The Future of the Novel

The novel is just one of several art forms that provide a vehicle for telling stories. Like these other forms (short stories, movies, plays), it exists to take advantage of a particular way of packaging a story, in this case using a book. It's pointless to ask whether the novel is the best form to present a story. Each of the vehicles has its own strengths and weaknesses. Computer technology is providing new forms with their own strengths and weaknesses.

When thinking about what effect computers will have on the novel, many people point to computer tools like electronic mail and word processing programs. They talk about how computers are making it easier to create and disseminate texts. Computers do make life easier for writers, but when thought of in this light, they are only a tool for making it easier to work through a process which is still defined by its end product, the book. Books still provide the storyteller's guiding constraints, including the length of the end product, how readers will interact with the product, and a host of other considerations about what storytellers can or cannot do.

Too see what an impact new technology can have on how stories are told, it's more instructive to consider movies than most of today's computer software. Movies put stories into a package that is quite different than the book. Over the past 70 or 80 years, it's been interesting to note how the concerns of those who make movies have grown to be quite different than the concerns of authors. Visual cues in movies provide a world of ways in which movie makers can accent their stories that are just not available to the authors of novels. What would a horror movie be like if it didn't have black clouds streaking across a full moon? What would a Schwartzenegger bust-em-up be like without camera cuts every split-second during the good parts? Sound cues plays a similar role, though perhaps one that was best developed in the old radio shows.

If you judge by how the public likes to consume its fiction, such freedom allows artists to make movies more compelling than novels. Still, movies will not eradicate novels since novels give their authors an ability to play with language that is just not available to movie makers. That's a good thing, too, since novels have the advantage of being relatively cheap to produce. Many more artists can afford to have a shot at producing an important new novel than a new movie.

Computers, like movies, provide another form in which to package stories and like movies, this form needs to evolve. It's exciting today to see the first steps of that evolution. Hypermedia systems already let artists mix elements from movies with elements from texts in ways that neither form could previously support. Hypermedia systems also already provide new elements available in neither previous package. Most notably, they can contain multiple paths, so that a book can be different from each reader.

These capabilities are first steps. What might next steps provide? It might be possible to create characters who have lives that really interact with the "reader." We saw in Chimp World that the characters in the program reacted to each other and could react to the user who might be playing the role of a chimp. In GuSS, we saw that the user was part of an interactive system wherein he became part of a scene that involved a company, and that company changed in some way because of his involvement. One could imagine an author creating an environment like that of Hamlet, for example, and letting the user be one of the characters, literally feeling Hamlet's wrath directed at him in response to moves he might make. Going still further, it is possible for multiple authors to create environments that interact with each other. People in AI used to joke about having the well known psychiatric interviewing program (ELIZA) try to interview the well known paranoid model (PARRY).

Such ideas would have been fun to try, of course. In a more sophisticated computational world, Hamlet could run away to many possible other worlds; he could meet Juliet, for example. Would he fight Romeo for her? Sophisticated authoring systems would make these meaningful questions for an author to decide.

What happens as computers evolve as storytelling tools will inevitably reflect back on novels and movies. Could computers allow for easy authoring of movies by taking stock filmed characters and allowing one to create action and simulated dialogue so real that anyone could alter any film in any way he wanted? Perhaps an author could create films out of films so that none of the original films remained, leaving a new story seen in a new way.

The point is that it's tool early to say exactly how the computer will evolve as a platform for telling stories. Two things are clear, however. First, authors will have more tools at their disposal, more ways to tell a story, and hence, more stories to tell. Second, authors could involve their users in ways that are active rather than passive, creating a whole new concept of who the author is trying to communicate with and what communication really is.

Next Story The Book and the Horse-Drawn Carriage

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