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The Independent Culture
The e-zine Urban Desires sets out the rules of its Metafiction contest with admirable briskness. "Meta" means "nonlinear", defined as "any story which no two readers would read in the same order". No science fiction. No pornography. And lastly: "We know you had a rough childhood. We did too. No one cares. Don't write about it."

This interdict is attempting to cajole writers into doing something fresh. By way of positive encouragement, Urban Desires presents two stories by Clay Shirky, whose work "has helped us redefine how we look at fiction and will help you too".

Both Shirky's stories are cameos of descent into disaster. "Notes on Sinking" achieves nonlinearity by taking the form of a table, based on a grid of cells running from 1 to 6 and A to G. Although it isn't hypertext, this is a structure that emerges naturally from the standard tools used in Web page design (and in word-processing programs). Web writers tend to be designers too.

Shirky's table is spread out over a wallpaper-like background which bears a heroic motif of a ship going down. Some cells contain fragments of narrative which concern the demise of a ship. Others contain comments from a character called Harriet, object of the author's affections. Several are devoted to variations on the statement "only she told me she loved me", in which the word "only" appears in different positions. Whatever order you read them in, the inevitable conclusion is that these are epitaphs for the relationship. That goes for the other narratives in the cells: the ship goes down, a disturbed person has punctured the life rafts, and Harriet decides it isn't a proper story at all. But it looks good, and it sketches out some interesting possibilities.

Its companion piece, "flying And falling"[sic], is also based on a tabular layout. The grid encloses the transcript, genuine but edited, of communications in the final minutes of a stricken airliner. One column identifies the speaker. Another records interchanges between the crew and the control tower. A third presents the voices off in the cockpit and the passenger cabin; the final one counts off the time to the second.

The people on the plane are trapped in their technical procedures in the way that their speech is confined within this grid. Their words also are bound to their technology, and their heroism begins to emerge in the way they maintain control as one system after another fails. At one point the transcript throws up an anachronistic phrase, harking back to the maritime tradition on which the language of aviation is based. The airport gives the instruction "fly heading two four zero and say your souls on board". From then on, the aircraft is one with every craft that ever bore souls on perilous journeys. As the crew struggle to bring it safely home, a tremendous sense emerges of the human capacity to co-operate; the crew on the flight deck, the flight attendants, the control tower and the emergency personnel assembling on the ground.

At the foot of each page, two links are offered. One opens the next page; the other goes to a series of pages like clear sky, containing images and fragments of found text. These include a table of accident statistics, and snatches of a news report about a light plane that crashes while doing stunts "for fun". The transcript tells of heroism. The secondary pages suggest that if God had meant us to fly, He would have given us wings. The files in this series are named "Icarus".

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