Issue: Volume: 23 Issue: 11 (November 2000)

Fiction for Foxes

The hedgehogs get more attention. They predict one grand future for fiction, although they disagree among themselves about what that future is. For some, it is interactive television; we will interact with the television screen in some way to determine how a story unfolds. For others, the future of fiction will be virtual reality; we will determine the story by interacting with virtual characters just as we do with people in the physical world. Most hedgehogs would agree that we will not be reading text. Rather, we will be seeing and hearing it. Our stories will be plays or movies, not novels.
BY Jay David Bolter

This vision makes another group of hedgehogs angry. They argue that readers do not want to determine their own stories, but instead want to place themselves in the hands of an all-powerful, traditional author. They also insist that, although film and television may be effective media for certain kinds of storytelling, the experience of reading cannot be replaced. Fiction should not be interactive and certainly not virtual.

I would like to speak for the foxes. I believe that it is impossible to predict the future of fiction. It is certainly true that digital technologies are becoming more and more important to communication, and we are using these technologies in many different ways to tell our stories. Beyond that simple fact, prediction becomes propaganda. The enthusiasts for interactive television or virtual reality are trying to persuade us that their favorite technology is inevitable. What I prefer to discuss is not some imagined future, but instead the lively condition of present-day storytelling in our digital culture. What we find today is both tradition and innovation in endless combinations of old and new media.

Today, we find J.K. Rowling publishing a very traditional fantasy narrative in print and selling 3 million copies in the United States in two weeks. We see X-Men-a traditional linear film that uses computer graphics special effects to reinvent the look of a 30-year old comic book-bringing in $54 million in its first week of distribution. We have computer games and computer-gaming platforms that offer immersive experiences, but also double as DVD players or Internet browsers. We have attempts to combine World Wide Web sites with traditional television shows. We have thousands of people using MUDs (multi-user dimensions), many of which are based on novels or other forms of fiction. We have hypertext fiction, like Michael Joyce's afternoon and Twelve Blue, which continues to attract a small but dedicated audience of readers. We have installations, such as we saw in the art gallery at Siggraph 2000, that have a narrative strategy. We have AI-based storytelling programs and "story worlds" [ed. note: See cover story, "Time Travel," pg. 24]. Where is the hedgehog who can encompass all these media forms in one great generalization about the future of fiction?

There is, in fact, no one form around which our culture's creative energies are converging. To be true to the art of storytelling in this technological age, we have to stop thinking in terms of a single medium or media form and imagine instead a spectrum of possible approaches. Storytelling may be interactive or linear depending on the choice of technology and the needs and desires of the audience. Storytelling may be verbal or highly visual. The creativity of our particular cultural moment lies in its diversity, not only in the kinds of stories that we tell, but also in the technologies that we use to tell them.

Jay David Bolter is the Wesley Chair of New Media and Director of the New Media Center at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He adapted this essay from remarks he made at Siggraph 2000.