Technofile

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The Independent Culture
NFrankenstein's monster is frequently to be spied lumbering around quarters of culture where the preoccupation is with technologies, bodies and selves of the future. He has now acquired a younger sister, largely the creation of Shelley Jackson; or as Jackson puts it, "Mary/ Shelley and Herself". Jackson's claims for authorship of her hyperfiction work Patchwork Girl are modest. It's a web that she has woven, with primary sources ranging from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and L Frank Baum's The Patchwork Girl of Oz through Donna Haraway, the high theorist of technoculture, to a guide for the program with which the work was written. The measure of this approach is whether it expresses the immediate author's proper willingness to acknowledge her sources, or whether it is a device to draw attention to the cleverness of her embroidery. Here, it's the former: Jackson's calm and considered voice makes Patchwork Girl a welcoming introduction to the possibilities of hyperfiction.

Actually, most potential readers will already be familiar with the principles, since the easiest way to order the disk (approx pounds 19.50, inc p&p) is through the publisher's Web site (www.eastgate.com). Eastgate Systems may have been purveying "serious hypertext since 1982", as its slogan boasts, but now the entire Web forms a global hypertext. Serious, trivial and commercial sites alike are based on the links which co-opt texts from other sites, but do not assimilate them. It's a web, a quilt, and a monster too.

At first sight, Patchwork Girl itself looks like a management flowchart gone Gothic. Delivered on a floppy disk, it comprises a network of "writing spaces", each containing texts ranging from two to a few hundred words in length. There is, however, a conventional title page, and the texts can be entered by clicking on pictures of the Patchwork Girl. "If you want to see me whole," she advises, "you will have to sew me together yourself." You have to admire her heroic dimensions. She's a survivor, 175 years old and now toting a laptop.

Our metaphors tend to derive from activities, like the operations of microprocessors, inaccessible to our senses. Frankenstein's monster, fashioned by techniques closer to the blacksmith's than the microsurgeon's, is built on a more human scale. Jackson puts this accessibility to good service in her principal trope, getting a grip on the elusive idea that the self is not a whole, but a tense collection of fragments. In one group of texts, labelled "graveyard", Jackson itemises the parts that went into the Girl, all of which retain the character of their original owners.

At one gory stage, these parts go their separate ways, and the Girl has to learn how to put herself together again. The answer is a form of narrative, which is also what stops the texts themselves from floating around like a digital stew. Within the patchwork, there are clear, bold stories that the reader follows avidly. In fact, the nonlinear arrangement enhances their impact, since other parts of the text are set aside.

Even in a work based on text, this creates the archetypal hypermedia illusion of being somewhere in three dimensions. But where? "When I open a book I know where I am, which is restful," the narrator reflects nostalgically. Hyperfiction is acutely self-conscious about the process of reading; which makes a refreshing change from the prevailing literary model of artful self-absorption.

Marek.kohn@mcr1.poptel.org.uk

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