What Books Might Do (Or, Why Hasn’t SFF Caught Up?)

The concept of what a book can do is about to change:

Consider two books: Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Not the printed books, the apps – software for mobiles and the iPad. The Wolf Hall app is a thing of beauty. It contains the text, of course, but readers can also move slickly between the text, family trees of the Tudors and the Yorkists, extra articles by Mantel and a fascinating video discussion between the novelist and historian David Starkey. All of which gives a deeper and richer understanding of the novel’s historical context and its characters.

But this is nothing compared to Alice for the iPad. You can throw tarts at the Queen of Hearts, help the Caterpillar smoke his hookah pipe, make Alice grow as big as a house and then shrink again. You can watch as “the Mad Hatter gets even madder”, and throw pepper at the Duchess. Over the 52 pages of the app there are 20 animated scenes. Each illustration has been taken from the original book and has been made gravity-aware, responding to a shake, tilt or the touch of a finger. The story is never the same twice, because users are Alice’s guide through Wonderland. The Caterpillar will smoke his hookah in a new way when you tilt your iPad, or you can throw more pepper the second time around.

I’m rather surprised that, given how the SFF community has dominated the literary blogopshere, and made the most of modern technology, the genre has been slow at thinking of interesting methods in exploring narratives on the latest wave of iPads and ereaders.

When Joe Abercrombie made a request – “what styles of additional content would persuade you to part with a little more of your hard-earned and give you the sense you got value for money?” – a good deal of responses were: just give us the (cheap) ebook; less fancy stuff.

Given that science fiction especially is the genre of thinking up plausable new ideas, where is the next generation of interesting media coming from? Where is the smash-up i-RPG-film-soundtrack-interactive-reading experience? You’re telling me that a historical novel and a children’s book is ahead of the literature of ideas in grabbing all the tech headlines?

Perhaps these sorts of changes are driven by publishers with huge budgets to blow on development, and SFF rarely gets the kind of money necessary. Or maybe I was right after all.

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About Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.


  1. Because those things are just a cheap gimmick? I mean let’s take something we already know- websites. Remember when everyone had those stupid flashing text and animated gifs and pointless Java and flash applications? You know, when everyone and their uncle had annoying geocities page?

    Yeah. Kind of like that. Except you pay for it. The trend towards text and images for reading is nothing new- websites have been heading in that direction since the inception of the internet. Other than webapplications (which are not for reading) or webgames (also, not for reading) these things only become a distraction.

    And the internet is already this. Why should ebooks be the same? I mean, why reinvent the wheel and then give it a new name and make us pay for it?

  2. Paul – in this case, I think the iPad is rather different than animated gifs. It’s provided a new interactive story-telling medium. That’s what the post is about. The technology exists for something that has never been done before. It’s a bit like saying, why bother with online book discussions because you can have a coffee morning to chat about stories.

  3. I get Paul’s point – and add this in too: http://www.wired.com/magazine/2010/05/ff_nicholas_carr/all/1

    I don’t want to be distracted. I want a self-contained narrative that I can be completely absorbed in. I don’t want to choose; I want the author to be in charge. I don’t even want pictures; I want to use my brain. But then, I was born aged about 67 and grumpy.

  4. There’s an app for Banks’ latest Culture novel, I believe.

  5. “smash-up i-RPG-film-soundtrack-interactive-reading experience”?

    That’s a game. And SF/F has had those for decades. Creating linear apps would be a step backwards.

  6. Good reading on storytelling in games: http://blog.failbettergames.com/post/Echo-Bazaar-Narrative-Structures-part-one.aspx

    I’m curious how many book-type writers also write games. I know Richard Morgan blogged about doing one. So has Rebecca Levene. (China Mieville has written RPG content, if that counts)

    Anyway, if it is acceptable for book-type writers to become comic-book-type-writers or TV-type-writers, they should be game-type-writers as well. Probably bloody hard though.

  7. I remember reading that article, Rachel – it’s interesting, but I think the iPad does something different.

    And this relates to Jared’s point about it being a game – I don’t think so, not having used the Alice app for the iPad – it’s a radical new storytelling medium. It’s an inbetween narrative. You’re still surrendering to the writer, but there are other devices the author can use – other than text – to enrich the story; whereas, the game narrative is as much created by the reader/player.

    Writing for game – I would think, though have had no experience on this – could be an excellent challenge to a writer – that is, so long as it’s in adittion to background material.

    I’d love to see how that industry operated. I’ve worked (in an editorial capacity) on novelizations of films, and the writer still had to do an incredible amount of work, but I imagine computer games to be rather different.

  8. Re the article – sorry, I wasn’t very clear. I was more suggesting the thought that if we’re presented with multiple ways of engaging with a story, does that lessen the depth of engagement?

    But really, I think I’m having a bit of an empty argument – because what I’m saying is that interacting with an app is not going to feel the same as reading a book. As for the relative pros and cons of what that new experience might be … I have no idea. I’ve never used one of these apps.

    I’ve blogged before about interactive e-books, and I’m still confused as to what I think. The author of the article you link to convinces me a little more with the possibilities for non-fiction – but is the technology really there to do all that and make it good (in a realistic way). I use online interactive e-textbooks for my university course – and they’re complete rubbish. Even if they were designed well, I can’t concentrate, I don’t learn, I don’t think properly … I just click and click … skip the hard parts … (which goes back to the article I linked to).

  9. For what it’s worth, Wolf Hall and Alice are sort of outliers. For Wolf Hall (which I’m currently reading), quite a lot of the action depends on some knowledge of family trees, so making those easily accessible to the reader, in whatever format, is about as close to necessary as possible. It’s not a matter of keeping characters straight, but actually understanding what’s motivating a the novel’s action. I’m an historian of British history, and I have to keep copies of those same family trees close at hand when I’m working through both primary and secondary sources. My point is, those “interactive features” are really quite necessary to the novel.

    Alice, on the other hand, is an old book, and a familiar one. Adding interactive games is the next generation of hardback Famous-Author-Illustrated, limited edition type of marketing ploy that publishers have been using for generations, to get buyers who already own copies or are familiar with the work to buy it again.

    Your average SFF reader, I suspect, isn’t buying the ebook for the same reason the Alice reader is buying Alice, or reading the way the Wolf Hall reader is reading (e)Wolf Hall. And the thing about reading is, it’s already an immersive experience. You don’t need the extra stuff to get more into it, and many readers find the extra stuff accomplishes the opposite, pulling them out of the immersive environment.

    I don’t know – the solution is probably to be found by looking at the way DVDs are being produced and sold: you can buy the super-cheap edition with no extra features, or the ridiculous overpriced version with 18 hours of commentary and deleted scenes. The fans will shell out for the overpriced “collector’s edition,” and keep buying new editions as more stuff is released; the casual viewer/readers can buy the cheap version and be perfectly happy.

  10. It’s coming down to our interpretation of what the book should be. Perhaps I should have been a little clearer in the actual post, but interactive e-books – they’re not the same as a book, in my view.

    Books are already the device, have been for centuries.

    The e-reader (and I’m really talking about the iPad, which changes the rules) allows for a slightly different form of story to play out – and in that sense, why hasn’t the SFF world been all over it? Given our level of cross-over with other media (games, RPGs, film etc), you would have thought we would be leading the way.

  11. Well Richard Morgan’s working on computer games now so maybe SFF is evolving into some hybrid interactive entertainment experience?
    I guess most sci-fi fans are waiting for the ultimate app, whereby we upload the book into our head and can read it within seconds.