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
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
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 Day...is
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?"