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

Water Into Ice: From Hypertext to Book by Tim McLaughlin

"Water into Ice: From Hypertext to Book"
by Tim McLaughlin, Vancouver, January 2019

This work was mostly written during the winter of 1992/3 while living in a cottage on the west coast of Ireland. In the spring of 1993 it was assembled into a new format for the time: a hypertext. This was before the internet became popularized as the world wide web. The work was released in 1995 by Eastgate Systems as a disk-based hypertext fiction. It was sold in a cardboard cover that resembled a thin book. Inside, instead of pages, there was a diskette. The user loaded the work onto a personal computer and read it screen by screen. Navigation worked by choosing a particular word on the present screen that, when clicked, took the user to the next screen.

You could only ever see one screen at a time. There was no scrolling. The work resembled a stack of index cards each with, at most, a few paragraphs of text. As such it was impossible to judge the entirety of the work, to know where you were in it, how large or small it was, or even how much you had read or how much remained to read. There had never been a literary format like this.

It was immediately apparent to me that images as well as words could be used to navigate the text. A natural curiosity about an image could provide motivation to engage the work. It was also apparent that navigation became central to reading. Both words and images could work on a metaphoric level. That is, they could have multiple meanings based on how you arrived at them and where they took you.

Reading a literary work in this way is very active. The reader becomes aware that he or she is always choosing a pathway and arriving at a destination based on a decision. The necessity of understanding or “connecting” the place that you have arrived with the place you have left is what gives the pathway purpose.

The central question of reading literary hypertext is always existential, “why am I here?” Understanding this helps, I hope, to explain what is an otherwise an overly ponderous feeling in the text. It also motivated my exploration of forms of navigation and travel and the ways in which those attempts at connection sometimes fail.

The hypertext format permitted me to connect themes in (what I saw as) a radically new way. Links from a meditation on photography to a shipwreck implied the possibility that a shipwreck was a photograph. The ship has a life: it is built, launched, makes voyages, is refitted and refurbished, is decommissioned, retired, broken down and exists no more. But a shipwreck, especially in artic waters, preserves the ship at an exact moment in its life - just like a photograph.

The succession of screens - each arriving and vanishing - gave the work a kind of rhythm and music. It was possible to present a series of screens with small amounts of text that would pass very quickly; longer passages were much slower. Unlike a book, it was also possible to have multiple paths to the same text -- creating a layer of meaning in another register: harmony or dissonance. Your notion of the work would depend on when and how you encountered a piece of text: was it an opening, a conclusion, or a passage?

I was motivated to reformat this work because I feared that soon it would be frozen in obsolete technology. In making it into a book, I have frozen it in a different way. On these pages the order is fixed. Much of the fluid halo of meanings, metaphors, and implications of the original work is lost. It has changed from water into ice.

The original graphics were presented as bitmaps (a kind of digital halftone) to enable the work to fit on a single disk. The low resolution bitmaps have a particular gritty charm and I have kept a number of them in this format.

This work has an element of philatelic obsession. It owes a little to my minor involvement with the artistamp movement which was itself inspired by the idea that you could write a letter, but you could also attempt to author each and every element of the act of letter writing. Instead of oil on canvas your medium could be the postal system.

In the original work the reader was presented with an opening collage of postage stamps. You selected a stamp and then encountered text which had a particular relationship with the image you chose. I’ve tried to keep that relationship, but I feel in the present book the stamps function more as tangential decoration than as the vital signposts they were in the original. The meanings are still there, but the reader must work harder to interpret them.

In his 1979 introduction to The Long Poem Anthology, Michael Ondaatje claimed that there was something essential in the format of the long poem which was required by the vast nature of the Canadian landscape. This book is very Canadian in that sense. It owes much to regionalism and the efforts of those writers and artists who’s works I encountered while growing up. There was a great concern to come to terms with the Canadian “identity”. To give this new work some identity of its own, distinct from its electronic predecessor, I have subtitled it “A long prose poem.” It is still, as in the original, a “philatelic novella” but it has been parsed with a poetic sentiment.

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