June 24th, 2018 personal conversation with Nelson McKeeby at the Cliff's Edge restaurant in Silver Lake, California
For the past several years Nelson McKeeby and I have arranged to have regular philosophy discussions while sharing meals, usually at the Cliff's Edge restaurant in Silver Lake. Like many modern intellectuals are conversations often move from the electronic to the spoken to the visual as we move across communication paradigms.
Our nominal purpose was to discuss my upcoming blog and his upcoming book, both of which were projects that we regularly helped each other with, but tonight we devolved into a discussion of the hypernarrative. Rather than give you a blow by blow of our detailed conversations, I will instead try and recreate the multi-fasciated narrative we had, especially when he introduced me to some aspects of hypernarratives I did not know about.
There is a tendency to think of hypernarratives as a new form of storytelling, but that is only in its most rigorous meaning, through the use of hyperlinking in some form of computer coding system. In fact, hypernarrative has been a technique used by storytellers and writers for thousands of years to link one narrative with another.
The second Fitna (the defining Muslim wars between the Sunni and Sh’ia branches of the early faith, there developed a complex legal code taken from the Quran and also from the Legal codes of Justinian found in the Roman Empire. It is my belief that the advent of Madrassa to deal with issues of legal argumentation, lead to a writing style where scholars would refer to other documents to build arguments, sometimes with great care, sometimes almost in passing. Thus before there was hyperlinking, there was a writing style that was referential rather than ex-cathedra. This is not the earliest example of this form of expression, it existed in the works of Aristotle and the Nazarene, and will be discussed as such, but the Caliphate around 800 was where this form of writing lead to an enlightenment of scholarly thinking the bridged the classical and medieval periods, where as the formal thinking process of Jesus and Aristotle was for a time misplaced by society.
The easiest place to find examples of this writing is not in Caliphate documents, which can be difficult to assess and understand except by scholars long familiar with their writing styles and language, but by writers who were somewhat alien to the culture but who learned inside of the Muslim cultural matrix. Gerbert of Aurillac (later Pope Sylvester II) not only wrote multiple texts, but preserved his own letters. From them we see that his studies under European experts like Boethius (Darlington, 1947, p. 461) was supplement by his work with and acknowledgement of his study in the Muslim lands of Iberia. The evidence here for me is not that he cites precisely, this was not done at that time by anyone, but that his hints left us in works like Libellus represented a hypernarrative of this thought process. This is best shown by the use of these hints to refute his work by later Francophile writers who would call him the anti-Pope because he acknowledged the Muslim origins of his thought.
Gerbert in fact left us a large amount of correspondence which he discusses the origin of his thinking process. While keeping letters became common for thinkers in the enlightenment to guide others through their though process, it was an almost unknown practice in the time of Gerbert, showing that his internal citation of influences was not accidental.
These faint glimmers of hypertext, where the narration of stories and presentation of ideas is referential is strong in writings, signifying the desire of the author for the reader to pursue a chain of knowledge off the page can be seen even more clearly in the works of Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides) who was a Jewish scholar and lived in the same region of Muslim Spain that Gerbert studied in. A reading of any single work of his is a treat, but when you consider his life and his work as a whole such as in Kraemer (2008), it is possible to see how important the idea of extended thinking is to this scholar. Much of his work, in fact, was the attempts to attach concepts found in the Torah and other Jewish Holy works, to Greek and Muslin rational thinking. These attachments required the reader in that era to read his references which he used as both proof but also as a way to have the reader “study through” his work to the concepts they might learn in study.
I have always been interested in hyper-narrative. My first use of hyper-narrative was in producing the game Virdea-MUD. MUDS are Multi-User-Dimensions that are generally text based, usually interactive, and often have thousands or tens of thousands of people adventuring across a shared virtual landscape. They are deployed on computers without graphics and are the earliest narrative adventure games. The MUD that I authored, VirdeaMUD, called "Dawn of Virdea," had at its largest expansion 191 story lines, 440,000 words of story-line interactive text, 1,750,000 words of descriptive text, and if bound into a book would have been more than 4,000 pages long. Assuming a reader did not interact with other players and attempted each adventure solo, it would take 700 hours to complete. It took eleven years to write, and was complied for the last time in 2010. It was closed in 2013 after 11,000 visitors played it for a total of just short of 1,300,000 human/hours. During its life it was deployed by the Internet from a server called virdea.net, which now only contains books and art generated during the game’s life.
In Virdea MUD a single space, called a room, contained a fast narrative, a main narrative, and a number of objects that would respond to a /LOOK command that often could be manipulated with varying results. The reader can explore their environment. They can /talk to Josiah, /operate the mechanism, /walk north out of the room, /write a note and /hang it on the wall, /drop some object, or even use an emote like /dance, /grimace, /gesticulate, or /whistle. Any of these actions may create an opportunity to develop a storyline, never leaving the virtual space of the computer screen.
Although a unique type of writing, VirdeaMud was intensely space portable, being deployed on the Internet, but not very time portable (Innis, year, page). That means when the server went dark for the last time, it was like burning every copy of an entire series of fantasy fiction. Although some of the work had been saved in the books the Adventurer's Forge, the Standard Manual, the Virdean Gazetteer, and the Celestial City (Jackson) the translations were less than successful and the four books, offered as a "digital game series," deployed on IOS, sold less than 100,000 copies before going out of print when Shrapnel Games, its publisher, closed its doors a few years later.
Hyper-narratives, where the story leaps from the page across other mediums, still intrigued me, and recently I started to consider an earlier event in my life. In 1992 I was working with a museum in Savannah that was showing an exhibit on August Rodin. Part of my duty was to find out why people went to see Rodin on its first day. Using a survey, I discovered that 13% of respondents said they had read of Rodin in a book by Robert Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land (1963), and had always wanted to see the statues referred to in that work. People were looking at art because they read about the art in a work of fiction.
Thus, I put into place my first creative building block that would lead to The Conspiracy of the Ravens. The book would be written as a hyper-fiction, but instead of being referential through technology (such as Hypertext) it would rely on writing that led the reader to works and people who actually exist. In the book, the Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie, the writing continually references actual religious motifs, forcing many readers to seek further enlightenment if they wanted to understand the references in the text, which could be obscure and very culturally tied. Advanced readers might first read dense commentaries like Sharh Muwatta al-Malik, and later might dive directly into the writings of the Imam Malik to find some solid ground for the terms and discussions that Rushdie used as if the reader should be on the same religious page as him. This effectiveness of hyper-narration reached an extreme climax when many religious scholars took notice and violently came out against Satanic Verses, not because of its interior text, but because its hyper-narrative lead to what some saw as blasphemous conclusions.
After reading Rushdie, I picked up Frank Herbert's Dune. Dune connects myth, religion, and speculative fantasy with hard environmental science. It also shows that hyper-narrative can be included that creates a metafictional story, allowing changes of viewpoint without confusing the reader. Herbert fashioned in his book a series of extended endnotes written in an all-knowing distant third person almost as long as the original narrative and included them in the work. A reader, lost in the weeds of the complex cultural understandings, could gain enlightenment from referring to these essays. In the mainline text, scheming characters faced significant limits of their own power and knowledge based on being trapped in a cultural matrix that limited their world views. These limits essentially drive the story forward. The reader though is given an opportunity to see how the mechanisms beneath the narrative drive story lines that the close third person of the narrative misses. In essence, the reader is, through the tool of hyper-narrative, given access to gnostic information that allows them deeper understanding of character motivation.
This also aids Herbert by reducing his need for an interpreter serving as a character. Many speculative fiction novels require some being to be the person who explains the differences between the known world and the newly discovered world. These characters can drag the story. In Robert Heinlein's Beyond This Horizon, the author felt that his speculative world was so different that it required a time traveler to experience at least some of it. In his later novels, especially when he left his juvenile period, he would slowly create worlds where the character’s assumed knowledge became the only window a reader had to develop an understanding of the book’s social space.