Saturday, 2 March 2013

Story Engine

Story Engine
Story Engine

Churning hot air and the ether of e-fonts in its turbine, the Story Engine goes into hyper-drive. No longer is it enough for authors to package-up well-turned novels with fully-rounded characters in harmonious plots. Nowadays, character has to be spat out over min. seven vols.; plot extruded and cut into NBC House-bites (a modern novel skim-reads more like the extended treatment for an episode); and crafted writing gives over to pellucid style and “voice.” Indeed, whatever its timbre, a modern author's sarnd has to incorporate the gum-chewing, side-of-mouth rant of a Smart Alec on CiF (Come-off-it it's Free). While kerosene and steam explode in the heat and vortex of jet burners; it's chocks away as the modern serial novel reaches escape velocity two paras after leaving the tarmac. XL5 is off its trolley, Robbie the RoboWriter at the helm, Meccanoids and Clangers asking for his eta.
Where did all this spring from? Was it predicted? Who's the suspect, eh? George Orwell, writing in the late Nineteen Forties caught a glimpse of the future that is now showing. In his dystopian novel, 1984, he envisaged a totalitarian society where proles (the proletariat) are addicted to Victory Gin and porno/crime thrillers. These “novels” are not written by authors, but 'composed' upon machines that print-on-demand to formulae. The hero's girlfriend, Leila, is one of the middle-class Party-maids charged with programming the story engine; trusted by her controllers as immune to its corrupting ideas. For Leila has no creative input, there is no need. Demand is determined by market forces, and algorithms built-in to the machines produce the variations in character & plot to keep the novels just that bit different from each other. In fact, using an unexplained technology (Chaos?) best-sellers are regularly turned up. In 1984, even hit songs are produced by machines, though again Orwell doesn't go into detail about exactly how.
Surely we are not there yet? Surely 1984, which used to loom at us from around the corner - I'm one of those old farts who remember Punk Rock starting out in 1976 – is still some ways off? In fact, nowadays the future is a rather benign mirage, dimming and getting further off as time rolls on. We've almost erased its otherness. And anyway, today we ARE the future! Look at our technology! We have Search, Edit and Translation keys, customised Spelling, Grammar & Thesaurus Apps.. At the flick of a finger, we employ Meat Grinders, weasel-word weeders, Style & Format wizards. Why, we zonked writers sit tablet in hand parked on Mulholland Heights calling up ambient noise to transport us to the souks of Marrakesh or the icy wastes of Anarctica. But, Hey, composition is still in the hands of the individual, right? Writers get to be producer, director, camera operator & star rolled into one. The author is still the coolest dude to be, innit? Wronk!
Arthur Miller and Marilyn Munro split in 1958. Angela Carter never got to write any of the bestsellers she had in her. And Gore Vidal has joined Pan in the foothills of Olympus. The dream is over. Nowadays, even well-off authors are wage-bond labourers contracted to produce only what they are certified to know. Sorry, fellows, quoting Pink Floyd this early in the millennium, but Welcome To The Machine!
Previously on Goodreads... (back in the future) a nasty spat broke out between two contributors over a definition of the term dystopia. The details of the dispute, of how the 'red, red kovvy' ran and ran despite the efforts of Kofi Anan, are not pertinent here; however the barney threw up some interesting sub-threads. One of these related to the work of Winston Smith: Leila's boyfriend and hero of 1984. He toiled in another division of the vast Ministry of Truth, not producing works of fiction, but editing (fictionalising) back copies of The Times. It was his job to find, alter or delete old articles and reports which contradicted Official History or current Party Policy. Slips of edited-out text were dropped down a tube which, Winston believed, fed the fires of a basement boiler room. Little did he know, of course, the tube was not a good place to get rid of evidence he was cheating the system. Another layer of editors checked the falling slips on behalf of the Thought Police.... and so on. My point? On the Goodreads site, it is possible for a contributor to post an offensive remark unmoderated. Dozens of people may comment on it before for the originator goes back and alters or deletes the offensive words as though they had never been written! When the resultant narrative (called a 'thread') is read back, it has a middle and an end, but no actual beginning! Like the poems of Sappho, the original remarks can only be reconstructed from the quotes of others! But surely Goodreads' servers keep a record of everything deleted, altered or not?
Access to information is the way of the beast, power resting in the hands of those with the most knowledge. At the same time, the printed text withers away and we enter an era in which everything becomes fluid. At the lowest level, it's rather like we never invented writing at all. We're headed back to something more akin to oral tradition. Dozens of different versions of a story may circulate at the same time, multiple copies generating a canvas of infinite possibility. Thus Aeneas may die in the sack of Troy, or escape to Carthage, or even head straight on to found Rome. On the next level up are meta texts you may subscribe to; they are recapitulations of threads with the biggest contradictions resolved by arbitration, and the least left as incongruities. A simple example would be where a character is portrayed as being utterly evil in some sub-threads and misunderstood in others, cf Richard the Third. This generates a narrative line where the character's ambiguities are emphasised. But as everyone in the group may erase or cut and paste, who may retrieve the source code? At the upper level, there are the Master files, available only to Moderators. Every keystroke is recorded, requiring a special parser to trawl through the binary texts, sourcing conflicts, identifying common themes and predicting trends. Rather like being able to read texts in the ancient Latin, Greek & Aramaic originals, these Reading Room Keyholders are a small but powerful gang.
Fan fiction has of course played a huge role in creating Story Engines which recycle character, scenario and even plot to produce new works. Of course, much of what is created thus is naïve pastiche, comic parody or simple dross. Those writers who manage to attract a fan-base of their own are able to stake claims on the swelling ground. Lucy Hocking is the prime example of this, a member of multiple Trekky/Buffy clubs she artfully carved out a franchise-free pitch for her gothic/teen/campus novels. Fans download her speedily drafted vols, editing the spelling, grammar and continuity errors her daytime job doesn't allow time for. If she is ever stuck for a plot idea, she has only to open her comments box and Fans earn much kudos (though not many scudos) from her open acknowledgements. In under two years, she is able to sell-out to a conventional publishing house, ditching her fan-based Story Engine for the usual troupe of agents, editors and the other groupies Fame & Fortune is eager to supply.
Fan fiction isn't that new, Trekkies and Dr Who fans have been sharing their words since the early 70s. Nor is live group writing. Many years ago, I went on the road with a theatre company - an outfit that made a new play each performance by brainstorming ideas from its audiences. At the start of the show, they performed a quick sketch to get the audience in the mood and posit an idea. Straight after, they came out of character and set up a flip chart in the middle of the stage area. Then they asked the audience how they thought the sketch should continue. Every single word the audience threw at them was written up on the chart, and in the process skilfully creating a plot. Finally the actors invited members of the audience to come on stage and help perform the play that they themselves had come up with. For the actors, every performance was a gruelling test of creative response, improvisation skill and sheer patience. You would think it a miracle how they could go on doing a different show every day/night. Yet, spending a few days with them, I began to see there was a formula behind their way of working and that each show was, in more than one sense, no different than the others. The lack of an author's hand combined with the collective subconscious of the audience produced a kind of scatological romp of a show. For example, a youngish lad in the audience shouted out, “the policeman farts!” He was then asked to play not the policeman, but the policeman's fart, wafting across the stage and knocking out the robber.
After the show, I told my friend (one of the company) how funny and original it was. He replied, “Oh yes, the fart. Usually get that two or three times a week.” Though I was still stunned by it, my friend's six months on the road had shown him most everything an audience could come up with. As an engine of creativity, the public mind is, well, unsubtle in its predictability. It seems the shared, live nature of such story telling lifts and transforms the dynamics of a schoolroom snigger to an acceptable form of public enjoyment. Just as the chance to have rubbed e-shoulders with Lucy Hocking boosts her audience; contributing something you believe is original (to her spelling, her grammar, her plot-lines) and thereby share her glory, allows you to enjoy participating in her success.
So what do I say in conclusion? Write your own?
Story Engine
Sock it to 'em!

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