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‘The Silent History’ invites readers to become active participants

anna parini for the boston globe

Participating in a fictional world feels very unnerving. To try it, get “The Silent History” for your iPhone, stand under the awning of the Leader Bank in Central Square, and click the glowing green dot on the map. The text that overtakes the screen begins with an interrogative: “See that window with the metal shade over it?” You find the window, and suddenly feel different, like someone is watching you. It feels revolutionary.

“The Silent History,” an exquisitely designed serialized work of literary fiction, is ostensibly an e-book, but it’s wholly unlike any you’ve seen before. For starters, it’s sold as an app, makes use of geolocation technology, and requires a touch screen. What’s more, it’s uniquely beautiful, employing a muted palette that integrates photos and illustration. Set in a world in which an unknown epidemic causes great numbers of children to be born without the ability to speak, the story, written by Matthew Derby, author of the experimental short story collection “Super Flat Times,” and Kevin Moffett, who wrote the recent collection “Further Interpretations of Real-Life Events,” is told in first-person accounts — the better to draw you in. The structure also allows for easy serialization; each 1,500-word chapter will be meted out on weekdays by means of an automatic download over the course of a year.

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The bottom half of the homepage shows a navigable map speckled with red octagons. Each of these indicates a location-specific short story, like the one that takes place at the intersection of Prospect Street and Massachusetts Avenue, that supplements the main narrative. The app’s geolocation technology requires the reader to stand within 10 yards of where the story is set in order to access it. At press time, there are two stories set in greater Boston, seven in Providence, 19 in London, and one in Beijing.

The overall effect is one of total immersion. Narrative merges with design and interaction, lending “The Silent History” the air of an absorbing video game like Myst.

“The whole thing was designed to allow for deeper levels of engagement and obsession,” said “Silent History” editor and publisher Eli Horowitz, the former managing editor of the Dave Eggers-helmed publishing house McSweeney’s, in a phone call from his home in San Francisco. “When I get invested in a fictional world, I want to live in that world.”

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While the technology, design, and interactivity of “The Silent History” run laps around a typical electronic book, it’s far from alone. The Electronic Literature Directory, a peer-
reviewed database of fictional works that implement the network computer, links to more than 250 titles.

“It’s a very active area,” said Nick Montfort, an Associate Professor of Digital Media at MIT involved with the Electronic Literature Organization (or ELO). “All the things I saw in [“The Silent History”], people are working on very actively and very creatively on different platforms.”

The interactive electronic novel for the personal computer dates to 1984 and Robert Pinsky’s “Mind Wheel,” a real-time, all-text game for the Apple II, Atari 8-bit, and Commodore 64 — one of four such works published by Synapse Software Corp. during the Reagan years. In 1990 the writer Robert Coover started teaching hypertext fiction workshops at Brown University, in which his students learned how to write non-linear stories with embedded links that direct readers to different points in the text; he still teaches a class called “CaveWriting,” which Brown describes as “a spatial hypertext writing workshop in immersive virtual reality.” And a notable, site-specific narrative took place right here in Boston, when artist Teri Rueb transformed the Boston Common into a sound installation of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” in 2005.

While precedent exists, it’s sometimes difficult to access. “It’s not as easy to look back at digital work from the mid-1990s as it is to pick up a Paul Auster or Don DeLillo novel from 20 years ago, because a lot of times it’s not accessible on modern computers,” Montfort said.

In 2010, the science fiction writer Neal Stephenson tried his hand at participatory digital literature when he launched a multimedia-enhanced, open-source serial novel called “The Mongoliad,” available on a variety of platforms. Participants were encouraged to contribute ideas to the story and create their own material. Two years later, a plaintive message on the novel’s homepage lets visitors know that its content “is a record of the serialized experience, but is no longer considered to be the definitive text of ‘The Mongoliad.’” The paperback edition is now available on Amazon.

Whatever the relative success of individual efforts, the idea of community-oriented digital fiction has taken root. Just ask Andy Hunter, publisher of the pioneering e-lit quarterly “Electric Literature.” Last spring, the journal launched “Recommended Reading” on Tumblr, a curated, weekly series of original stories by up-and-coming and established authors. Its audience has far surpassed that of its parent quarterly.

“Tumblr is great for fiction,” Hunter said. “It’s based on sharing, and users feel a real sense of community.” Those who doubt the Internet is good for literary fiction need only look to “The Devil’s Treasure,” an excerpt from Mary Gaitskill’s forthcoming novel that “Recommended Reading” published in July. According to Hunter, around 40,000 people saw the story— more than four times the number of people who bought her last collection.

“Digital fiction is out there,” Montfort said. “It’s not like Angry Birds in terms of its popularity, but it’s there.”

Whether “The Silent History” becomes a footnote or a touchstone in the long march of digital fiction could hinge on its platform. For now, it’s only available for the iPad and
iPhone — not entirely by design. Coding an application for two different operating systems proved cost prohibitive.

“As per who’s buying weirdo experimental literary apps, people are getting them on iPhones,” Horowitz said.“It’s a drag to me — I don’t like the fact that you have to own a thing at all to buy into this project.”

At present, Android users have access to very few literary apps, weirdo experimental ones or otherwise. Mac users have more to choose from, but only by a slim margin. Most fall under the umbrella of enhanced e-books — novels or comics with supplemental videos or photos embedded within the text. The Poetry Foundation has created a free, comprehensive database of poets and poetry. And there are a handful of clever apps aimed at aspiring writers like Wattpad, where writers can upload their books and stories and receive instant feedback, and Verses, an app for poets with a built-in rhyming dictionary.

Real digital fiction — novels like “The Silent History” where a mobile medium plays an essential part in the story’s message — is very difficult to come by on any platform. But that could change. As the e-book market becomes increasingly lucrative and e-readers more technologically advanced, publishers and distributors just might start funneling money into ambitious digital works. In other words,“The Silent History” might have more company soon.

Horowitz hopes so.“The hardest part is getting people used to reading books in a new way, but I think it’s going to be easier and easier,” he said. “My dream would be that other people do this form of storytelling and people take this in new directions we haven’t even thought of, and then we’ll do something else.”

Eugenia Williamson, a writer and editor living in Somerville, can be reached at eugenia.williamson@
gmail.com
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