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The best hypertext tracts

Hypertext was all the rage in the early days of e-literature. Go back in time with our favourites

Imagine it’s 1994: you’re wearing basically the same thing you’re wearing now, but things like ‘hyperlinks’ – something without which we cannot function today – are a wildly exciting phenomenon, if you even know what they are at all. A couple of decades ago, new media artists and writers were blown away by the complexity not having to be grounded in space would afford them. Finally they would be free of the constraints of one-page-in-front-of-the-other. They could concentrate on narrative rather than the order in which it was presented.

Things didn’t pan out exactly as planned. As it turns out, while linear time may be a construct, it’s a really handy construct to have. The writing that came out of this premature excitement about the possibilities of computers and the Internet – called hypertext fiction and later e-literature – was hard. And now that we know how easy the Internet can make things, it’s not so tempting to choose the path of more resistance and read it. 

It’s true, then, that from certain angles it seems that e-lit and hypertext fiction have been relegated to quirky reaches of media theory, interesting only to literature PhDs patting themselves on the back for studying something of a recent century. From others, though, the form is fun, and not just from a ‘Remember when you had a LiveJournal?’ perspective. Check out our picks for alt fiction that dates from a time when seven seemed a huge number of fonts to choose from.

The Unknown by Scott Rettberg, William Gillespie, Dirk Stratton and Frank Marquardt

One of the most ambitious, weird and exciting works of e-literature, The Unknown makes use of texts fictional, real, obnoxious and funny to create a sprawling world that’s as exciting as it is confusing. Though the story is hard to follow, the writing pushes you through. Read here

Luminous Airplanes by Paul LaFarge

Perhaps more like a narrative website, LaFarge’s 2011 romance makes use of the how far we’ve come, technology-wise, offering maps and reminders of pages you’ve recently visited, plus an interface our Myspace-weary eyes are used to. Read here

afternoon, a story by Michael Joyce 

If such a thing as classic hypertext fiction exists, then Joyce’s ‘afternoon, a story’ is it. The first piece of hypertext fiction ever published, Joyce’s non-linear narrative makes use of memory, expectations, fear and the reader’s experience to create suspense as well as to cultivate a story that is both disorienting and compelling. Read here

253 by Geoff Ryman

Numerical patterning (guess which) provides as stable a framework as possible for Ryman’s interpretation of modern life, as represented by one London Tube train. Often more like profiles, Ryman’s piecemeal tales paint an overarching portrait of humanity, though whether it’s about how similar or how different we are is unclear. Read here

Patchwork Girl by Shelley Jackson

What could have been an obvious metaphor—each piece of the non-linear narrative is represented by a piece of the protagonist’s body—works as a kind of Gothic parable about unity, creating, etc. It’s also a continuation of Frankenstein, so it’s suitably #dark. Read here

Deathspin by Jason Nelson

If many of our picks are ‘novels’, then Nelson’s Deathspin is flash fiction, but we’ve never liked labels anyway. Whatever it is, it’s creepy, allowing the reader to build the story of his own death using pieces of multiple narratives. Read here

Cunnilingus in North Korea by Young-hae Chang Heavy Industries

Okay, so this is not hypertext in the sense that it will make you nostalgic for dial-up. But what it lacks in funny background images it more than makes up for in being an actually incisive, point-making piece of art, complete with a great soundtrack. Read here

Blue Hyacinth by Pauline Masurel and Jim Andrews

Did we mention hypertext is all about non-linear narratives? Well, it is. This one exemplifies how the form can add to the reader’s understanding of the story by offering four perspectives on the same scene almost simultaneously. Read here

Hegirascope by Stuart Moulthrop

The piece begins without much opportunity for reader involvement, flashing disjointed text across a screen that the reader can’t control – perhaps a relief for those who have made it through the list – but it soon moves toward the labyrinthine metafictional world of its predecessors, albeit with a beginning and end firmly located in temporality. Read here

Disappearing Rain by Deena Larsen

Larsen is a pioneer of hypertext and new media, and Disappearing Rain uses a series of traditional Japanese poetic structures, kanji-kus, to navigate the narrative. Read here