restricted access Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace
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Reviewed by
Janet H. Murray. Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. New York: Free P, 1997. xii + 324 pp.

The title of this book perhaps looks merely catchy but is cogent to its argument: that compelling narratives from antiquity to the present, whether classical or popular, are perennial, but that the medium of [End Page 553] narration changes in time and new narrative opportunities appear with emerging technologies. Fans of Star Trek will recognize the “holodeck” in question as a “universal fantasy machine,” allowing a living person to enter into a world of story as if it were 3-D reality. At present the holodeck exists only in fiction, but Janet Murray examines in detail the way narratives produced in digital formats have begun to simulate imaginary worlds in which one can become immersed as an agent who has the power to transform a course of action. The author optimistically predicts that an emerging cyberdrama “need not resemble Huxley ‘feelies’,” in Brave New World, but can offer “satisfactions continuous with those we receive from established narrative formats,” and perhaps the originality we recognize as art. Arguing strongly against the view that newer forms of expression are intrinsically inferior to earlier ones—that film is inferior to drama, for example—she asserts that we have focused inappropriately on the worth of various media in the last quarter century when we should instead have acknowledged “a general crisis in meaning.” Finally, Murray is not asking if Hamlet will play on the holodeck but if in cyberspace we can attain to an artistic truth equivalent to that achieved by Shakespeare on the Elizabethan stage.

Hamlet on the Holodeck takes a long view of the technologies of narrative, pre- and post-Gutenberg, paying particular attention to forms of storytelling that seem to anticipate and legitimate those emerging in cyberspace, for example, those that play with the border between fiction and reality, those requiring the active participation of an audience, or those offering alternative plotlines. Reminding us that books printed before 1501 are called “incunabula,” from the Latin word for swaddling clothes, Murray sets the stage for a detailed discussion of largely experimental composition on the narrative computer, “a technology still in its infancy.” At considerable length she examines storytelling in electronic games, such as Mortal Kombat, role-playing in virtual environments on the Internet called MUDs and MOOs, dialogue engendered by ELIZA and her daughters, computer programs capable of responding to simple typed questions, and interactive stories composed by Murray’s own students at MIT.

It is a strength of this book that Murray, trained as a Victorian scholar and a teacher of humanities for many years, brings to her study of electronic composition an Aristotelian sense of analytic categories and writes about new media with great clarity. Less satisfactory to this [End Page 554] reader is her antipathy to contemporary theorists whom she sums up inaccurately as “denouncing meaning as something to be deconstructed into absurdity.” Aversion to much postmodern theory, together with a conviction that we stand in the “infancy” of electronic writing, leads to a slighting of sophisticated work by hypertext writer-theorists such as Michael Joyce and Stuart Moulthrop and somewhat overextended appreciation of such phenomena as electronic games and the authorship of chatterbots (computer-generated “characters” programmed to mimic speech, or at least certain verbal tics). Though computer-generated characters may at this moment appear merely fanciful, the aim of their creators is to achieve what computer scientists call “emergent behavior,” the ability to go beyond what these characters have been programmed to do. At present still an “exciting possibility,” machines that exhibit emergence will bring us, Murray believes, to “a new threshold in our ability to represent complex systems . . . whether thermodynamics, war strategies, or human behavior.”

The imaginative artist of cyberspace narrative will be a “procedural author,” one who, godlike, defines rules of action rather than determining behavior itself. Relying strongly on analogy with past success in narrative form, Murray argues that successful cybernarrative must establish its own conventions, “rules by which things should happen,” and structures for participation by the interactor, formerly the merely receptive reader or audience. A mature cybernarrative...