Click to follow
The Independent Culture
N Irina made her debut with an excruciating gaffe, in the form of a hoax letter to the press from a Professor Edward Prideaux, warning of a virus carried in e-mails bearing Irina's name. After wasting a lot of people's time as they tried to locate the bogus Prideaux, it was revealed as a curtain-raiser to a project based at Penguin Books' Web site ( "Irina," Penguin claims, is "the first ever truly interactive piece of fiction."

If it were, Penguin would have beaten a host of modem scribblers to one of the great goals of hypertext. It turns out that what Penguin means by "truly interactive" is "not interactive at all". According to Guy Gadney, Irina's producer - a project like this, he notes, is closer to film than books - "sites where you can influence the story don't work." He aims to create the illusion of interaction.

This is done by e-mail. The point of departure is a personal home page in which Irina Zotova introduces herself as a member of the site design team, who hopes that the Web will help her find the truth about her father. She invites readers to contact her; in return, they are sent messages which lure them on to the next stage of the story. Two others have responded to her appeal, the first message says; these are characters with their own home pages. The e-mail device builds delays into the process, thus permitting the illusion that these other pages are being updated as the plot thickens.

To add verisimilitude to a typed letter from Irina's mother, the 'C' key is made to look defective. Two versions of a group photo of Soviet cosmonauts are reproduced: one of the figures, presumed to be Irina's father, is missing from the second. The

project's plans even extend to the use of "virtual servers", located in Britain but registered abroad, to create the illusion that files are being sent from around the globe.

Irina is equally adept at simulating the Web equivalent of authorial voice: the characteristic look and feel of sites produced by different people. The conspiracy theorist has a slick, obsessive, graphically manic site, featuring a clickable map of UFO sightings. The US bureaucrat-turned- conspiracy-theorist has a greyer, more stolid approach. Much of the material is derived from narratives that exist already. Aficionados will recognise close-encounter testimony from the famous Voronezh incident of 1989, for instance.

Thanks to hyperlinks, Irina is also able to co-opt external material without even re-typing it. Irina is from Rostov-on-Don, a city with a genuine Web site that speaks in the clumsily arch idiom of Soviet travel brochures: "At Rostov the Don flows quiet no longer. Its smooth waters are ruffled by modern motor vessels, speedy Raketa hovercrafts and Meteor hydrofoils, tug-boats, motorised barges and yachts."

The narrative closes in conventional fashion. There's even a moral: the characters realise that "the truth is not out there; it is in our own imperfect hearts". Somebody tell Mulder and Scully.

Irina makes far more interesting, and wiser, use of contemporary folklore than The X-Files. It also makes shrewd and imaginative use of the Web, helping one to see what hyperliterature could be like. But these possibilities remain hypothetical without a way of making them pay. Penguin itself has abandoned CD-Roms, leaving its Web site with a sorry resemblance to a Russian cosmodrome.