The Challenges of Born-Digital Fiction: Editions, Translations, and Emulations

Mariusz Pisarski and I signed a contract with Cambridge University Press this week for a book entitled, The Challenges of Born-Digital Fiction: Editions, Translations, and Emulations, for its Digital Literary Studies Element Series, edited by Gabriel Hankins, Adam Hammond, and Katherine Bode. It will be delivered in June 2022.

The book will address the growing concern about how best to maintain and extend the accessibility of early interactive novels and hypertext fiction or narratives. These forms of born-digital literature were produced before or shortly after the mainstreaming of the World Wide Web with proprietary software and on formats now obsolete. Preserving and extending them for a broad study by scholars of book culture, literary studies, and digital culture necessitate they are migrated, translated, and emulated––yet these activities can impact the integrity of the reader experience. Thus, our book centers on three key challenges facing such efforts: 1) precision of references: identifying correct editions and versions of migrated works in scholarship; 2) enhanced media translation: approaching translation informed by the changing media context in a collaborative environment; 3) media integrity: relying on emulation as the prime mode for long-term preservation of born-digital novels.

The three born-digital works that figure in the case studies in the Element chapters are considered among the best of the genre by critics and scholars.

Michael Joyce’s hypertext novel, afternoon, a story (1987, 1990), for example, was hailed in 1992 by Robert Coover in the New York Times Review of Books as the “granddaddy of hypertext fiction.” Released originally in 1987 and published three years later by Eastgate Systems, Inc. on software licensed from the author and his two co-developers, Jay David Bolter and John B. Smith, the novel is now available on USB Stick for Macintosh computers only. Our Element chapter covering this work written by me will provide a detailed examination of changes that have occurred at three key moments of its history: 1992, when the work expanded from its original Macintosh platform to Windows; 2001, when it was moved from floppy disk to the CD-ROM format for Macintosh computers running the Classic operating system; and 2007 when it was re-released for Macintosh computers running Mac X OS 10.5 systems with 32-bit capability. The chapter also reveals that the novel has been released in 13 editions over its 33-year history and not as six editions as previously believed. As importantly, I show the value of precisely identifying editions––and versions––used when referencing the work because of the, sometimes, vast differences among them.

Twilight, A Symphony (1996), also by Joyce, is his interactive novel that incorporates video and sound and, so, constitutes the artist’s shift in attention to multimedia storytelling and the formula of “open work”. By generous use of random links Joyce surrenders authorial control over narrative sequences to the readers who – instead of feeling trapped in loops and dead ends  – compose their own “symphonies” out of richly illustrated, self-contained passages. Unfortunately, due to the general shift from stand-alone hypertext systems to the Web, and from Macintosh computers to Windows, Twilight. A Symphony missed its reading audience and became inaccessible for modern computers almost on arrival. Today, the only widely accessible version of the work is the online edition in Polish. This chapter of our Element, written by Pisarski, shows how translating born-digital fiction goes beyond linguistic activity to include a vast paratextual layer (link labels, path names), multiple interface views (Storyspace Map View, Outline View and Chart View) and multimedia. Test-runs and multiple Traversals of the original work, preferably on original hardware, are essential to ensure that linguistic translation of every text segment is informed by the changing hypertext context. As such, regardless of its target language and audience, any translation of born-digital fiction becomes an enhancedmedia translation best executed in a collaborative environment. Apart from being instrumental in evaluating characteristic traits of the original and its software platform, media translation serves as a valid reference for publishers and authors who want to produce updated versions, ports, and emulations of born-digital works.

The third work of our Element focuses on Judy Malloy’s its name was Penelope. This hypertext novel continues the artist’s experimentation with relaying narrative through the manipulation of everyday objects like maps, view masters, and card catalogs. Her line of inquiry eventually led her to the personal computer and the early Internet community at The WELL. Like her previous novel, Uncle Roger (1986-88), its name was Penelope began as an exhibition piece. Originally produced with BASIC and released on a 3.5-inch floppy disk in 1989, it was updated extensively for distribution via Art Com Software the following year. In 1993 she re-created it with Storyspace software for release on floppy disk and again in 1998 for CD-ROM for distribution to the public. Both of these versions were published by Eastgate Systems, Inc. Because the CD-ROM version never appeared in the Eastgate catalog and, so, remained relatively unknown to the public, it is the 1993 Eastgate version that was sold and distributed to Malloy’s fans. Upgrades to hardware and software in the ensuing two decades led to development of the “Scholar’s Version” in 2016 created with the Critical Code Studies Working Group as a DOSBox emulation. This videogame platform, however, has changed the look and feel of the earlier version. This Element chapter written by me addresses the changes to its name was Penelope that have occurred in its emulation and probes the issue of relying on emulation as the main mode of preservation of born-digital fiction and other interactive media.

All three works have been subjects of Traversals over the years and so much attention have been paid to them in preparation of this project. Together these three chapters associated with them aim to answer the question, “What is the goal of migration, translation and emulation for born-digital preservation?”

To date, no book has addressed the challenges of migrating interactive literature from floppy disks to CD-ROM or from MacOS to Windows platform and from stand-alone to online editions, nor has one examined the way translating and emulating born-digital fiction affect the work’s integrity and the reader experience with it. Our book will focus on these challenges as they have affected the lifespans of three important works across three decades of rapid and radical transitions, showing our scholarship through video clips of Traversals of original versions on legacy computers, detailed visualizations of comparisons among editions and versions, scripts of hypertextual readings, sound files of author interviews, and other multimedia. As the book argues, what is needed is careful curatorship of updated versions of the work, translation efforts that probe the integrity and experience of the works in a changed linguistic environment, and emulation possibilities that attend to maintaining the integrity of a work. It aims to raise awareness of these challenges before early interactive literature becomes inaccessible, illegible, and vanish altogether from literary history. At the same time, the book looks for stable points of reference to help evaluate the works in spite of their dependence on technologies in constant flux.

The issues of integrity, intentionality, canonicity and essential qualities – categories often dismantled by the deconstructionist method – are brought back into the discussion about born-digital work thanks to its entanglement with technological, material, and experiential aspects of reading and writing on the computer screen. Methodologies that are able to accommodate the reader experience and work integrity approaches are also suggested.

The book will be published as both a paperback and multimedia book built on the Scalar platform. The latter of these will include images, visualizations, video clips, and sound files relating to all three works. We also have access to designers, videographers, coders, and animators who can help us develop digital assets for the book through the support of the Electronic Literature Lab at Washington State University Vancouver. Additionally, I have produced, thus far, four open-source multimedia books on the Scalar platform since 2015. The first of these, Pathfinders: Documenting the Experience of Early Digital Literature, co-authored with Stuart Moulthrop, was funded through a grant with the National Endowment of the Humanities and features 173 screens of content, including 53,857 words, 104 video clips, 204 color photos, and three audio files. This format has been followed with the three volumes of Rebooting Electronic Literature: Documenting Pre-Web Born Digital Media produced by members of my lab and I from 2018-2020. [1]


See Rebooting Electronic Literature, Volume 1 at https://scalar.usc.edu/works/rebooting-electronic-literature/index; Volume 2 at https://scalar.usc.edu/works/rebooting-electronic-literature-volume-2/index; and Volume 3 at   https://scalar.usc.edu/works/rebooting-electronic-literature-volume-3/index.

Dene Grigar is Director and Professor of the CMDC Program. She specializes in electronic literature, emerging technologies and cognition, and ephemera.