Tuesday, November 04, 2003

The Hypernovel Only Lives When Hosted by a Brain

Any form of literature must be interpreted. A symphony, for example, is only a set of symbols in a given notation until an orchestra plays it. A play is a sequence of words that is interpreted by actors, who may radically change the meaning (Hamlet as insane, Hamlet as cunning). Taken radically, this argument could apply to any form of communication, since the symbols in a text must be transmitted to meaning within the brain of the reader. (This is one of the subtle and lovely themes of John Crowley's sadly underappreciated novel Engine Summer). But we speak here of not quite so radical a notion, merely of literature that must survive a transformation between the form in which it is transmitted (the sheet music of a symphony, the script of a play) and the form in which it is perceived (the sound waves, the ensemble acting).

The hypernovel, text intermediated by computer, goes one step further. For while (as we discussed yesterday) the hypernovel can break the bound of linear time, nevertheless the reader must reserialize the experience somehow, for our consciousness must perceive things one at a time. No matter how often we intercut between parallel sequences, we nevertheless are single processors at the level of our conscious minds (ironic, as the brain is a massive parallel processor. Curious.). Indeed, the hypernovel must also be created in linear fashion (excepting for the moment a purely computer-created novel).

So we see an odd form of reconstitution. The author uses a serial, linear process to create a hypernovel, but the hypernovel's form, however it is embodied as information, reflects non-linear structure. That form is perceived -- experienced -- by the reader, linearally, but not in the same linear fashion as the author. Only when the work is completely experienced can we imagine that, within the brain of the reader, some form analogous to that in the mind of the author has been created. But since any two walks through the hypernovel are likely to be different (we might even hold that principle up as a metric for value), the resulting in-brain structures might be different, even radically so.

This is a strength, not a weakness, of the form, just as the fact that plays are filtered through fallible, weak, often misinformed and self-motivated actors and directors. As Forster points out, has any experience reading a play been superior to seeing one? It is in the interpretation, the bending of meaning and the imposition of other minds, that plays gain much of their power. And so it will be with the hypernovel.