|Book Reviews||Conference Papers|
|The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, Ed. David Crystal||The Unspeakable Act in the Miller's Tale|
|The Matter of Scotland, James Goldstein||Medieval Child Marriage|
|Hamlet on the Holodeck, Janet Murray||Fiddling in the Poconos: Survival or Revival|
|The Age of Spiritual Machines..., Ray Kurzweil|
|The Religion of Technology.... David F. Noble|
|Images of Salvation, CD-ROM, Gen. Ed. Dr. Dee Dyas|
|The Position of Magic in Selected Medieval Spanish Texts. Francis Robienne, Jr.|
|Michael Murphy’s Reader-Friendly Editions of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales: and Michael Murphy, with James Clawson, Companion to Medieval Literature.|
HAMLET ON THE HOLODECK: A REVIEW
Appearing in Kairos :An On-line Journal for Teachers of Writing in Webbed Environments
John McLaughlin, PhD
English Department, East Stroudsburg University, Now Emeritus
Perhaps the first, most important thing to say about Janet Murray's wonderfully rich and yet lucidly written Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace (MIT, 1997: ISBN 0-262-63187-3) is that, on the back cover of the book, there is the url for the book's web resource page: http://web.mit.edu/jhmurray/HOH.html . Alternatively, you could go to http://www.amazon.com, ask for the book, and read excerpts from the other reviews of the book and then go to the web resource page, if that suits your taste better; if you have any problem in getting thro using that url, you could always go to the main MIT url -- also obligingly given on the book cover (http://mitpress.mit.edu).
Now that you've done either or any of those, I'm not sure what's left for me to say, beyond the fact that I loved the book. It begins with an interesting autobiographical introduction, detailing the author's grad work on Victorian Gothics at Harvard, together with her programming work at IBM, the combination of which, eventually, brought her to teaching that interactive fiction course at MIT which is detailed in the web resource page, whose structure parallels the Table of Contents of the book.
Both Table of Contents and web resource page go on to discuss and provide resources for the discussion of the holodeck of Star Trek as "A New Medium for Storytelling". The rather bodice-ripping story in which Capt. Janeway is involved as governess to Lord Burleigh's children may be slightly off-putting for some readers who may care less about Victorian Gothics than does the author -- surely a matter of taste worth discussion -- but it quickly evolves into another discussion, of "Alien Kisses," with a nod to Aldous Huxley and "feelies," Ray Bradbury and the wall-screen "televisor" parlors to which the housewives are addicted in "Fahrenheit 451," and going on to discuss early responses to film, to television, and to videogames (all hailed with horror by dystopic critics), and then into a discussion of the question of whether these critics are correct, or whether it would -- will -- be possible for "digital storytelling," "the literature of cyberspace," to live up to Beowulf and Shakespeare, or whether addiction is going to be our lot.
In other words, can there be a "humane and meaningful" use of the story-telling resources of the computer, or are we fated to be suckers for the "dehumanizing illusions that the dystopians warn about"? It's a question to which there can be at least two possible answers, of course; Janet Murray chooses the optimistic side, but with elaborate cautions, and a complex -- but pellucid -- discussion of the potential in the box. If "the holodeck is an optimistic technology for exploring inner life," then how can it be put to best use of its specific potential? And precisely, what is the "specific potential" of the story-telling capacities of cyberspace, using the holodeck as perhaps metaphor for technologies yet undreamed of? We have lift-off.
This "protean environment," the networked computer, could be put to drivelous uses (yes, I made up the adjective, for the benefit of Eric Crump). But we already know that "There is nothing that human beings have created that cannot be represented" herein, "from the cave paintings of Lascaux to real-time photographs of Jupiter, from the Dead Sea Scrolls to Shakespeare's First Folio, from walk-through models of Greek temples to Edison's first movies" (she's impossible to resist when she's on a roll). Equally, apart from its encyclopedic graphic resources, there are a wide range in narrative entertainments not only feasible but actually offered us at the present time -- at an incunabular stage of development of the medium -- from vicious videogame shoot-em-ups to MUD and MOO role-playing games (with their pedagogic applications, only lightly touched on in this book -- a curious minimization of a positive use of the medium), to clearly postmodern hypertexts such as Michael Joyce's "Afternoon." There are also fan-club webpages, extrapolating variations on "NYPD" and other TV shows (recently in process of being closed in on by Viacom, for copyright reasons having to do with the illegal use of video-clips in their retelling or transforming of the series' original versions on network TV). A fascinating brew.
Which one will lead us to a new Shakespeare? Rather, if a new Shakespeare were to come along, how would he (or she) write a Hamlet for the holodeck? Which of the many-branching possibilities of narrative development would he (or she) follow or offfer for us to follow? How could we help that "cyberbard," rather than get it the way of the flowering of genius possible, given such tools? The burden of this book is the discussion of this central question. The chapter on "Harbingers of the Holodeck" traces multiform stories preceding digital media, such as Jorge Luis Borges' "The Garden of Forking Paths" ( 1941), or, more mundanely, Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life" (1946), where George Bailey is granted a vision of what the world of Bedford Falls would have been like had he not lived. This denial of the merely linear may arouse anxiety in readers -- or viewers -- seeking simple closure; it is obviously embraced by Janet Murray, and probably by most readers of this review (if they've gotten this far and haven't instead gone off with the book for themselves). This active, independent role of the reader is obviously an invitation, as she puts it, "to join in the creative process," to delight "not in the tale but in the fertile mind of the writer." Which writer? Which audience? And at what point do the readers seize the pen -- or the cursor -- from the writer to join in the process of creation for themselves?
If you go back to the book's web resource page( http://web.mit.edu/jhmurray/www./HOH.html ) you'll see a "debate" between Janet Murray and Sven Birkerts, where he raises something like this question: Can the writer withhold information and sustain suspense when the reader has access to a web-page detailing background information on the characters and their backgrounds, their motivations and probable moves? Who second guesses whom, after a while? And what if the "first" writer was superior to the "second" writer -- as Janet Murray, to my mind, is superior to the writer of this review -- and you find yourself wasting time reading a review, time which would be better spent reading the book? Or, as Janet Murray says (we're back in the book, not in the Birkerts/ Murray discussion), "Giving the audience access to the raw materials of creation runs the risk of undermining the narrative experience. I lose patience with Calvino [in "If on a Winter's Night a Traveler"] when he repeatedly dissolves the illusion" (p.40). But she also says, in the same paragraph, "Nevertheless, calling attention to the process of creation can also enhance the narrative involvement by inviting readers/viewers to imagine themselves in the place of the creator." Hm. Guess you can't lose.
This discussion of what is variously called "The Aesthetics of the Medium," with a discussion of "Immersion/Agency/Transformation" as leading components of that aesthetics, or "Procedural Authorship," the implications of programming as ultimate authorship, which yet permits multiple interaction with the "givens" of the well-plotted "cyberdrama," gets to the heart of this fascinating book, for me, at any rate. Immersion, of course, is possible with any expressive art-form, given the nature of human imagination. Agency, however, is removed or not permitted when, for example, the intrusive narrator withholds information necessary for the solution of a mystery; is it an illusory agency when the hidden author/programmer has prepared the pack of lexia from which the player chooses? Or is there an actual transformation of self -- perhaps the only one that really counts -- just because we can use the resources of the computer to morph and shape-shift in virtual reality, thro narrative environments?
Ultimately, of course, there is a question of value linked to this question of aesthetics: when is a given resource being used trivially and when is it being used profoundly? In the enactment of stories, how are we transformed, even if only potentially? Even to ask this question is to recognize the extent to which Janet Murray has engaged us in an exploration of the multivariant world of the networked computer and the holodeck -- or world beyond -- that we have glimpsed so far, just over the threshold in a new environment. The ultimate question is "What will it take for authors to create rich and satisfying stories that exploit the characteristic properties of digital environments and deliver the aesthetic pleasures the new medium seems to promise us?" It is with the answer to this question that the remainder of the book is concerned, in Part III: Procedural Authorship. Only a "cyberbard," knowledgeable about the programming necessities underlying the multiform plot, but at the same time more than a mere trickster, shape-shifting for more than game-playing pleasure, can answer this, in the end. The virtuosic collaboration necessary to bring about not merely the cleverest but the most truly transformative, profound uses of this magical box is at the heart of the matter. Can we deliver this for a new Shakespeare to take advantage of? Will he -- or she -- take it over, anyway, from the crude shoot-em-ups or the cliched romances of the "harbingers of the holodeck"?
This is the challenge of this book. The computer, says Janet Murray, is "chameleonic" -- not only in its presentational possibilities as an encyclopedic theatre or sports arena -- two of the possibilities she suggests in her closing pages -- but also as what she calls a "representational medium, a means for modeling the world that adds its own potent properties to the traditional media it has assimilated so quickly." Can it indeed be put to "the highest tasks of society," assuming we agree that the transformation of the imagination qualifies as among these tasks? We end with her firm conviction, in her ringing peroration, that whether or not we will one day be rewarded with the arrival of the cyberbard, we should hasten to place this new compositional tool as firmly as possible in the hands of the storytellers. Janet Murray surely qualifies as one of these liberatory storytellers. We are all in her debt for this richly engaging book.
John McLaughlin, Fall. 1999.