[IMAGE:  A convoluted map] The Nonlinear Essay: Nonlinear Genres

The new world of nonlinear text opens up a whole new spectrum of possible "nonlinear" textual genres.

Networks of Consciousness

The idea of "stream-of-consciousness" writing is by this time familiar; the author writes a linear narrative which traces the chronology of thoughts and experiences of a single character. In this way, we are able to get to know the character "from the inside". A "network of consciousness" is a similar idea, only without the necessity for a chronological structure. A "network of consciousness" would be a portrayal of a character via a representation of the network of associations between different ideas in their mind. The author, in constructing the character, would build an enourmous network, the nodes of which might be words, memories, other people, historical events, etc., all linked together in terms of the relationships by which the character subjectively understands the world.

A traditional stream-of-consciousness chronology could then be understood as a sort of linear "guided tour" through this network. However, in the Network of Consciousness model, the job of the author would be much more complex, since he basically is providing the reader with the opportunity to explore the character's mind in any way he wants.

Imaginary Worlds

In a similar way, an author could create the portrayal of an entire imaginary world. The construction of complex, self-contained, internally consistent realities is central to much of modern speculative fiction. Indeed, for many people, the best part of the experience of reading (or writing) a peice of speculative fiction is the exploration of a vast, vividly imagined terrain which exists only in the mind of the author. Unfortunately, the conventions of traditional fiction have always meant that this must be done in the context of a story. Sometimes, however, these terrains are really the central point of interest in themselves, and the additions of plot and characters necessary to fulfil the technical requirements of a narrative are simply gratuitous and distracting. Other times, the imaginary world, while interesting in itself, simply does not lend itself naturally to the telling of good stories --consider for example a world which has no inhabitants, or one where the inhabitants are of such an inhuman nature that they would make very poor characters for a story.

In a nonlinear text, however, the author can portray such a world without having to couch things in an artificial linear format. For example, an indoor setting like a palace or museum can be described as a collection of rooms, linked together with doorways and corridors. This is a style which first manifested in the late 1970's in the form of so-called "text adventures", like Zork, and which has recently been popular in so called "Multi User Domains" (aka MUDs).


Of course, rather than speaking merely of a fictional place, we could just as easily apply this style to real locale. Thus, for example, travel guides, and guides to museums or art galleries, might best be written in this manner.


Also, rather than portrayal a fictional person, we could portray a real one. Of course, we could not presume to know the structure of semantic associations inside a real person's head. We could, however, objectively construct a network of relationships between the various aspects of their life: their job, their personal relationships, a chronology of events in their life, etc.

At present, detailed portrayals of important people usually take the form of a biography , that is, a linear chronology of the subject's life. I call the style I propose, instead, an anthropography , since it would concentrate on the subject herself, without any chronological bias.

The Unstructured Journal

Last comes the "unstructured journal of ideas". Many times a writer has a collection of interesting ideas to communicate. However, either because his ideas are as yet incomplete and not fully realised, or because of the nature of the subject matter in question, there is no sensible linear structure he can impose upon them. Present stylistic conventions require that he do so anyways. Thus we get, for example, the problems of Voltaire's Bastards , discussed in The Topology of Text .

It would be better, perhaps, if the author merely chose to impose no linear order whatsoever, and simply present the ideas in their native manner. Links and references might exist between them, but by not attempting to impose a linear order, the author avoids the risk of distorting the structure of his thoughts, and also the risk of misleading the reader by creating a false expectation of logical progression. One might argue, for example, that the present work might better have been realised in this format.

The "Unstructured Journal" likely wouldn't be a finished product. It would simply be a collection of working notes, which might inspire readers (including the author) to further develop and refine the ideas in question. On the other hand, an Unstructured Journal might be perfectly satisfactory as a finished peice of work; it is perhaps a reflection of the unconscious bias we have absorbed by growing up in our "linear" era that we assume that any set of ideas not set into a linear arrangement must necessarily be immature.

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Copyright (c) 1998 Marcus Pivato. Reproduction of this document, in whole or in part, is permitted and encouraged, as long as the original document and author are clearly identified via appropriate citation. Please contact the original author prior to any professional use or redistribution. Address all correspondence to pivato@math.toronto.edu.