Monday, November 03, 2003

The Shackles of Time

One of the exciting potential features of electronic text (by which I mean any computer-intermediated textual story, static or dynamic) is the ability to break the linearity of traditional prose. This theme comes up again and again in Murray's Hamlet on the Holodeck. Hypertext, so that the arc of the story can branch and go in multiple directions ("If you fight the dragon, turn to page 51. If you run away, turn to page 36.") rather than a single line as in most novels. Parallel stories, like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead to Hamlet; while novels could "show" simultaneous action by cutting rapidly between scenes, just as a film would, e-text could actually (for some value of "actually" and we'll get to that shortly) maintain simultaneous parallel lines, possibly showing the same event from multiple points of view (like Rashomon) or simultaneous events in different points of space.

In E. M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel, he talks about the use of time as the backbone of the novel. The basic nature of the novel is a series of events, or "And then... and then... and then..." He laments this, finding it the least interesting and lowest aspect of the novel (as compared to things like character or plot), but acknowledges it as indispensible. To completely discard time is to leave us with no way to understand the relationship of elements. At best we are left with poetry, at worst an unintelligible mess. So as in any good time-travel science-fiction story, we must be left with the moral that when we mess with time, we do so at our own danger.