PUBLISHING / The book that ate itself: You won't find William Gibson's latest novel in the bookshops. Adrian Dannatt reports on a self-destructive publication

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The Independent Culture
FOR A publisher of limited edition art books who does not even own a computer, Kevin Begof Junior's plunge into cyberspace was vertiginous. Within minutes of the announcement on Internet that he was to publish the next book by William Gibson, cult Cyberpunk novelist, a dollars 1000 worth of bills had been run up on his credit card number. The credit was cut off by its automatic fraud detector but in the minute that followed, 37 attempts were registered to use the number, from as far away as Bombay and Sydney. His number had been put into circulation by Gibson computer fanatics. 'They knew I wouldn't have to pay for it, they just wanted to demonstrate how many of them are out there and how fast they can put my number out around the world.'

Gibson, who coined the term cyberspace in his first novel, Neuromancer, has become the guru to a whole generation of 'hackers' and 'techies'. Books such as Mona Lisa Overdrive and Burning Chrome have not only created a new literary genre, cyberpunk, but have been seized on by academics, theorists and cultural critics as a divine tablet of the forthcoming 'informatic age'. But even for Gibson, the latest work, Agrippa (A Book of the Dead), is unusually challenging.

Only available on a computer disk, Agrippa has the added frisson of destroying itself totally whilst being read. It contains a programme that erases each line of text as it rolls up the computer screen at a preset speed. Agrippa cannot be retrieved and it cannot be copied or transferred onto another disk. To read it again you must buy a new copy. This could prove expensive as the luxury edition of 95 copies costs dollars 1,500 and the 350 copies of the cheaper edition are dollars 500. It can of course be videoed and transcribed but that would defeat the object for true cyberpunks, which is to crack the code.

The book is a collaboration between Gibson and the New York artist Dennis Ashbaugh. Ashbaugh paints large abstracts, which are in fact DNA portraits. When one of Ashbaugh's collectors insisted on a portrait, he took a clip of the collector's hair and did a DNA scan of it, then painted this unusually intimate portrait. Since then he has increasingly explored the DNA scan system used in the most advanced new criminology. For Gibson Ashbaugh has produced a large, sombre volume encased in a rusty, muslin-draped metal box. The print pages are covered with nothing but ramifications on the letters C,A,G, and T, which the book's devotees insist is a genetic code for some hidden species. There are also etchings that will smudge and fade at different rates over time, until the pages are blackened or entirely blank. Thus the book as physical object is just as paradoxical an investment as the disk, the ultimate luxury item on auto-destruct. Logically, the cheaper edition lasts longer than the deluxe.

The publication party for Agrippa was actually more a one- off opportunity to read Gibson's text. At various venues across North America, from Tallahassee to Kansas City and up to Ontario, the disk was simultaneously played, rolling up on large monitors. Thus in New York at the Americas Society, those paying dollars 15 could sit and watch the fugitive text spool by, once and for all, whilst on a pre-recorded tape the TV conjuror Penn Gilette read it aloud. The event was packed with techies and those at the forefront of the computer book revolution.

Gibson's own seminal Neuromancer is to be issued as a disk next year and the whole 'floppy-back' industry, as it's protagonists term it, is just getting underway. Paul Peacock, ex-pat Brit who runs Floppyback Publishing International regularly puts out books on disks. So far there are 15 titles including Shakespeare, Edith Wharton, Conrad and Twain. Such publishing has its self-evident disadvantages, not making ideal beach reading. But the technology lets Peacock publish work which otherwise might not find an imprint, including a collection of his own poetry and a Vietnam vet memoir which was the first ever floppyback to be first published on disk and republished later as a conventional hardback. The cost of production is minimal - less than a pounds 1000 for a master- disk and the price of publishing another edition is next to nothing - you simply make another copy. As the public can do this too it may never be a very profitable field.

Just before proceedings began Mr Begof received an emergency call from Ontario. There was something wrong with their computer connection, could he tell them what line he would be receiving the transmission down? It was in fact a hacker who wanted to break into the phone connection and thus interrupt the evening's transmission. He was probably not even in Ontario; Begof suspected a Belgian, crouched over his midnight console ready to burrow into the system.

The unseen armies of worldwide hackers had no sooner heard of this Gibson project, through information posted on the computer network Internet, than they vowed to crack it. The Thinking Machines Group, a government- sponsored team in Cambridge, Massachusets, claim to be almost there as do the supercomputing department at Stamford. Once the code, which is encrypted around a National Security Agency algorithm, is cracked, copies of Agrippa will appear instantly on screens throughout the world, saved for posterity.

The project has been riddled with rumours from the beginning. It was long suspected the disk was actually a 'Logic Bomb', a hidden programme that activates itself and multiplies throughout the system until it has wiped out all other information. Naturally all this has distracted attention from the content of Gibson's story, but as Begof stated, whatever the technology behind such 'hypertexts' it still comes down to the quality of the writing. In fact Gibson has rescued the project from being a flashy gimmick by the metaphorical connection his story makes between its process and content. Agrippa is a short memoir of his father, a man who died when Gibson was a child, and is based around an old photo album he discovered on a visit to his West Virginia home (Agrippa was one of several historic trademark names used by Kodak in the twenties).

Agrippa vanishes just as memories themselves fade and the disappearance of his father is paralleled by the disappearing text. As Gibson puts it, beautifully, the text is not actually lost, it has just transferred itself directly from computer memory to human memory, a system with a less efficient, but more mysterious retrieval technique. In style and layout the effect is closer to concrete poetry than science fiction and its elegant, elegiac sentences are the last thing one would expect from Gibson. Agrippa ended 'tonight's red lanterns / are battered / laughing / in the mechanism' and ended it truly had, an irretrievable reading experience, at least until somebody cracks the code.

Originally conceived as a metaphor for the greed of contemporary art collectors, Agrippa functions as a complex statement on the contradictions and paradoxes of all archival systems. Many libraries requested a special non- destruct version, which simply does not exist and the mischievous dimensions of this curatorial problem particularly appealed to its originators. If everyone 'reads' their copy of Agrippa eventually only one will remain. Amazingly the limited edition is almost sold out, available through rare book dealers and the Metropolitan Museum store. A Japanese version is now planned. From the potential millions of readers who will steal the tale for their screen, Gibson will receive no copyright payment or acknowledgment.

(Photograph omitted)