Rebooting Electronic Literature Volume 3: Documenting Pre-Web Born Digital Media

Introduction to Rebooting Electronic Literature, Volume 3

Introduction to This Volume

The Rebooting Electronic Literature (REL) book series documents born digital literary works published on floppy disks, CD-ROMs, and other media formats held among the 300 in Grigar's personal collection in the Electronic Literature Lab at Washington State University Vancouver. An annual publication, the book features selected works highlighted for a Traversal during the year. These events generally focus on the most fragile and prized in the collection. Among these are the 48 titles published by Eastgate Systems, Inc. between 1988 to 2004––that is, early hypertext and interactive works created predominantly with stand-alone software, like Storyspace and HyperCard, and published before floppy disk and CD-ROM drives disappeared from computers and the rise of mobile media and mainstreaming of cloud technology eliminated the need for physical media formats.

Volume 1 of our series, published in 2018, covers seven works; all but one, Thomas M. Disch’s Amnesia, are publications from Eastgate Systems, Inc. It includes:

Thomas M. Disch’s Amnesia (1986)
Judy Malloy, its name was Penelope (1989-1992)
Sarah Smith’s King of Space (1991)
Mary-Kim Arnold, Lust  (1993)
J. Yellowlees Douglas, I Have Said Nothing (1993)
David Kolb, Socrates in the Labyrinth (1994)
Robert Kendall, A Life Set For Two (1996)
In 2019 we followed Volume 1 with Volume 2, which includes five titles published by Eastgate Systems, Inc.:

Kathryn Cramer, In Small & Large Pieces (1994)
Tim McLaughlin, Notes Toward Absolute Zero (1995)
Deena Larsen, Samplers (1997)
Stephanie Strickland, True North (1997)
Richard Holeton, Figurski at Findhorn on Acid (2001)
Volume Three presents five more works, published by Eastgate Systems, Inc., beginning with the first to have been published on Storyspace software to the most recent:

Michael Joyce’s afternoon, a story (1987-2016)
Stuart Moulthrop’s Victory Garden (1991)
M. D. Coverley’s Califia (2000)
Megan Heyward’s of day, of night (2004)
Mark Bernstein’s Those Trojan Girls (2019)
Upon the publication of Volume 3, we will have documented 16 titles from Eastgate Systems, Inc.’s catalog. If we add to that number the four that Moulthrop and Grigar documented in their Pathfinders book––Judy Malloy’s Uncle Roger (1986-88); John McDaid’s Uncle Buddy’s Phantom Funhouse (1992); Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl (1995); and Bill Bly’s We Descend (1997)––then, we can say that Rebooting Electronic Literature Volume 3 takes us close to halfway to our goal.

At the heart of our project is the impetus to make fragile and inaccessible works freely accessible to scholars. Because works published by Eastgate Systems, Inc. are covered by copyright, they cannot legally be made available as emulations. The Pathfinders methodology that Moulthrop and Grigar developed [1] follows Fair Use rules and embraces the notion of reader-centered experiences by providing video documentation of play-throughs of the work by authors and readers on hardware and software on which the work was created or intended to be originally read––a process we call "Traversals" [2]––along with photos of the physical media, interviews with authors, author bios, and other useful information that helps scholars experience the works and understand their contributions to literary and cultural history.

About the Works

The five works selected for Volume 3 all constitute long-form narrative writing, four of which have been identified as a hypertext novel. Michael Joyce’s afternoon, a story, is, along with Judy Malloy’s Uncle Roger (1986-88), one of the two works of  born digital literature first to be published commercially. Released in 1987 on the software that Joyce, Jay David Bolter, and John B. Smith’s Riverrun, Ltd. produced and later licensed to Eastgate Systems, Inc., Storyspace, afternoon, a story has seen 13 editions over the last 33 years and has been touted by literary critic Robert Coover as the “granddaddy of hypertext fiction.” Because the work celebrated its 30th anniversary of its commercial publication with Eastgate Systems, Inc. in 2020, the book contains resources from the event held at the Electronic Literature Organization 2020 virtual conference.

In order to highlight another approach to the hypertext novel, we follow Joyce’s novel with Coverley’s Califia. Most of us familiar with Storyspace literary hypertexts remember its aesthetic: a strong focus on words; minimal use of graphics; and a structure built on links, nodes, and paths. Coverley’s novel, produced with Toolbook well over a decade after Joyce’s novel was published by Eastgate Systems, Inc., took advantage of the affordances made available by rich media and CD-ROM technology. Califia features a complex graphical interface in full color with multiple stories unfolding with sound and animation to tell an intimate family story bound up with the early history of Southern California.

Following the chapter on Califia is Stuart Moulthrop’s Victory Garden, the second major hypertext published by Eastgate Systems, Inc. Published in 1991, the novel takes us back to the Storyspace aesthetic and structure and to the first Iraqi conflict that, unbeknownst to readers at the time, heralded the Mideast conflicts in which America would find itself embroiled for the next three decades. 

The chapter on Moulthrop's novel is followed by one highlighting Megan Heyward’s of day, of night. This is last work published by Eastgate Systems, Inc. before the company turned to the USB Stick and cloud technologies as methods for publishing 12 years later in 2016. Heyward's novel puts us squarely in the time period when interactive media created with Director was popular. Like the other novels in this volume, the writing is evocative, and like Coverley’s novel, Heyward’s media immerse the reader with its rich graphics, sound, and animation––a delight to the eye and ear.

We end the book with the most recent new narrative published by Eastgate Systems, Inc.: Mark Bernstein’s Those Trojan Girls. As the Lead Scientist and the publisher of the company, Bernstein has traditionally experimented with his publication platforms by using his own work as a proof of concept. We see this approach with the first born digital literary work he published, The Election of 1912, created with Erin McSweeney in 1988, on the Hypergate platform. Hypergate is the software Bernstein produced for publishing literary works, using it for Robert DiChiara’s A Sucker in Spades in 1988 and Sarah Smith’s King of Space in 1991. After seeing Storyspace demonstrated at ACM Hypertext ’87, Bernstein turned his attention to licensing and releasing Joyce’s novel with it––and well as most of the 48 other works it released. With Those Trojan Girls, Bernstein experimented with Storyspace 3.0 and the USB Stick and cloud technology, recalling Euripides’ The Trojan Women in the more contemporary setting of a boarding school. While the structuring elements of nodes, links, and paths remain the same as the earlier version of Storyspace, readers will notice a marked shift in aesthetic and functionality. The presence of the map view for navigating the story and the animated links showing readers pathways of discovery serve to update the interface for a contemporary audience.

About the Book's Authors

Written and produced by the ELL Team––Dene Grigar, Nicholas Schiller, Holly Slocum, Kathleen Zoller, Moneca Roath, and Mariah Gwin––Rebooting Electronic Literature, Volume 3 features approximately 50,000 words devoted to artist biographies, descriptions of media, and essays; over 200 photos of artists, works, and their original packaging; and over 40 videos of artist readings and interviews and Live Stream Traversals. Producing a collaborative book such as this one meant we had to draw upon specific expertise and strengths each team member possessed and, at the same time, all be willing and able to jump in where needed. [3] We also recognized that because five of our team members are undergraduate researchers who may want to apply to graduate programs or one day seek employment––and one of which is graduating in December 2019––we acknowledge the importance of calling out each member's primary duties in the development of this book:

Dene Grigar, PhD: Conceptualized the book, wrote the introduction and all essays
Nicholas Schiller, MLIS: Copyedited the book and wrote selected author biographies
Greg Philbrook, B.A.: On-going technical support and HTML design
Holly Slocum: Managed the project and took photos for the book
Kathleen Zoller: Wrote the copy for photo descriptions and social media descriptions for each of the works
Moneca Roath: Recorded and edited all Traversal videos and wrote descriptions for all of them for the book
Mariah Gwin: Wrote some descriptions for the book and took photos

We also wish to acknowledge artist Will Luers who developed the art for the "cover" of the book.

Finally, we thank the Electronic Literature Organization for its leadership in developing methods for evaluating quality of digital creative and critical works and its insights into cataloging its growing body of digital fiction, poetry, and other literary forms––activities from which this research grows.


[1] See Dene Grigar and Stuart Moulthrop's Pathfinders: Documenting the Experience of Early Digital Literature. 2015.

[2] We define a Traversal as "a reflective encounter with a digital text in which the possibilities of that text are explored in a way that indicates its key features, capabilities, and themes" (authors' emphasis). They also state that "a Traversal must take place on equipment configured as closely as possible to the system used to create the work or on which the work might have been expected to reach its initial audience." See Moulthrop and Grigar's Traversals: The Use of Preservation for Early Electronic Writing. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2017, 7.

[3] Our philosophy of collaborative team structure follows that of a "seamless design of network knowledge" argued for by Aaron Mauro, Daniel Powell, Sarah Potvin, Jacob Heil, Eric Dye, Bridget Jenkins, and Dene Grigar in which "collaboration [is] locally-determined,  designed, and mutually productive, regardless of standing within or without academic institutions; there must be an intentional ethics that is both transparent and adaptive to the needs of the team." See "Toward a Seamless Design of Network Knowledge: Practical Pedagogies in Collaborative Teams. Digital Humanities Quarterly. 2017 11.3.

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