Poles in Your Face: The Promises and Pitfalls of Hypertext Fiction

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6 September 1995
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Browsing the World Wide Web can serve as a quick antidote to the foaming euphoria proponents of hyperfiction foster. Most hyperfiction encountered here seems clumsy, unsatisfactory, and of little artistic merit. Once the novelty of clicking on underlined words or outlined icons wears off, there is not much left to be euphoric over-- the stories seem to be lacking in everything but innovative structure, and the structures seem murky and pointless. There is a sense that the basic elements of the form have not been understood properly and are used in a haphazard way by most of its pioneers, happily experimenting on the fringes of cyberspace. It might be the proper time to ask questions about the essential problems and assets of the form.

Probably the most striking feature of hypertext is the link-- the word, sentence, or icon that refers to the next node, or piece of text, which in turn offers more links to the reader's incessant mouse clicks. As Bolter rightfully notes (201, 204), the link is a sign that signifies the node it links to, which in turn signifies other nodes, and so on, ad infinitum. This endless chain of signification accounts for the feeling of vertigo (Johnson-Eilola 195) often reported by hypertext and WWW users--they are caught in a signifying chain very much like the one threatened by Jean Baudrillard (10). For hypertext fiction, however, this is less important than the nature of signification employed by the link. It seems that the way in which the link signifies is not properly understood. This is obvious to anyone who ever wondered why they read what they read after clicking on a link--the gap that yawns between the link and the new window that brings the next node is often big enough to swallow a lot of the Web's hyperfiction in its maw.

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Scott Rettberg