There's been an awful lot of talk recently about the future of the book as a physical artifact, but as that discussion loops and echoes around publishing industry boardrooms, a subtle revolution is quietly occurring as the concept of the story itself shifts.
In his recent book of essays, Confessions of a Young Novelist, Umberto Eco makes the argument that readers can't help but let their imaginations wander outside the confines of their favourite stories. What would have happened if Hamlet had just married Ophelia? What turns would Raskolnikov's life taken if he hadn't killed the old woman? Would everyone have been happier if Heathcliff had just settled down with Catherine?
"We can make all these things happen," Eco says, "but do we really want to?" His argument is that the pleasurable shiver we get as we "feel the finger of Destiny" is enough. That we just aren't willing to step outside the author's original intentions and extend those fictional universes into unknown territories.
But is Eco's argument deteriorating as the technological advances that allow us to deconstruct, redistribute and expand upon the base elements of those fictions become more available to us? And, if that's true, what does it mean for the future of narrative?
During his keynote speech at October's GDC Online conference (http://bit.ly/pDbXRP), the author Neal Stephenson (Snowcrash, Cryptonomicon) talked about the place where gaming and writing intersect and his hopes for a near future where players/readers could create their own stories, "where you're more fully simulating the entire world to the point where there's total freedom to act out whatever story you want."
Stephenson's own "community-driven enhanced serial novel", The Mongoliad (http://mongoliad.com/) is a tentative step in this direction. Run on a subscription model, Mongoliad promises a participatory, Dickens-style partwork with a light sprinkling of other media (graphics, music, etc), which revolves around a tale of "swashbuckling swordplay".
The Mongoliad is a brave first attempt by an author who is obviously interested in pushing against the borders of his artform. However, it still has some challenges to overcome.....what other recent work of fiction do you know that requires an FAQ to clarify to its readers if the story "will ever end"?
This question of closure, alongside the issue of authorship, sits at the very heart of the current evolution of the narratives we experience every day, a discussion that can't be had without using the term 'transmedia'.
Transmedia has come to mean a narrative that straddles multiple platforms. It's an inaccurate definition that is limiting, both semantically and creatively. Of course transmedia is about multiple formats, but it's also about multiple authors. If a property is adapted across a number of formats without opening any avenues for interaction, then it simply becomes a single story stretched to its limits. It's only when we allow outside input to occur that stories start to evolve, live, and find natural homes outside their original confines.
Unfortunately this ingredient of interactivity, and the advancements that facilitate that interaction, are being sidelined because they are the fiddly, uncomfortable conversations that no one wants to have. If authors and publishers run scared at the first whiff of e-ink then who's going to start the conversation that goes "so... how do you feel about letting the fans write the next book"?
Fortunately, there are some brave souls out there who are creating environments where those kinds of scenarios are the starting point.
WorldBuilder (http://worldbuilderonline.com/) is billed as a "collaborative project between the author of a novel, the publisher and fan-creators" that uses Adam Christopher's sci-fi/superhero novel Empire State (http://empirestate.cc/) as its jumping off point. By asking fans to create "any form of art or literature" based on Christopher's alternate reality New York City, WorldBuilder is hoping to birth a universe of fan-fuelled fictions, crafted under a Creative Commons license, with a profit sharing structure underpinning the entire enterprise.
Similarly , Balance of Powers (http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/balanceofpowers/balance-of-powers), is a 'free-to-read online episodic story' created by the people who dreamt up the groundbreaking ARG Perplex City, that allows its readers to "take part in live story events online", and has already earned its participatory stripes by funding itself via Kickstarter.
Look further afield and you'll find Storymash (http://storymash.com/) an online community aimed squarely at collaborative fiction writers, and Novlet (http://www.novlet.com/), a web app for collectively compiling non-linear stories. The tools are undoubtedly crawling into existence, and a small crop of brave experimenters is picking them up, creating an awful lot of questions in the process.
What will happen when the narrative doesn't end but iterates and expands? When the novel is not just consumed, but regurgitated? When the game and the story become one and same? And what devices will evolve to help us create these worlds?
Is the publishing industry ready to answer these question, and if they're not, who is going to answer them?
Follow Lynne Davidson on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@LynneAnnie