It is obvious that hypertext is not an indigenous computer genre, but one that can be found throughout the history of writing. Clearly, cybertext is not a new invention. Linking is not new and digital textual machines do so much more than mere linking. The materiality of texts is a very strong point of contact between cybertext theory and the more traditional approaches to (print) literature. Literature has a shape and the Net is shapeless. One should not confuse hypertext theory with hypertext fiction. Hypertext is not so much of a theory or a material technology as is a technological movement. Cybertex theory is not about literature. "In terms of new serious literature, the Web has not been very hospitable. It tends to be noisy, restless, opportunistic, superficial, e-commerce-driven, chaotic realm, dominated by hacks, pitchmen and pretenders, in which the quiet voice of literature cannot easily be heard"(1). Will the new literature look like the old literature? After all, without the inventive works of Michael Joyce, Stuart Moulthrop and Shelley Jackson we shouldn't have much to study in terms of digital narratives. What is the status of literature and art work in the age of information and digital media? Hypertext narratives are a site of literature's adaptation to the digital condition that is perpetually "under construction". Is all electronic literature innovative?
How to characterize innovation in its material support, in the emerging forms of expression, which do not reproduce the old ones? Radical subversion of the classical concept of fiction through the reader's intrusion? To define the concept and the shape of this new language we may quote Jean-Marie Shaeffer, to whom "the numerical code is different, in a remarkable way, from the linguistic code and from the ensemble of semiotic vehicles. Indeed, the numerical support is apprehended has a semiotic vehicle of its own. Whether on the input or on the output level, the user interprets through his own framework of knowledge a set of visual or sound stimuli and also signs that belong to non-numerical semiotic systems, iconic signs for example, or to written and spoken language.One can thus consider that the numerical code is at the disposal of traditional semiotic vehicles and, from this point of view, doesn't replace them"(2). Moreover, the first purpose of the hypertextual device is of encyclopaedic nature, not poetic and literary. Only when the purpose of this "semiotic machine" is subverted, the poetic dimensions where hyper-fiction is found arise. In its simplest form, it doesn't require more elements than those already implicated in the hypertextual mechanics: episodes (topics or lexis) and decisions (links). In a paper of 1987, Bolter and Joyce explained the mechanics behind Storyspace:
"Each link carries with it a condition statement (specified by the author), which must be satisfied in order for that link to be followed. At present Storyspace recognizes two kinds of conditions. The link may require that the reader match a string (answer a question) before proceeding. The link may also require that the reader already has visited a particular episode before proceeding. The author can also specify Boolean combinations of these conditions" (3). Obviously, the narrative potential of the interactive text is a function of the architecture of its system of links.
The novelty of these works is related to the architecture of the decision structure, the set of connectivity rules between different places/text. It is this architecture that elevates the author to the status of author/programmer. And it's also this system of over coding that promotes the user/reader to the status of co-author "reader and rewriter", providing him with the freedom to choose among the virtuality of possible paths. Literature adopts a series of principles belonging to the so-called post-modernity: discontinuity, plurality, undetermination, chance as the very deconstructer of the plot's coherence and, last but not least, the reader's added role of producing meaning. This is part of the "limit experience" and, at the same time, part of the ghost of "infinity" that electronic literature persecutes. Cyber-literature is the most appropriate terrain for the hybridization of narrative genres and of the semiotic systems that support them, mixing text with sound and image, in a radical combination of heterogeneous significant media. Evidently, works derived from this miscegenation are participating and tending to the dynamism brought and resolved by the digital device alone.
(1) Robert Coover, "Literary Hypertex: The Passing of the Golden Age" http://nickm.com/vox/golden_age.html.
(2) Jean-Marie Shaeffer, "Arts et médias numériques" eue virtuelle nº 16, février 1996. (author's translation)
(3) Bolter and Joyce 1987. "Hypertext and Creative Writing", in Proceedings from Hypertext'87, p. 44.