Subcutanean (Aaron Reed)

Most of my first-Tuesday-of-the-month posts cover books about craft, writing, or game design in some way. This is an exception, though: recently I had a chance to read Aaron Reed’s horror novel Subcutanean. It tells the story of a young man who discovers his basement is much larger, deeper, stranger, and more branching than any basement has a right to be. It’s also written with a generative text process that means no two copies are alike.

As a premise, “basement is bigger than it should be” might not seem to be that horrifying. But in this case, it genuinely is. I don’t want to spoil the story, but I was surprised at how effectively Aaron made what might seem a fairly passive menace into something really threatening.

From about a third of the way into the book, I was hooked in a way that rarely happens to me these days — that kind of MUST READ NEXT PAGE attention that makes you put off going to get a glass of water for two or three hours on end because the spell just hasn’t broken yet.

I also found it interesting as a project in novel-length generative text. It’s different from a lot of generative projects in that it feels human-written from end to end. There is no point where I found myself thinking, “oh yes, this was made by a grammar.” That’s because it largely is human-written, and then machine-elaborated, or machine-varied. The alternate forms of a sentence are all things that Aaron explicitly planned for; it’s the combinations of forms that he might not have anticipated.

At which point, you might think, well, why do a generative text at all? If it doesn’t feel like it was made by a machine in some way (and I’ve talked about the aesthetics of intentionally mechanical-feeling text), and if it doesn’t need to be instantly generated or arbitrarily long, then what is the point?

The point, at least in Subcutanean, is the divergence. My copy isn’t your copy; it’s different in all sorts of ways; and that chimes with the core conceit of the story. This is a novel about the unknowable proliferation of motives and outcomes; about the fact that the same set of events might have many different interpersonal explanations, or lead to many different consequences; that the same people might follow dissimilar trajectories.

At the end of the copy I read, there is a page that describes differences between my Subcutanean and some other versions. Some of those differences were significant, suggesting major plot points that could have gone another way. When I finished my version of the book, I was immediately curious to try other variants, to try to get a sense of what the whole plot possibility space would look like. But even if I ordered another copy, or two copies, or more, I’d never fully map that potential space. Knowing the story’s territory cannot be completely mapped brings a provocative uncertainty into the realm of static text that I generally associate only with interactive stories. Which is a perfect for the book’s themes.

Lonely Men Club (Mike Kleine)

LLMMCC1.jpgLonely Men Club is a book by Mike Kleine (@thefancymike), running to exactly 100,000 words and constructed in a five day period via procedural generation. In that respect, it belongs to the same conceptual category as NaNoGenMo projects, or text-focused works from ProcJAM, or Annals of the Parrigues. He references Cortazar’s Hopscotch and Nick Montfort’s World Clock as influences.

Lonely Men Club represents the thoughts of (a fictionalized version of) the Zodiac Killer. These thoughts concern what he read, bills he received, the color of the sky, his bodily functions, the people he killed. A sentence such as “Killed a foreign woman in Mississippi” sits near “Went to the restroom for seventeen minutes”, and neither of these is more important to the narrator.

This sense of repetition, unpredictability and incoherence, and the lack of discrimination between subjects, are Kleine’s desired and intended outcome, so much so that he’s needed a generator to achieve it. There are typos, I believe intentionally. Sometimes words are jammed together without spaces to create new compounds.

This is a text that is playing with cadence, though individual units of coherent meaning are larger than in Allison Parrish’s Articulations. The latter fixates on a single phrase at a time, often repeating it many times in a single sentence, using that repetition to cluster together all the ideas that might be linked by the word “ever”, for instance:

Forever and amen. And ever. Amen. Every man and every maid never a man and never a maid every woman, every man, every woman, every maid: every morn and every night every morning and every night every night and every morning, in every note and every line for in every line, and in every verse and every limb, and every nerve of every virgin element, — never, never believe never, believe me, and ever believe.

…whereas in Kleine’s grammar the repetitions are less insistent, and individual sentences less impressionistic.

Even the layout of the text on the page, with smudges and imperfections, not to mention variant type sizes, is both an reference to the Zodiac’s ciphers and an accidental (but embraced) result of the process of generating, cutting, and pasting text. Sometimes the text in Lonely Men Club is inverted, white on black. Sometimes it’s scrunched, or in landscape rather than portrait orientation, or falling askew on the page, in a way that reminded me of the dynamic text manipulation of Liza Daly’s A Physical Book project. Sometimes a paragraph simply runs off the page’s edge, losing all the words on the right side.

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The Mary Jane of Tomorrow

mj_of_tomorrow.jpgFor IF Comp 2015, I offered as a prize to contribute a piece set in the same universe as the author’s game. Steph Cherrywell chose this prize for Brain Guzzlers from Beyond!, which was exciting, since I’d enjoyed Brain Guzzlers a lot; and also slightly daunting, since Steph obviously didn’t need any help in coming up with art or feelies. Originally I was going to write a short story, but as I replayed the game and reviewed transcripts, I was hit with an idea for something more interactive. The result is The Mary Jane of Tomorrow, a not-too-difficult parser puzzle game set a few months after the events of Brain Guzzlers. (Estimated play time roughly 45 minutes, give or take.)

In the tradition of fanfic, it focuses on the relationship between a couple of the characters in the original game, Mary Jane Minsky and Jenny Yoshida. In canon, their closeness is demonstrated in various ways but never given center stage.

Gameplay-wise, The Mary Jane of Tomorrow is about training a robot to demonstrate certain personality and knowledge traits. To do that, the game makes extensive use of procedural text, borrowing the text generation library and even some of the corpora I used for Annals of the Parrigues. After the fold, I’ll talk about Mary Jane as a procedural text project, but it’s spoilery, so you probably want to play it first if you think you might enjoy it.

Steph decided she wanted to share her prize with the public, so The Mary Jane of Tomorrow is now available to play — and she even very kindly made some cover art for it, to match up with the rest of her work.

The game’s been uploaded to the IF Archive; in the short term, there’s also a Dropbox link for it, which I’m hoping will hold up until the file moves out of Archive Pending.

Continue reading “The Mary Jane of Tomorrow”