Rebooting Electronic Literature: Documenting Pre-Web Born Digital Media

Critical Essay on Sarah Smith's "King of Space"

Contextualizing the King of Space

Sarah Smith’s King of Space is a hypertext novel begun in 1988 and published in 1991 by Eastgate Systems, Inc. A key example of early pre-web hypertext, it runs on Apple System Software 7x, 8x, and 9x. It can be accessed on Macintosh Classics, Macintosh SEs, Macintosh LCs, and Macintosh Performas. Software requirements include ­­­­Hypergate––an early hypertext system created by Mark Bernstein that was written in FORTH for the Macintosh operating system (Bernstein)––and Quicktime MoviePlayer 2.x. It is a media-rich work consisting of 317 lexias (individual nodes of hypertext) and 25 different endings and involves numerous works of ASCII art produced by artist Matthew Mattingly, music composed by Michael Derzhinsky, and animations created by Mattingly, Bernstein, and others. Within the novel one can also find several puzzles that must be solved and games readers can play. [1]

As a work of literature, King of Space is noteworthy. It is the first work of born digital science fiction, predating John McDaid's Uncle Buddy's Phantom Funhouse by a year. It is the first hypertext published as a literary work that blurs the line between literature and games. [2] The story involves a plague that can only be stopped through a sexual connection with the priestess. Seen through the lens of cultural theory, King of Space carries a strong feminist focus, exploring gender roles and dystopian worlds. The games and puzzles embedded in the work function as agons the reader must overcome in order to find success, which may be defined as engaging in the story long enough to save the world. In some cases where readers attempt to assume agency, Smith has purposely not allowed the opportunity. To make it successfully through the gauntlet of tests, then, constitutes a kind of heroism. It is also important to note that the work, created by a woman writer with an established reputation in the print world, also speaks to the fact that the field of electronic literature has long been well represented by women and was, early on, pioneered by women curious about the electronic medium but without formal university training as computer programmers. Smith joins Judy Malloy, M. D. Coverley, Stephanie Strickland, Carolyn Guyer, Jane Yellowlees Douglas, Mary-Kim Arnold, Martha Petry, and others who were visual artists, poets, and novelists making the leap from print to digital at a time when the mainstream public were not yet online. Smith’s own interest in creating a hypertext novel was heavily influenced by quilting, collage, and “choose your own adventure” games. We see these influences in the confluence of story, puzzle, and games in the work. Smith also views writing as a dialogue between readers’ expectations and the author’s vision and is particularly interested in how characters function in this kind of story, challenging the notion that characters needing to be consistent. Indeed, Smith’s characters bleed into one another often (Smith, "Interview").
As an example of one of the earliest published works of electronic literature, it also offers a fascinating study of the material culture that the digital world of cloud technology has left behind. King of Space came packaged in the vinyl folio common to early Eastgate Systems, Inc. hypertexts and was disseminated on two 3.5-inch floppy disks for the Macintosh computer. Unlike some of the other publications of Eastgate Systems, Inc., it was never migrated to CD-ROM technology. Along with the disks, it also came with an eight-page booklet detailing how to install and read the work, a one-page set of directions, a registration card, and a trifold brochure containing advertising teasers and information about other hypertexts to purchase. Taken together, the package, which resembled a small book that could be set on a shelf, comfortably provided its readers with a breadcrumb leading them from the late age of print to that of the early digital.
That said, the vinyl material used for the folio is problematic. As seen from this photo, it tended to stick to the paper components held within and cause the paper to leave a residue of the ink on the folio, marring both. The pages of the booklet inserted inside of the pocket also stuck together and so could not be easily opened; when they were, they would tear. A pristine copy of King Space retained in the original plastic packaging posed difficulties for long term preservation of the work. Surprisingly, the opened copy more often used in the Electronic Literature Lab has fared better. Unlike some of the other works published around the same time––Michael Joyce’s afternoon: a story (1990), Stuart Moulthrop’s Victory Garden (1991) and Carolyn Guyer’s Quibbling––King of Space was never republished in the cardboard folio that was also used for packaging. It remained encased in vinyl and published on floppy disk until it could no longer be easily opened or later even read.

Logical reasons exist for the work’s current inaccessibility to the public. First, Apple no longer shipped computers with floppy disk drives beginning 1998 with its new iMac, a mere seven years after King of Space was produced. This meant that unless the work was migrated to the CD-ROM format, it would eventually be lost to the public. Many users purchased external drive drives for floppy disks that plugged into the computer's USB port, a strategy that extended the life of many early pre-web works. But by 1999 the Classic operating system was discontinued, which led to many software programs becoming abandoned. Beginning in 2002, all iMacs came preinstalled with Apple OS X. Because FORTH––the programming language used for creating Hypergate, the first hypertext authoring program that Eastgate Systems, Inc. developed for its "serious hypertext" (Barnet 132-33)––remains in use for developing and deploying standalone applications for the Apple operating system even today, Hypergate may not have been rendered obsolete with the move away from the Classic environment. That said, Bernstein reports that he quit working on Hypergate once he acquired the rights to Storyspace (Bernstein). QuickTime MoviePlayer versions up to 2.5, however, would have needed to be migrated to the newer format after 2002 even if works requiring it were moved to the CD-ROM format. [3] Since King of Space entails five animation files central to its story, this migration may have been cost prohibitive. 

Second, unlike most of Eastgate System, Inc.’s hypertexts, King of Space was not created with the company's popular Storyspace software. The work was produced prior to Bernstein's acquisition of Storyspace in December 1990. According to Bernstein, no other work besides Smith's was published using Hypergate. That said, he did indeed publish his own work, co-authored with Erin Sweeney and entitled "The Election of 1912," on the platform in 1990. [4] Updating a single work or two produced with a specially created programming language may have also been cost prohibitive.

Third, one could also argue that the work was distributed during a period of low sales of Apple computers that came about in the 1990s. Apple suffered a loss of its copyright infringement lawsuit against Microsoft in 1994 and had changes and challenges with its corporate leadership. This meant that Apple's competitors were allowed to sell PCs with visual graphic user interfaces (GUI) very similar to Apple's trademarked look and feel for a lot less money than an Apple branded computer cost them. We see at this time the production of Eastgate Systems Inc. hypertexts for both the PC and Apple computers; however, unlike Joyce’s novel and many other hypertexts published by Eastgate Systems, Inc., King of Space was never rereleased for computers running the Windows operating system. This meant that it was not available to growing number of computer users.

All of these issues––the floppy disk, software, and the downturn of Apple computers during the 1990s––all conspired to leave Smith’s novel inaccessible to readers despite its value as important literary and cultural contributions. 
Appendix: A Bit about the Files
To install the work on a computer, one created a folder on the desktop and then inserted each disk into the drive, saving its contents to the new folder and storing the disks in the folio for safekeeping.

Disk #1 contains six files: the work’s file (entitled King of Space) along with five files of its animations––“lifeship in view,” “title,” “Track,” “About,” and “troop [5]––that are translations of PICS documents into QuickTime MoviePlayer movies:
  • “Lifeship in view” shows flying saucer moving across space.
  • “Title” contains the opening animation of the work. It is interesting to note that a trademark for “Hypergate Hypertext” is touted in the credits. [6]
  • “Track” involves two small conveyor belts turning.
  • “About” is the longest animation of the five and consists of an ASCII image of the character Tam standing over the Lady Nii with a caption that reads: “Tam struggles to repair ancient, damaged systems.” This text fades out and in its place appears: “…to fend off attack bots,” which then becomes “…to integrate the remains of Nii’s memory.” The text disappears and in its place appears a close up of the Lady Nii’s face. That image disappears leaving Tam and the Lady Nii again. The next several scenes involve components of a game that require the reader to “repair the Nii’s damaged circuits.” We learn that “[b]y completing circuits between full and empty power tanks, [the reader] can activate memory banks, shields, remote repair robots, and even restore the Nii’s sanity.” This screen is followed by others called Controls, Defense, Memory, Score, and What Next?, most of which are reflected in the tabs at the bottom of the screen (e.g. Background, What Now?, Repairs, Defense, Score, and What Next?”). Clicking on the last of these, “What Next?” we learn that readers are encouraged to contact Eastgate Systems, Inc. to report their scores. It also becomes apparent that “About” was intended to serve as a demonstration of King of Space. No price for the work was provided––in fact, the copy calls the work a “powerful electronic novel” and that to get the “latest price,” one should contact the company. Finally this demo is copyrighted in 1990.
  • Troop: The Lady Nii in various types of lighting and views

Diskette #2 contains two files: “KingReader 1.7” and “Minister.”
  • “KingReader 1.7” is the software that makes it possible to read the King of Space file on Diskette #1.
  • “Minister” does not open. Because the file displays a musical note, it is assumed to be a sound file. Indeed, King of Space includes music and sounds throughout.

[1] Special thanks to Sarah Smith for granting the author an interview, where she gained much insight into the work. 
[2] AMNESIA, produced in 1986 and also featured in this book, also blurs the line between literature and games but it was published as a game.
[3] QuickTime MoviePlayer 3.0, released in 1998, was supported through the QuickTime Pro license. This meant that any older version of MoviePlayer would be supported until 2002.
[4] WorldCat shows the publication date of "The Election of 1912" as 1993, but Bernstein reports that 1993 was more than likely the "last edition" (Bernstein, Twitter, 16 September 2018). He mentions in that same Tweet that he demo-ed the work at Hypertext 1987 and that his room was right across from the one where Michael Joyce and Jay David Bolter were showing Storyspace. There are some reports that it may have been published as early as 1988 (See
[5] The capitalization of some files and not others is interesting from the perspective that during this time practices like consistent naming conventions were not common.
[6] As Barnet points out in her book, Hypergate was developed by Mark Bernstein of Eastgate Systems, Inc., and was “operational” by 1988. It involved the “concept of breadcrumbs,” (re: meaning that it "show[ed] whether a link takes you back to a place you've already seen"), a feature not included in Eastgate Systems, Inc.'s Storyspace software that did "made its way into the Mosaic browser" (133). 
Works Cited
Barnet, Belinda. Memory Machines: The Evolution of Hypertext. London, UK,  Anthem Press, 2013.
Bernstein, Mark. "Kingwriter/Hypergate." Email. 1 January 2018. 
---. Twitter. 16 September 2018.
Smith, Sarah. "Interview." 28 September 2017. 
Smith, Sarah. King of Space. Eastgate Systems Inc. Watertown, MA, 1991.
Other Critical Resources
Easton, Lee and Randy Schroeder, Eds. The Influence of Imagination: Essays on Science Fiction and Fantasy as Agents of Social Change. Jefferson, NC: McFarland Press, 205.

Montfort, Nick. “Riddle Machines.” A Companion to Digital Literary Studies. Ed. Ray Siemens and Susan Schreibman. NY, NY: Routledge Press.

Rau, Anja. “Wreader’s Digest––How To Appreciate Hyperfiction.” Journal of Digital Information V1 No. 7 (2001).

Stierstorfer, Klaus. Beyond Postmodernism: Reassessment in Literature, Theory, and Culture. Berlin, Germany: Walter de Gruyter. 114.

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