About the Work

Strictly speaking, “Sharing the Fantasy” is a lightweight text-generation project realized (in the version you are currently viewing) using Hypertext Markup Language and Javascript. However, the conceptual background and technical origins of the work are both a bit more interesting than this résumé suggests. The first version of this exercise was a HyperCard stack, produced using 29-year-old software on a 12-year-old computer – writing is now unthinkable without eBay. The inspiration and formal context come from Uncle Buddy’s Phantom Funhouse, John McDaid’s hypermedia novel written between 1987 and 1992. The sharing of this particular fantasy is broad, deep, and complicated. It has a history.

In a way the present project began in 1988, during the first growth of the Funhouse. In those days I occasionally received from the author progressively taller stacks of three-and-a-half-inch diskettes containing evolving drafts of his fiction, traded for various warez including installments of my own HyperCard-novel-in-progress. An ensemble of documents embracing multiple media, the Funhouse contains at its core a series of HyperCard stacks. At one point those stacks came to include something called “Spasticon ’88,” nominally the “hyper-program” for a science fiction convention to be held in St. Louis, Missouri in November, 1988. The hosting organization, SPASTIC (Society for the Promulgation of Alternative Science, Technology, and Individual Consciousness), may have been a friendly poke at TINAC (Textuality, Intertextuality, Narrative, and Consciousness, or This Is Not a Conference), a social thought-experiment McDaid and I hatched in cahoots with Michael Joyce and J. Yellowlees Douglas, under the dubious eye of Nancy Kaplan. For all I know there was and maybe still is such an interestingly named Society. (TINAC is mainly fictional.) The St. Louis event was billed as the ninth annual meeting. Just as possibly McDaid made the whole thing up. Something happened in St. Louis on November 18-20 of that year, though in our universe it was the Conference on College Composition and Communication – one of many academic events TINAC members attended while (it has to be said) fantasizing about being somewhere else. The Funhouse comes from and constitutes one such alternative universe, which is the key to its great mysteries.

Among the smaller mysteries of the hyper-program is “Sharing the Fantasy: Interactive Fiction,” a roundtable discussion presided over by one Stuart Moulthrop. I was apparently scheduled against a more interesting panel led by Arthur “Buddy” Newkirk, co-protagonist of the Funhouse, whose subject was “Superstring Theory and Postmodern SF.” Writing me into the Funhouse was only fair, since there was a distinctly McDaidian character in my own abortive hyper-novel. It was also a notable honor, because Spasticon included a screening of Sooner or Later, Newkirk's film about multiverse cosmology, which may have been the occasion of his unexplained disappearance. My alt-self could have been one of the last possible-people to see Newkirk alive. Or just as plausibly, whatever befell Uncle Buddy may also have happened to Other Me.

There is nothing quite like being abducted into a fiction, particularly one so stunningly original as the Funhouse. For many years I have wondered what this brane-crossed version of myself was doing that weekend under the sign of that giant Parabola, in the Earth-1337 version of St. Louis. What would the panel have been like? Who else was sitting around the table? What would we have meant by “interactive fiction,” and what might we have found to say about it?

These questions remained entirely fantastic, all the more so after Apple gradually lost interest in HyperCard at the turn of the century and stopped supporting the system entirely in 2007. After this we lost the Funhouse. There was no convenient way to run McDaid's creation on contemporary equipment. Six years later, concerned about this and other foreclosures, Dene Grigar and I launched the Pathfinders project, an attempt to document performances (or as we say, “traversals”) of key works threatened by obsolescence. (See http://scalar.usc.edu/works/pathfinders/index.) McDaid provided a Funhouse tour for Pathfinders in 2013, making his remarkable fiction at least indirectly accessible for the first time in many years.

Among the people intrigued by the resulting glimpses of the Funhouse was James Brown of Rutgers University-Camden, with whom Dene apparently had some interesting conversations during the 2013 Electronic Literature Organization conference in Paris. (ELO is no doubt the conference of which the TINAC crew were dreaming, back in the day.) An afficionado of vintage and obsolete technologies and an exponent of the heritage value of derivative work, Jim began organizing a Symposium on HyperCard and the Funhouse, which was held at the Rutgers-Camden Archive of Digital Ephemera (R-CADE) April 20-21, 2016.

As part of the R-CADE event four digital creators – Robert Emmons, Steph Ceraso, Darius Kazemi, and myself – were invited to make original works using elements of the Funhouse. Emmons produced the ultimate Funhouse fan video, a tinfoil-hat documentary about the Newkirk disappearance (and so much more); Ceraso built a multimedia tribute to Newkirk’s punk band, The Reptiles, including an exquisite digital rendering of a Moebius-strip audiotape (a very Buddy concept); Kazemi made something else about which I have been dreaming for decades: a live, Internet-based implementation of “Oracle,” the customized Tarot deck that is among the most compelling aspects of the Funhouse.

Matching such brilliant creations was clearly impossible, yet I knew what I had to do: share the fantasy. After all, a part of me has always been lost in the Funhouse. I needed to build something in HyperCard that would somehow evoke that Spasticon roundtable. Ideally this production should be capable of integration into the novel itself, if not as direct extension then at least as apocrypha. While this might seem an odd thing to do to a more conventional novel, it is in fact entirely within the “modally appropriate” ambit of Uncle Buddy’s Phantom Funhouse, which is designed to be at all times exactly what it seems – a collection of documents in particular media, including the digital. Most of McDaid’s writing is deployed in HyperCard text fields, roughly equivalent to block-level page elements on the Web. Though it is possible to lock text fields to prevent a reader from changing what they contain, McDaid deliberately left his fields unlocked. The Funhouse has always been open to expansion – in the words of a certain TINAC mini-festo, it belongs to “a read/write revolution.”

On the subject of revolutions perhaps the most appropriate words are those of Lennon: “Well, you know. We all want to change your head.” Which is to say that what goes around, if it does so long enough, can become quite dizzy and past making sense. There is a legend (accepted by Wikipedia last time I looked) that Bill Atkinson conceived HyperCard after an acid trip. Taking up McDaid's read/write overture would therefore call for a particular exercise of imagination. The Funhouse may have its literalism – it is what it is, a collection of specific objects -- yet the minds and voices it conjures are anything but ordinary. They rant, they rave, they refer to things incredibly recherché and are known to cry out, “O madness at the lights!” -- a phrase I first ascribed to Dylan/Thomas, until I discovered it is pure McDaid.

Inspired by this possibility of visionary shining, I decided against any straightforward transcript of imaginary conversation. Instead I came up with something I want to call a farrago cage, a crazy space in which the reader is subject to a infinite stream of table talk, a ghostly disquisition that will go on forever, or until the wise hand clicks No More. The discourse will (usually) feature a strange mélange of academic theory-babble, dimly remembered eighties culture, and some tropes from browser-based storytelling. We're here to talk about interactive fiction, after all. The characters in the scene were conceived with certain actual references, but the system treats them more or less arbitrarily, with the possible exception of a crucial role called You.

“Sharing the Fantasy” is basically a bauble -- to shift metaphors, it is a small recess tacked onto the main stage of the Funhouse, a sideshow's sideshow, probably good only for a few click-throughs. While I make no particular claims for the writing (the computer does it, after all), I will point out that all the functional aspects of this Web project were first programmed in Atkinson's wonderful language HyperTalk, which as Kazemi pointed out at the R-CADE symposium, seems remarkably contemporary for 30-year-old software. The conversion was fairly straightforward and involved no compromise of features. As part of this old-school fidelity I resisted the temptation to modernize the design, sticking with the hard-core visual idiom of the original program, which means one-bit graphics (simulating grayscale with dithering) and a main window measuring 512 by 342. Warning: the next page you see may shock you.

Beyond these technical details, if this project has any claim to interest it may be in its attempt to realize Jim Brown’s vision of crafty appropriation, using the so-called ephemera cast off in the furious dance of technical evolution to build new contexts for visions that once seemed lost. It is important work for which Jim and his fellow makers deserve serious attention.

Let's all share that fantasy.

To Proceed: Click the link that follows this text. Then click to advance until you reach the main page, where animated text will appear. On that page, once the text has streamed in, click anywhere if you wish to see more. At a certain point the system will kindly ask if you wish to continue. You may notice a certain rhythm or modulation to the text, which usually starts out discursively enough, then descends steadily into fantasy, and eventually starts to break down. You can re-wind this spinning toy as often as you like. Opting out will take you elsewhere on the Web, to McDaid's Pathfinders traversal. You can also quit at any point by clicking on the No More button at lower left.