Books: Are you a man or a mouse?

e-mail:// by Stephanie D Fletcher Headline pounds 5.99
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The Independent Culture
It was inevitable someone would eventually write an e-mail novel. A technology which allows users to party via the computer screen, and indulge in torrid cyber-sex sessions with partners thousands of miles away, was just too good to be ignored. The only real surprises are that it was so long coming, and that when it finally did arrive it should prove such a damp squib.

In case you've lived in the Amazon for the last five years, e-mail is a form of computer-generated conversation. Messages can be posted either on public bulletin boards, allowing one to interact with whole groups of people at once; or dispatched to private e-mail boxes for a more personalised correspondence. Essentially, it's a way of going out and meeting people without actually going out and meeting them.

It is into this twilight world of disembodied relationships and hi-tech sensualism that Fletcher pitches her heroine, 45-year old mother of two and pottery-pig collector Katherine Simmons. Having, on a whim, logged on to the Luxnet Adult Topics Bulletin Board, Katherine - or "Katie" as she styles her e-mail alter ego - finds herself inexorably drawn into the erotic intrigues of computer society. Relationships are formed, parties held and fantasies exchanged, the narrative unfolding as a series of computerised literary exchanges: a sort of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, with modem.

The novelty here lies less with the story itself, which boils down to a fairly anodyne tale of a disillusioned middle-aged American woman rediscovering herself, but rather with the technology which makes the story possible. E-mail has created an entirely new language of social interaction. By removing any need for, or indeed possibility of physical contact, and establishing a virtual world in which anything goes, the e-mail revolution has raised unique questions concerning the nature of reality, relationships and human association.

When Katherine has keyboard romances with two men, does this constitute adultery or merely playful fantasy? Is a computer-generated relationship as valid as a face-to-face one? Has technology made the real world redundant? "Having a computer is a little like having Aladdin's lamp," suggests Katie; " computerland you can become the man or woman of your dreams."

These are potent issues, but ones which Fletcher addresses half-heartedly. The sporadic philosophical musings of her characters appear contrived, and whilst there are cursory forays into the realms of marital abuse and female menopause, the meat of the novel lies with matters sexual and domestic. Copulatory fantasies come thick and fast - no pun intended - and what we ultimately get is not so much e-mail:// as Intercourse on the Internet. It's fun in places, but ultimately a lot less satisfying than a game of computer chess.