TECHNOFILE 4

If one brand name represents what this column thinks CD-ROMs should be like, it's Voyager. According to industry norms, this American company does all the wrong things. It publishes electronic books, rather than special effects packages with text thrown in; it produces titles genuinely aimed at grown-ups, rather than family products just smart enough not to embarrass adults. It is the multimedia publisher that brings you authors like Stephen Jay Gould (on evolution) and Art Spiegelman (the CD-ROM version of Maus).

Unfortunately, it doesn't currently bring these titles to British shops, except on import. Distribution deals are established in less peripheral countries, like South Korea and Turkey, but Voyager no longer has an exclusive distributor in the UK. BMG Interactive claims to have been considering the range for several months now, but the multimedia tentacle of the Bertelsmann conglomerate appears to be in no hurry to publish any of these titles in the foreseeable future.

For anybody with Internet access, however, the Web site (www.voyagerco.com) is far more than a substitute. As you would expect, it provides a catalogue and an ordering service for CD-ROMs and other products, including downloadable "expanded" books, mostly classic texts with hypermedia knobs on at five dollars a go. (You pay on line, by credit card.) The list of books for sale leads on to a list of downloadable fonts. Many of the latter cost ten times as much, which says something about the relative values of style and content.

The site sees itself as an art centre as well as a brochure, and weaves an adroit line between commerce and patronage. Among the visual projects under its wing are a Laurie Anderson exhibition space and The Narrative Corpse, a "comix chain-story" featuring 69 artists. This is based on a surrealist game styled Le Cadavre Exquis by Andre Breton and his cronies, and known as Consequences in traditional British parlours. Not one but two literary magazines are featured: Grand Street, and George Plimpton's Paris Review, in its time a launch vehicle for such authors as Jack Kerouac, George Steiner, Italo Calvino, V S Naipaul and Philip Roth. It translated itself once across the Atlantic, to New York, and has now been assumed into the Internet. A typical free snippet recalls a meeting between Cocteau and Picasso. Having picked out generous gifts from his studio for the strangers also present, Picasso chose an item "preposterously devoid of beauty, novelty or artistic interest of any kind whatsoever" for his fellow artist.

"Cocteau looked at it with an expression of fastidious disgust, as if he had been handed a scrap of excrement, which was very nearly what, in fact, had occurred. And for once he was left speechless. Surely sensitive to the significance of his talkative friend's silence, Picasso said, "Look on the inner side. It's signed."

Meanwhile, over at Grand Street, Dennis Hopper interviews Quentin Tarantino, and the result is the script for "Pulp Luvvies". Hopper explores the Hello! magazine side of his nature further in a disquisition on Los Angeles golf clubs. The most expensive one costs $225,000. It turned him down, though it let Jack Nicholson in.

Hopper's piece casts a comic sidelight on Mike Davis' Consumers' Guide to the Destruction of Los Angeles. In Davis' book City of Quartz (Verso, 1990), LA appears as the city of the future not so much in its architecture or technology, but in its social and property relations. That seems to make it a target. In the Voyager site presentation, Davis observes that its annihilation has been the major theme of over 150 novels, short stories and films. The first time it was fictionally devastated by an atomic explosion was back in 1921, courtesy of romantic novelist Marie Correlli. The holocaust was a detail in the stormy relationship between the world's best physicist, a self-styled Nietzschean superman, and Morgana Royal, the second most brilliant physicist, who cruises the skies in an airship called White Eagle powered by "throbbing atomic disks". So much for apocalypses now.

Marek.kohn@mcr1.poptel.org.uk

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