Art, literature or "multi-sequential writing"? The two winners of the hypertext competition launched last year by the trAce Online Writing Community show all the diversity you might expect from such a wide-open form. Rice (www.idaspoetics.com.au/rice/ riceheading.html) is really more of a hyperpoem, a series of 16 images of Vietnam that incorporate not only poetry but also voice-over readings, music and sound-effects. There is some haunting and effective Shockwave presentation of text, as a poem about a ferry crossing itself drifts away on screen, with old war broadcasts playing in the background. By contrast, The Unknown (www. soa.uc.edu/user/unknown/trip. htm) is exclusively textual. This saga of three writers on a book tour replaces the traditional linear road trip with something multidirectional, though full of literary in-jokes. There's a hilarious Henry Miller-style rampage through Paris, and the London stop includes a game of pool with Martin Amis. The competition judge, the US writer and academic Robert Coover, is also featured as a minor character, though he insists that this did not affect his final decision.
Others have made hypertext trips through London, notably in Geoff Ryman's 253, but that seven-and-a-half-minute ride on the Bakerloo Line was the work of a single mind. Babylondon is the brainchild of four writers who claim that such multiplicity is the right approach for so big and diverse a subject. Readers can explore the four different narratives, either by successive page-turning or hopping between them in search of "coincidence and cross-currents". Or they can dip into the text at random by chasing the floating links in a Java-plumbed word pool. The central conceit is the city as human body - "a monstrous urban foetus thriving off the variegated placenta of England's womb"; there's also much joyless and highly detailed sex, references to Artaud, Timothy Leary and Patrick Keillor, and a surprise skateboarding cat.
All Work and No Play
As well as a joke and a Kubrick tribute, this is perhaps the ultimate online anti-novel. Writer's block is the subject, with that terrifyingly banal sentence at the heart of The Shining - "all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy" - here presented thousands of times in various inescapable formations. Readers are challenged to somehow negotiate the linked typographic maze - something the Jack Nicholson character signally failed do in the movie. But then, he lacked a "back" button on his browser.
The Web, of course, hosts not just high-profile hypertext experiments but a huge number of more conventional works, posted in the hope of acquiring readers outside normal publishing strictures. This "adaptive fiction finder" offers an alternative to the search engines for finding original novels available for free on the Web. Calling itself "a little shelf in the corner of the global library", it uses index cards to describe content and for further reading suggestions: the links change every so often to send users browsing in different directions. There are only a hundred or so titles so far, but submissions are welcome and authors requested to review each others work.
Jason Cranford Teague's column returns next week