: "The death of [Planetfall's] Floyd the robot is a minor milestone on the road from puzzle gaming to an expressive narrative art." And: "Groundhog as much like a videogame as a linear film can be." Shit--that's not bad for an academic who never wasted a quarter on a game of Galaga.
Ultimately, though, all the clever quotes and observations add up to nothing more a safe examination of pop nerd culture by a Victorian Lit intellectual. Bully to her, though, for at least trying. Make it to chapter six, Transformation, and you'll enjoy a pleasant revisiting to McLuhan's theory of mosaic narrative; Murray applies it to current entertainment like ER. Same thing for chapter seven and the multiform plot, chapter eight's faux AIs, and chapter nine's hyperserial. And by the time Murray closes, predicting that, "Cyberdramatists will exercise authorial control through the techniques of procedural authorship...which would let them dictate not just the words and images of the story but the rules by which the words and images would appear," one certainly understands all her points. They're well-reasoned and well-presented. Problem is, they're nothing special, which leaves one with a single question: "And?"