Rebooting Electronic Literature, Volume 2: Documenting Pre-Web Born Digital Media

Essay on Tim McLaughlin's "Notes Toward Absolute Zero"

The Durability of Love: Background and History of Tim McLaughlin’s Notes Toward Absolute Zero
By Dene Grigar, PhD

Shipwrecks, train wrecks, and wrecked hearts permeate Tim McLaughlin’s Notes Toward Absolute Zero (NTAZ), a hypertext narrative produced with Storyspace in 1993 and published by Eastgate Systems, Inc. in 1995 on 3.5 floppy disk and in 1996 on CD-ROM. As the title suggests, it is a story about cold so absolute that order and predictability are lost. As Rob Kendall points out in his study of the work, “Parsing the Cold: McLaughlin’s Notes Toward Absolute Zero,” the overarching theme of the narrative is the power of cold to both destroy and preserve. [1]

Story Strands
NTAZ presents readers with three story strands. The first centers on the search for the lost Franklin expedition that had set sail to find the Northwest Passage. The expedition, led by seasoned Arctic seafarer Captain Sir John Franklin, left from Greenhite, England on May 19, 1845 with two ships, the Erebus and Terror, powered with a 50 HP engine and with three years worth of supplies and elite provisions, like an organ and a 1200 volume library. When he did not return after many years, the navy organized searches to find him. These efforts proved unsuccessful, but Franklin’s wife Lady Jane did not give up hope. She commissioned several search expeditions, the most notable led by Francis McClintock in a last-ditch effort to find her husband. McClintock and his crew left on July 2, 1857 from Aberdeen on the Fox in search of Franklin. Two years later his party found two notes, the second of which was dated April 25, 1848 and detailed its fate: The ships had become trapped in ice off King William Island for over a year and a half and were eventually abandoned. It was believed that Franklin and several of his men died a few months later, on June 11, 1847. 

Woven into this strand of the true story of the lost Franklin expedition are two fictive ones also about searching and lost love. The first of these entails two people stranded in the bleak coldness. Winter, a Canadian photographer, encounters Jericho while both are holed up at a hotel due to a train wreck. Winter’s travels were to take him to visit the graves of relatives; Jericho’s had brought her from the funeral of her Uncle Magel. Amid the bitter cold and stress of their journey, they spend their time in conversation and lovemaking. Winter learns that Jericho was close to her uncle, a hypnotist, who disappeared from her life when she was a child of 11. From Winter Jericho learns that he had spent time in Ireland looking for the ghost of J. Bruce Ismay, the owner of the White Star Line who survived the sinking of the Titanic only to retreat in scandal to a small Irish town. After days of sharing intimate details of their lives, Winter wakes up one morning to find Jericho gone. He wanders the streets of Vancouver in search of her.

The third story strand focuses on Jericho's search for her beloved Uncle Magel, a hypnotist that she sometimes assisted as a child with his performances. Readers learn that he had kept lists, including, according to Jericho, “[n]ames of the dead” and “descriptions of exotic foods” (“Magel”), because he believed reciting a list to people would hypnotize them. One evening while practicing hypnotism on an audience at one of his shows, Magel imagined a wolfhound beside the podium. Horribly afraid of dogs, he dashed out of the theatre, leaving the audience under his spell. This event traumatized him, causing him to abandon Jericho. Carrying the loss with her into her adulthood, Jericho searches for clues of his whereabouts, eventually learning that he was last seen at Vancouver’s Men’s Mission. When she visits it, she is given his few paltry possessions, one of which is suitcase full of stamped envelopes––remnants of communication frozen in time.

Called by the author a “philatelic novella,” [2] NTAZ, a story about lost connections between places and among people, uses postage stamps as navigational clues structured into two main sections: the Frontispiece and Backispiece. The former consists of an interface of bitmap images of 17 different postage stamps from Canada, Great Britain, and Ireland; the latter of 16 different bitmap images from the US, Canada, Ireland, Great Britain, Scotland, and Morocco. Readers can move between the two sections several ways. When readers double-click on the “Canadada” stamp in the Frontispiece, for example, they are taken to the Backispiece; double-clicking on the “Zeropost” stamp in the Backispiece takes them to the Frontispiece.

Readers will note that McLaughlin mixes reality with fiction in his choice of stamps: Some are real, and others are not. [3] All stamps, however, take readers through unique paths containing lexias that provide one or more hyperlinked words or phrases that can be followed. Like other Storyspace works, Notes Toward Absolute Zero can also be read via the default path by clicking the return key or by clicking on words in the lexias. Readers can also hold down the Option + Command keys to see words that are hyperlinked or “anchored” to other places in the text (Keep et al). There is an “H” option in the Toolbar that takes readers back “home.” [4]

After loading the work, readers encounter a screen, entitled “press return.” An Introduction follows that tells readers how to “travel through the fiction” and suggests that they “select the word NEXT.” Double-clicking “NEXT” continues the instructions. At the end of that screen, readers can double-click “Begin Reading” and go to the Frontispiece.

Starting at the top left of the interface––a 20¢ stamp featuring Queen Victoria––readers can move to a screen dedicated to the stamp, entitled “Vic 20c.” Clicking on the image, readers encounter the lexia, “Victoria,” introducing a series of lexias about the McClintock expedition. To return to the Frontispiece, readers can use the arrow on the Toolbar as a back key. Next to the “Vic 20c” stamp is the "34¢ Canadian" stamp featuring a vintage train. This stamp takes readers to the bitmap image of the stamp where they can then click forward to the lexia, “Accidents.” Here a quote by Paul Virilio from Pure War reminds readers that: 

“[e]very technology produces, provokes, programs a specific accident. For example, when they invented the railroad . . . at the same time they invented the railroad catastrophe.”

Following this screen, readers are taken through a harrowing scenario whereby an accident causes their train to “crumple[s] and fold[s] itself into the mountainside" ("Take 2 trains"). The pattern of selecting a stamp, moving to an image of the stamp, and following lexias related to the stamp's path is used for all of the 33 stamps in the two sections of the work if one follows the default navigation option.

The two lists, below, contain all of the stamps in the Frontispiece and Backispiece. Information includes the country of origin, monetary value, name, and lexia title. Stamps unable to be identified are noted with a question mark (?); those that vary from the original are noted with an asterisk (*); those identified as created by the author for NTAZ are marked with a plus sign (+):

Frontispiece Postage Stamps (from left to right)
CanadaVic 20¢            Queen VictoriaVic20c
Canada34¢TrainEngine 2
+ Canadada--Stylized maple leafCanadada
CanadaCanada 3¢Queen VictoriaVic 3c
* CanadaCanada 37¢TrainEngine 1
CanadaCanada 37¢Tahitan Bear DogDog 37c
Ireland38pSheepEire 38p
CanadaTrainsTrain 4c
Canada2pQueen VictoriaVic2c
CanadaSwimmingSwim 8c
? Canada$5ShipShip $5
Canada34¢Rotary SnowplowPlow 34c
Canada32¢TrainEngine 3
Canada$2McAdam Railway StationStation $2
+ CanadaLady Jane FranklinL. Franklin 8c

Backispiece Postage Stamps (from left to right)

USA29¢Elvis PresleyElvis 29c
Ireland 28pEvening at TangierEire 28p
+ Canada12cFranklinFranklin 12c
* Morocco2,00King of MoroccoMoroc
+ ZeropostNPZeropost [5]    Zeropost
Canada            Queen VictoriaVic 8c
Canada            68¢TrainEngine 4
??Myth HouseMyth X
? Canada$1Carshop RuinsRuins $1
Canada32¢TrainEngine 6
+ Magel/Mesmer?Anton MesmerMagel X
? Canada$2Ship and an IcebergIce $2
Canada32¢TrainEngine 5
+ Canada36¢Finding Franklin’s RelicsRelic 36¢
Scotland16pEdinburgh Mail SnowboundSnowbound 16p
Great Britain31pVivian LeighFilm 31p

Like the house in John McDaid’s Uncle Buddy’s Phantom Funhouse and the monster’s body in Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl, McLaughlin uses stamps as navigational structures for his story. As important, they serve as artifacts of a bygone time when connections between people were slow and communication over distances and time could, easily, go cold. McLaughlin also uses lists as a conceit in the story much like Magel Constantine used them for his hypnotism. Sixteen lexias all entitled "Memory" make up the path introduced by the "Myth X" stamp in the Backispiece. Also found in the Backispiece are 21 lexias, entitled "Ice," that form the path introduced by the "$2 Canadian" stamp. The effect of clicking through endless descriptions of memories and ice is, as Magel suggests to Jericho, mesmerizing.

Publication History
What is fascinating about this work is that it existed first as a print hypertext, developed into a Storyspace hypertext, and then later was re-envisioned as a print book. [6] During its development, the story strands pertaining to the Franklin Expedition, Winter and Jericho, and Jericho and her Uncle Magel remained constant though emphasis upon particular strands shift and others are enlarged. These subtle differences resulted in varying number of lexias contained in the work, over time. 
Edition / VersionNumber of Story Lexias
1993 Edition148
1994 Edition391
Digital Versions435
2019 Edition238

In his introduction to the 2019 Edition of NTAZ, "Water into Ice: From Hypertext to Book," McLaughlin provides some insights into the production of the work. The idea for it began, as he states, as early as 1992 and envisioned all along as "a new format for the time: hypertext" (7). During the next three years, paper iterations developed into digital ones. With the demise of the floppy disk drive in 1998 for Apple computers and 2001 for Windows computers and the end of the CD-ROM drive in 2012 in Apple computers, the digital versions became challenging to access. "Motivated to reformat this work because [he] feared that soon it would be frozen in obsolete technology" (11), McLaughlin produced new paper editions that remain today unpublished. In total, there are three print editions and four digital versions. Taken together, they tell a fascinating story about the material practice of the late 20th and early 21st literary art and push back against the notion that works published as computer hypertexts should not be reconstituted as print.

“Notes toward Absolute Zero. Hypertext Fiction”
Among the archives in The Tim McLaughlin Collection, held by the Electronic Literature Organization at the Electronic Literature Lab at Washington State University Vancouver, are three copies of an unbound manuscript reminiscent of a hand-made book. The first is a fair copy; the second, a manuscript without the cover; the third, copy edited in the author's hand. McLaughlin reports that this was an early iteration of Notes Toward Absolute Zero created in 1992-1993 while living with friends in Ireland and working on a digital version. Because access to the internet was not at the time easily accessible, he had wanted to share the work with them in a format they could read. A local print shop cut his manuscript pages from the 8.5 x 11 stack he had produced into a finished size of 8.5 x 5.5 (McLaughlin, 18 Dec. 2019). Its cover is produced with a black construction paper and is hand-lettered in silver by McLaughlin. It reads: “Notes toward Absolute Zero. Hypertext Fiction.” A silver monogram is found below the subtitle. The title page is produced with vellum and contains the same information as found on the cover, save that it is printed, not hand-written, in a combination of serif and san serif black letters. The choice of paper used throughout the rest of the book is “Beckett Glazier Mist recycled paper,” a wicked nod perhaps  to the story’s focus on the frozen landscapes of the Arctic and wintery Canada. The typeface, Goudy Old Style, reminds readers of a past time of travel by train and ship and communication through letters and personal journals. This version offers little paratext, such as a Frontispiece and Backispiece found in The Eastgate Version (Version 2.1). Only three black and white images are used: the train station and a train outfitted with a snowplow also found later in The Eastgate Version and another featuring the train accident mentioned earlier in this essay. It does not offer chapters or page numbers, though some of the pages are titled like hypertext lexias. Like the hypertext it states it is, the narrative is relayed in small chunks and the episodes shift in time, place, action, and characters.

On the first page readers find to chuck of text written in the 2nd person point of view by an omniscient narrator introducing the story. It reads:

This is a story that takes place in the space between movement. It begins when you realize that you can control your departure but not your arrival. If you find yourself somewhere else, perhaps gathered into the hypnotic sway of the sleeping car, it is because you have given up control over something. Travel is a conversation between places.

On the next page readers encounter Magel and Jerico, whose name varies in spelling than in The Eastgate Version. [7] For the first seven pages the two engage in a conversation about Magel’s fear of dogs. The next two shift to a train wreck that took place on March 12, 1857 along the Great Western Railway en route to Hamilton in which 59 people perished. Four pages of quotes from Reb Alcé, Paul Virilio, The Canadian Encyclopedia, and b.p.nichol follow. Next are two pages that recount the conversation Winter and Jerico have in the hotel room about Magel’s fear of dogs and the injury he sustained in an accident a dog once caused him. The next page takes the story back to Magel and Jerico; he needs to tell her something. The episode ends without the readers––or her––knowing what that is. Next is a brief rumination about travel, before arriving at pages, entitled Jerico I and Jerico II. The narrator appears again on the next two pages, recounting a variation on the opening comment:

“This is a story that takes space and movement . . . .  Travel is an argument between places.”

It is not until the second third of the novel that readers find mention of the Franklin Expedition and McClintock’s journey to locate the ships and crew. The story continues to move back and forth, in and out of the three story strands. The theme of miserable cold and what McLaughlin identifies as the “[t]he failure of communication, transits, and journeys” (McLaughlin 18 Dec 2019) holds the narrative together. At times the title of episodes provide seamless connections. An entry from “Winter’s Notebook, January 10” about the intense cold, for example, gives way on the next page to a lexia called  “Winter Chronicle" about the spirited antics of William Parry’s crew on Melville Island. This lexia is followed by an entry dated “October 28––Midnight” from McClintock’s notebook where he recounts the sound of “ice crushing.” It is clear from reading this edition of the novel that it serves as a precursor to The Eastgate Version, focusing more attention on its fictive aspects and its textual presentation as a work of literary fiction, albeit one that experiments with print hypertext.

In 1993 the notion of a print hypertext was not an odd one. As an artist practicing his craft in the early 1990s, McLaughlin was well aware of the excitement about hypertext theory and art. Five years before McLaughlin completed the 1993 edition, ACM Hypertext ‘87 convened at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, laying the groundwork for hypertext theory in North America. Present were Jay David Bolter and Michael Joyce, who demonstrated the efficacy of their Storyspace software for non-linear storytelling using Joyce’s afternoon: a story as a proof of concept. Also at the event were George Landow talking about the rhetoric of hypertext and Ted Nelson giving an invited talk about Project Xanadu. By 1991 Bolter’s Writing Space: the Computer, Hypertext, and the History of Writing was released to much acclaim. Chapter seven “The New Dialogue,” in particular, discussed the tension that structure engenders with each new medium, focusing specifically on the rejection of linearity by postmodern theorists Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida (114-116). This book was followed a year later by Landow’s groundbreaking Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology. The first page makes his argument clear: Hypertext is not limited to computers, but is a structure that can be found in print texts. [8] More importantly, he argued, computer hypertext––that is, “text composed of blocks of words (or images) linked electronically by multiple paths, chains, or trails in an open-ended, perpetually unfinished textuality described by the terms link, node, network, web, and path”¬¬––follows Roland Barthes’ concept of “an ideal textuality” (author’s emphasis, 3).  

McLaughlin had already been working with computer hypertext while developing his print hypertext. His project with Robin Parmar and Christopher Keep, The Electronic Labyrinth, was begun in the early 1990s and is still available today. On the project website is a page, entitled “The Non-linear Tradition in Literature,” that identifies “[m]any texts produced as printed books [that] anticipate the non-sequential narratives of hyperbooks,” a list that includes Sterne’s Tristam Shandy, Robbe-Grillet’s In the Labyrinth, Nabokov’s Pale Fire, and others, as well as Joyce’s afternoon: a story and other prominent hypertext literary works of the period. The site's “Bibliography” lists ACM Hypertext’s “Hypertext on Hypertext," along with works by Barthes, Landow, Derrida, Foucault, Bolter, and, of course, Nelson.

Thus, McLaughlin’s 1993 Edition of NTAZ as a print hypertext fits into the zeitgeist of the period. It introduces an open-ended text that over its 16-year history changed titles; varied in emphasis; and experimented with presentation. It comes to reflect his notion of the “hyperbook”––that is, a text that is “decentred” and whose “boundaries” are “hard to determine”––an electronic book with hypertext features.” Because it represents an iteration of the digital work in its earliest stage, the 1993 Edition provides valuable insights into the development of The Eastgate Version that followed.

1994 Edition. Untitled. Notes Cards of Hypertext
At first glance, the stack of 8.5 x 5.5 note cards appears to be The Eastgate Version printed on paper, for they resemble the lexias from that digital version. The lexia title appears at the top of each card, for example, with a small amount of text is chunked below it. Upon closer inspection, however, it is clear this is a unique edition, one that with slightly different content from the edition that preceded it and the versions and editions that followed. The most obvious difference is the amount of note cards containing lexias: 391 cards instead of the 435 story nodes found in The Eastgate Version and over twice the amount as the 1993 Edition (See Appendix 1). A more subtle difference between the 1994 Edition and The Eastgate Version, however, is the absence and addition of lexias or the change in their order in the default path, identifiable with the inventory system McLaughlin developed for NTAZ

McLaughlin organized the note cards by sections. [9] Those associated with stamps included in the Frontispiece are given the inventory prefix "FS;" those associated with the Backispiece, the prefix "BS." Additionally, each stamp is numbered, starting with the one located at the top left side of the interface and ending with the one at the bottom right-hand side. Because there are 17 and 16 stamps, respectively, on the Frontispiece and Backispiece, the note cards are numbered, for example, FS1 + a number of the lexias included in its default path, with the last set of cards number FS17 + a number of lexias. For example, FS1 has 6 note cards: FS1-1, FS1-2, FS1-3, FS1-4, FS1-5, and FS1-6. 

As mentioned, the note cards of the 1994 Edition vary from The Eastgate Version. FS1, the number ascribed to the stamp "Victoria 20¢," in the 1994 Edition contains seven note cards while the digital version contains eight. 

Lexia in Vic 20¢1994 EditionThe Eastgate Version
Vic 20cxx
Victoria 2xx
Resolute (Begins with the phrase: “Sometime between 1848 and 1857”)missingx
Resolute  (Begins with the phrase: “Spring breakup released”)xmissing
Resolute (Begins with the phrase: “Under the orders”)missingx
Resolute (Begins with the phrase: “Spring breakup released”)xx
Resolute 2xx
Resolute (Begins with the phrase: “More than a year”)xx

The next stamp, the "Canadian 34¢," is given the prefix FS2 and has eight note cards associated with it, FS1-FS8. The Eastgate Version of the stamp's path contains nine lexias. Like FS1, the lexias of FS2 also vary. This pattern continues through the 1994 Edition.

What is clear is that the 1994 Edition shows the evolution of the work as it shifts from a print hypertext to one that works for the electronic environment. For example, the strategy for structuring the lexias has taken shape with the appearance of the Frontispiece and Backispiece and the 33 stamps associated with them. The nodes of the story that unfolded on the pages of the 1993 Edition are now organized into paths. This structure becomes instantiated digitally in The Eastgate Version, with the addition of the linking mechanism that connects ideas together via words and phrases in the lexia. In essence, the notion of a "philatelic" narrative emerges with this edition of the novel.

Along with the print editions of the work, McLaughlin also donated to the ELO’s archives a small box that once held brand new 3.5-inch floppy disks. Labeled “Magel’s Files,” the box now contains five disks titled “Magel’s Graphics” and two titled “Graphics.” These are predominantly .tif images––bitmap images of the ships and stamps––for what appears to be for NTAZ. All seven of these disks are formatted for the Windows platform. Another five disks, however, contain various versions of a work called “The Correspondence of Magel Constantine.” These are built with Storyspace for Apple computers and dated between 1993 and 1994––during the same time McLaughlin was creating the print editions. One other, unlabeled but marked in gold lettering in McLaughlin’s hand, is titled “Expanders” and contains software for compressing files.

While digital versions focused around Magel may seem a strange detour from McLaughlin's earlier print efforts that emphasized the relationship of Winter and Jericho and the search for John Franklin, it afforded him the opportunity to explore Storyspace as a platform for storytelling, gain expertise with the many tools it offers, and collaborate with like-minded artists interested in exploring with him the idea of a hyperbook.

Version 1.02
The floppy disk, entitled “Magel early Version,” was created with Storyspace 1.5. It opens to a launcher icon called “Magel test v. 1.02” and contains two raw Storyspace files, “mountain” and “Photos.” 

This version of NTAZ produced in the summer of 1993 as a proof of concept, entitled “The Correspondence of Magel Constantine: A Philatelic Novella,” for the research project, "Hypertext Fiction and the Literary Artist,” by McLaughlin, Robin Parmar, and Christopher Keep constitutes the earliest digital version of the work. The project eventually evolved into “The Electronic Labyrinth,” mentioned previously, and later the “ELAB” and was presented to the Banff Centre for the Arts. It is important to note that is the first time the novel is referred to as a "philatelic novella."

The Magel file contains 249 nodes and 341 links. When the work opens, readers are taken to an interface that notes that the work is “Test Version 1.02.” It is titled “The Correspondence of Magel Constantine: A Philatelic Novella.” The interface also offers “Instructions” and “Begin Reading” options. Unlike the Toolbar produced found in The Eastgate Version, this one does not contain the “H” or “Home.”

The default path takes readers to a Frontispiece consisting of an interface of postage stamps, much like NTAZ. The "Vic 20¢," for example, appears at the top left hand side of the screen, but many other stamps are different from those found in the 1994 Edition and on the interface of The Eastgate Version. The lexias also differ from both of them, as well. The second lexia in the default path for the "Vic 20¢," while called "Victoria" like the others, includes the text from the third lexia found in the 1994 Edition and The Eastgate Version. The next lexia, entitled "1923," is not part of the default path for "Vic 20¢" in the 1994 Edition or The Eastgate Version; instead it appears in the former as note card lacking an inventory number. This version also does not yet offer hyperlinks within the lexias. But this digital version of NTAZ introduces the organizational strategy of the Frontispiece and Backispiece where all of the stamps are featured and initiate readers along unique paths. The "Canadada" stamp that takes readers from the former to the latter is present in this version of the work. Moreover, the two raw Storyspace files that accompany it, "mountain" and "Photos," demonstrate the author's experimentation with the medium. The former file, for example, attempts to add multimedia to the hypertext environment, and the latter plays with adding images and linking nodes together. Why this version and the others associated with Version 1.0 are given a different title than the earlier print editions was a matter of choice among the team with which McLaughlin was collaborating. It is, as he reports, "the first draft of NTAZ" (McLaughlin, 18 December 2019). 

Version V 1.1
1.1a “Magel V1.1” is a corrected proof of “The Correspondence of Magel Constantine: A Philatelic Novella,” dated December 1993- September 1994. It contains 282 nodes and 517 links, larger than the previous version but smaller than Version 1.2 and The Eastgate Version. The launcher icon, “Magel V1.1,” opens to an interface, entitled “Correspondence,” resembling an envelope. It reads: “The Correspondence of Magel Constantine: A Philatelic Novella.” On the top right is the return name, “Tim McLaughlin.” The top left features the Canadian stamp of Lady Jane Franklin created by the author for this work, postmarked “Absolute Zero.” Readers can clink on one of two links that appear as boxes: “Instructions” and “Begin Reading” and are told to “Double Click.” Clicking on the “Instructions” link takes readers to directions much like those for NTAZ. Also like NTAZ, this work is copyrighted 1993. Oddly the work is identified as V1.01, when in fact it is not.

To begin reading the work, readers can hit the return key. They are first taken to another envelope. Hitting the return key again takes them to the Frontispiece of stamps. Many of these stamps are the same as NTAZ but appear in different locations on the interface. "Lady Jane Franklin’s," for example, appears in the middle of the bottom row in this version. Starting at the top at the "Vic 20¢" stamp, readers are taken to a note called “Victoria.” Like V1.02, this lexia contains the two of NTAZ called “Victoria” and “Victoria 2.” Hitting the return key to continue moving along the default path takes readers back to the Frontispiece rather than the five consecutive notes associated with “Resolute” and “Resolute 2” as in NTAZ. Other variations can be found in this version.

1.1b “Magel 1.1” is a copy whose disk is hand-lettered by the author in gold ink and dated December 1993- September 1994. According to the author, it represents a fair copy of this version of the work.

Version 1.2 Uncompiled Version 1994
This disk contains the raw Storyspace hypertext, entitled "Magel v1.2" that, according to McLaughlin, was the version prepared for final publication with Eastgate Systems, Inc. It is still, at this point, called "The Correspondence of Magel Constantine: A Philatelic Novella." It loads to 442 nodes and 950 links, a number very close to The Eastgate Version. Like that version, it offers the front matter––the title screen, instructions, and credits. Both the Frontispiece and Backispiece are present and organized via the stamps and their default paths. The text and graphical elements are loaded into the nodes, and the hyperlinks are programmed into the lexias, though not all of the work has yet been linked together completely. At some point between October 1994 when this file was produced and 1995, the work shifted back to the original title, NTAZ.

Versions 2.0-4.0: The Eastgate Versions
These are the versions of the floppy disks and CD-ROM published by Eastgate Systems, Inc. discussed previously in this essay. The floppy disks for Apple and Windows computers were released in 1995. Though the publication date for Version 4.1, the CD-ROM, is listed in World Cat as both 1995 and 1997, Mark Bernstein reports that it was in 1996 that it was released (Bernstein, 18 Dec 2019), a date with which McLaughlin notes in the 2019 Edition. for the purpose of this essay, they are referred to as The Eastgate Version in the singular since they vary only in format and not in presentation and content.  

The 2019 Edition. Notes Toward Absolute Zero: A Long Prose Poem
Twenty-three years after the publication of NTAZ on CD-ROM, McLaughlin produced a manuscript for another print edition of the work. Titled Notes Toward Absolute Zero: A Long Prose Poem, the work presents yet another telling of the three story strands, one, according to the author, is "frozen . . . in a different way." As he states:

"On these pages the order is fixed. Much of the fluid halo of meaning, metaphors, and implications of the original work is lost. It has changed from water into ice." (McLaughlin, "Water into Ice")

It does indeed vary from The Eastgate Version. Missing are the two interfaces. McLaughlin retains the stamps, however, as bitmap images in the book, "function[ing], he says, as "more as tangential decoration than as the vital signposts they were in the original." Intended to be "distinct" from The Eastgate Version, it serves an exploration of the author's own––the search for what it means to be Canadian. The addition of the subtitle, "a long prose poem," is a nod to Michael Ondaatje's The Long Poem Anthology, and to convey what McLaughlin calls "a poetic sentiment" (12).

The book measures 6 x 9 inches and is produced with a hard cover. Following the title page is the introductory essay, "Water into Ice." This information gives way to an image of a "John Franklin 3¢" stamp that McLaughlin produced. A page devoted to Virilio's quote from Pure War follows. Next is another title page accompanied by an image of a train engine. On the next page is the quote from Reb Alcé from The Book of Questions by Jabes. The narrative begins on the next page with the lexia, entitled "Station," accompanied by the "Canada $2" stamp. For the next 236 pages readers encounter elements of three story strands with variations from all previous editions and versions.

In other words, the 2019 Edition is not The Eastgate Version set to paper, nor it is the 1994 Edition that harkened to it. When read independently from these, the 2019 Edition exists as its own work. If anything, it is reminiscent of the 1993 Edition in the presentation of lexias, movement between episodes, and fragmented storytelling style. That said, it differs from even that edition in its organization of lexias. Influenced by the structure given to it by The Eastgate Version––with the Frontispiece and Backispiece and the stamps and their paths––McLaughlin provides in the 2019 Edition a logical flow to the lexias of the three story strands that is essentially missing in the 1993 Edition. The writing, impacted now by its former habitation on the interactive screen, is frozen on the printed page. As such, it is evocative, haunting. It speaks to the loss many feel about digital texts they can no longer read and experience. It speaks to the fear many feel about digital texts that exist in a form readers can no longer touch or control. Finally, it speaks to the fiction of digital texts as an enduring form, for nothing lasts forever except, perhaps, love.


[1] To access NTAZ for this essay, I used a Macintosh Performa 5215CD computer running System Software 7.6 and a copy of Version 2.1 of the work, that is––the 3.5-inch floppy disk for Macintosh computers. Also available to me was a copy of Storyspace V1.5, which read the Macintosh floppy disks and the CD-ROM with no trouble.

[2] In his introduction to the 2019 Edition, entitled "Water into Ice: From Hypertext to Book," McLaughlin writes that "[t]his work has a element of philatelic obsession." He goes on to talk about his interest in the "aristamp movement," which the medium of artistic expression was the material production of all elements of a letter (11).

[3] There is, for example, an 8¢ stamp featuring Lady Jane in the frontispiece. In reality, a stamp existed for her husband, John Franklin released in 1989. The real 8¢ U.S. Franklin stamp featured Benjamin Franklin and not Lady Jane Franklin.

[4] The Home option in the Toolbar was a feature available in the earliest Storyspace reader, the one mark Bernstein identifies as the “afternoon Reader” (Bernstein, 18 December 2019)  

[5] This “stamp” is actually a work of art by Hungarian artist Endre Tót that uses the postage stamp as a medium.

[6] The author of this essay thanks McLaughlin for his donation of manuscripts to the Electronic Literature Organization’s archives; she also thanks the ELO for making them available to scholars.

[7] Jerico’s name is spelled differently in this version.

[8] He states: “When designers of computer software examine pages of Glas or Of Grammatology, they encounter a digitalized, hypertextual Derrida; and when literary theorists examine Literary Machines, they encounter a deconstructionist or poststructuralist Nelson” (2).

[9] As he wrote: “I believe I was trying to organize the pathways through the front and the back collages of stamps. I’ve never been really rigorous in my organizational strategies. I wonder if this (the lack of rigidity) is one of the aspects that was so appealing about hypertext. Thinking of it not in terms of what it enabled you to do, but rather what it permitted you to avoid doing. You didn’t have to commit to a narrative strategy. You could set that aside and deal with it with a lighter hand. You could - to a certain extent let the format (and the reader) determine the structure” (18 Dec. 2019).

Works Cited

Bernstein, Mark. “Anomalies.” Personal email. 18 Dec. 2019.

Bolter, Jay David. Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext, and the History of Writing. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1991.

Keep, Christopher, Tim McLaughlin, and Robin Parmer. The Electronic Labyrinth. 1993-2000.

Kendall, Robert. “Parsing the Cold: McLaughlin’s Notes Toward Absolute Zero.” Word Circuits. 1998.

Landow, George. Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins Press, 1992.

McLaughlin, Tim. “Magel’s Story.” Personal email. 18 Dec. 2019.

---. Notes Toward Absolute Zero. Watertown, MA: Eastgate Systems, Inc., 1995.

---. "Water into Ice: From Hypertext to Book." Notes Toward Absolute Zero: A Long Prose Poem. 2019 Edition. Self-published.

Appendix 1: The Complete Inventory of the Note Cards, the 1994 Edition
Note: FS designates cards whose lexias follow paths associated with the stamps in the Frontispiece, while BS designates those associated with the Backispiece. N# signifies note cards that do not show an inventory number. These particular note cards are listed in the location left by the author. Comments in parentheses are mine.

FS1-1 Vic 20c
FS1-2 Victoria
FS1-3 Victoria 2
FS1-4 Resolute
FS1-5 Resolute 2
FS1-6 Resolute (Hand-lettered on the back of the card is: “Some setup to know about ships caught in the ice?”)

FS 2
FS2-1 Engine 2
FS2-2 Accidents (on the back of the card he wrote in hand: “The invention of love was the invention of heartbreak.”)
FS2-3 Radiant
FS2-4 Radiant
FS2-5 You
FS2-6 Take Two Trains (recreation of the train wreck)
FS2-7 Take 2 Trains
FS2-8 Take 2 trains

FS3-1 Vic 3c
FS3-2 warm Victoria
FS3-3 Your Trail N# Hand-Lettered card that reads: “Franklin Expedition” N# Hand-Lettered card that reads: “Train Wrecks.”

FS4-1 Engine 1
FS4-2 Miracle
FS4-3 1857
FS4-4 1857
FS4-5 1857 FS5

FS5-1 Greenwich
FS5-2 Time
FS5-3 Time
FS5-4 Time
FS5-5 Time
FS5-6 Time
FS5-7 Time
FS5-8 Time
N# Distance

FS6-1 Dog 37c
FS6-2 Phobia
N# Influence
N# Jericho 1
N# Jericho 2
N# Summer
N# Icon
N# outside
N# Absent
FS6-3 Secret
FS6-4 Turns
FS6-5 Order
FS6-6 Typewriter
FS6-7 Cut and Paste
FS6-8 Tale
FS6-9 Panic
FS6-10 Terror
N# 1784
N# symbol for null; same image a BS5-6 except the image is blown up a bit

FS7-1 Eire 38p
FS7-2 Ghost
FS7-3 Ghost 2
FS7-4 Ismay
FS7-5 Ismay 2
FS7-6 Costello
FS7-7 Costello 2
FS7-8 Costello 3
FS7-9 Costello 4
FS7-10 Costello 5
FS7-11 Costello 6
FS7-12 Costello 7
FS7-13 Costello 8
N# Propositions
N# Proposition
N# Proposition
N# Proposition
N# Proposition
N# Proposition
N# Proposition
N# Proposition
N# Franklin
N# Franklin Two

FS8-1 Train 4c
FS8-2 Platform
FS8-3 Spill
FS8-4 Spill
FS8-5 Searching
FS8-6 Salvation
FS8-7 Salvation 1
FS8-8 Salvation 2
FS8-9 Salvation 3
FS8-10 Salvation 4
FS8-11 Salvation 5
FS8-12 Salvation 6
N# Night Train
N# Tomorrow
N# Crypt
N# Sunday
N# Jericho II
N# Bones
N# Morning
N# Walking
N# Ending
N# Hiding
N# Governor
N# Last Spike
N# F.
N# Prayer 2
N# X-ray specs
N# An Atlas Body
N# Prayer 1 FS9

FS9-1 Vic 2c
FS9-2 Gift N# Wrought
FS9-3 Winter
FS9-4 Recognition (story of when Winter and Jericho meet)
FS9-5 Sleep
FS9-6 Sleep 2
FS9-7 Sleep 3
FS9-8 Sleep 4
FS9-9 Sleep 5 [there are two sets of FS-5-9 named differently; below are those from part 1]
FS9-5 Entrance
FS9-6 English
FS9-7 Bored
FS9-8 Answer
FS9-9 I Return
N# Home
FS9-10 Wreath

FS10-1 Swim 8c
FS10-2 Stamp
FS10-3 Stamp
FS10-4 Stamp
FS10-5 Stamp
FS10-6 The Waves
FS10-7  symbol of some sort; exact same card as BS5-7
N# Conclusion (one card, no inventory penciled on the back, it is about the suitcase full envelops with stamps)
N# Conclusion (one card, no inventory penciled on the back)
N# Conclusion (one card, no inventory penciled on the back)
N# page

FS11-1 Beaver
FS11-2 Strict
FS11-3 False Beginning
FS11-4 False Beginning
FS11-5 Arrival
FS11-6 Arrival
FS11-7 Shadow
FS11-8 Shadow
FS11-9 Same card as BS5-6
N# Arbus

FS12-2 Out Beyond (1 is scratched out and replaced with 2)
FS12-3 Field
FS12-4 Cold
N# Insomnia
N# Insomnia 2
N# Prayer I
FS12-10 Just like BS5-6
N# Retention
N# Myth
N# Imagination
N# Zoeistic Mag
N# infinity symbol
N# Hypnosis

FS13-1 Ship $5
FS13-2 Winter Chronicle
FS13-3 I
FS13-4 1830
FS13-5 I (same as 3)
FS13-6 1850
N# Dust
N# Passing
N# 1858
N# 1923
N# 1931
N# Journal
FS13-8 Stanley

FS14-1 Plow 34c
FS14-2 Conceptual Engine
FS14-3 Delta symbol
N# Connect
FS14-7 Forecast

FS15-1 Engine3
FS15-2 Conversation (this is the opening card of the Unbound Version)
FS15-3 GWR
FS15-4 GWR two

FS16-1 Station $2
FS16-2 The Station
FS16-3 Skin
FS16-4 Jericho
FS16-5 Later
FS16-6 Knock
FS16-7 Knock 2
FS16-8 Radio
FS16-9 Winter
FS16-10 Tundra
N# Recall
N# Platform
FS16-11 City 1
FS16-12 City 2
FS16-13 City 3
FS16-14 City 4

FS17-1 L. Franklin 8c
FS17-2 Portrait
FS17-3 L. Franklin
FS17-4 Searchers
FS17-5 catalog
FS17-6 List: The Boat (The list of items found in the wreckage)
FS17-7 The Boat: one
FS17-8 The Boat: Two
FS17-9 The Boat: Three
FS17-10 The Boat: Four
FS17-11 The Boat: Five
FS17-12 The Boat: Six
FS 17-13 The Boat: Seven
FS17-14 The Boat: Eight
FS17-15 The Boat: Nine (“two human skeletons”)
N# Light
N# Light
N# Light
N# Light
N# Light
N# Light
N# Light
N# Light
N# Light
N# Light
N# Light
N# Light
N# Light

BS 1 Elvis 29c
BS 2 Narrative (“I know there is intimacy in narrative.”)
BS 3 Cinema (the same notes as BS 13 N#)
BS1-4 Instead (Starts a Lexian sentence)
BS1-5 I
BS1-6 live
BS1-7 like
BS1-8 photography.
BS1-9 Static.
BS1-10 Arrested.

BS2-1 Eire 28p
BS2-2 Angel’s share
BS2-3 Angel’s share 2
BS2-4 Notebook
BS2-5 Dec 1st
BS2-6 Dec 5th
BS2-7 Dec 5th 2
BS2-8 Dec. 7th
BS2-9 Dec 7th 2
BS2-10 Jan 10th
N# Prayer II
N# Prayer III
N# Heaven
N# Avedon

BS3-1 Franklin 12c
N# Ontology
N# Magnetic North
N# Hypno BS3-2 Ruins
N# Magnetize
BS3-3 List: (“Six Failures of Love”)
BS3-4 1
BS3-5 2
BS3-6 3
BS3-7 4
BS3-8 5
BS3-9 6

BS4-1 Moroc
BS4-2 Badi
BS4-3 Badi 2
BS4-4 Badi 3

BS5-1 Vic 8c
BS5-2 Post Script
BS5-3 You
BS5-4 Will
BS5-5 Remember
BS5-6 Image of what looks like a moon and a landscape
N# Lists (hand-lettered card with N#)

BS6-1 Engine 4
BS6-2 Argument
BS6-3 Feb. 8th
BS6-4 Creosote
BS6-5 Hinton
BS6-6 Hinton 2

BS7-1 Myth X
BS7-2 Memory
BS7-3 Memory
BS7-4 Memory
BS7-5 Memory
BS7-6 Memory
BS7-7 Memory
BS7-8 Memory
BS7-9 Memory
BS7-10 Memory
BS7-11 Memory
BS7-12 Memory
BS7-13 Memory
BS7-14 Memory
BS7-15 Memory (“I am the postmark and the cancellation”)
BS7-16 Memory
BS7-17 Memory

BS8-1 Engine 6    
BS8-2 Threshold
BS8-3 Departure
BS8-4 Departure 2
BS8-5 Departure 3
BS8-6 Departure 4
BS8-7 Departure 5
BS8-8 Departure 6

BS9-1 Magel X
BS9-2 Odd
BS9-3 Magel
BS9-4 Magel 2
BS9-5 Phobia exact same lexia as FS6-2
BS9-6 Phobia 2
BS9-7 Phobia 3
BS9-8 Remembrance
BS9-9 Remembrance 2
BS9-10 Remembrance 3
BS9-11 Dreams
BS9-12 Influence
BS9-13 Absent exact same lexia as FS6 N#
BS9-14 Absent 2
BS9-15 Winter listened
BS9-16 Neurosis
BS9-17 symbol for question mark
N# Attraction
N# symbol for star; same image as BS5-6 except the image is blown up a bit

BS10-1 Ice $2
BS10-2 Icebergs
BS10-3 Ice (list of types of ice)
BS10-4 Ice
BS10-5 Ice
BS10-6 Ice
BS10-7 Ice
BS10-8 Ice
BS10-9 Ice
BS10-10 Ice
BS10-11 Ice
BS10-12 Ice
BS10-13 Ice
BS10-14 Ice
BS10-15 Ice
BS10-16 Ice
BS10-17 Ice
BS10-18 Ice
BS10-19 Ice
BS10-20 Ice
BS10-21 Ice
BS10-22 Ice
BS10-23 Ice

BS11-2 Table
BS11-3 Hands
BS11-4 Hands 2
BS11-5 Hands 3

BS13-1 Snowbound 16p
BS13-2 Snowbound
BS13-3 Speech
BS13-4 Aporetic
BS13-5 Stranded
BS13-6 Photography
BS13-7 Photography 7
BS13-8 Script
BS13-9 Life (Here is the full line of the 7 cards’ titles spelled out)
BS13-10 Time
N# Cinema
N# Belief
BS13-11 symbol of some sort; exact same card as BS5-7

BS14-1 Film 31p
BS14-2 Snapshot 1
BS14-3 Snapshot 2
BS14-4 Snapshot 3
BS14-5 Photo
BS14-6 Photo
BS14 6-2 Photo
BS14 6-3 Photo
BS14 6-4 Photo
BS14 6-5 Photo
BS14 6-6 Photo
BS14 6-7 Photo
BS14 6-8 Photo
BS14 6-9 Photo
BS14 6-10 Photo
BS14 6-11 Photo
BS14 6-12 Photo
BS14 6-13, 14, 15, 16 Photo

BS16-1 Engine 5

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