December 1997

Narrating the Birth of the Cyberbard

Book Review: Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace
Janet Murray
The Free Press, 1997
ISBN 0-684-82723-9
$25 (US)

Reviewed by Christine Lapham

Even while showcasing her talents as a masterful storyteller in the realm of print, in Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace author Janet Murray forecasts the birth of the new digital storyteller--the cyberbard. According to Murray, the cyberbard is half hacker, half poet:

It seems to me quite possible that a future digital Homer will arise who combines literary ambition, a connection with a wider audience, and computational expertise. (p. 213)
Murray, with her own rich literary and digital life, may be the first of the breed. The former computer programmer, current MIT professor and Victorian scholar, combines a thorough mastery of narrative traditions with creative adaptations of cutting edge technologies. This eclectic perspective enables Murray to place the development of digital narrative in exquisite context:

All the major representational formats of the previous five thousand years of human history have now been translated into digital form...and the digital domain is assimilating greater powers of representation all the time, as researchers try to build within it a virtual reality that is as deep and rich as reality itself. (p. 28)
The real power and potential of this book is Murray's expert advice about where we are, where we are going, and how we are going to get there. She combines a highly accessible yet playful prose style with detailed research--I especially enjoyed the references to Carl Jung, Michael Joyce and Joseph Campbell. The result is a charming yet concise framework of where writing is headed in the next century.

She asks the right questions and raises appropriate issues so the predicative content falls naturally into place. She also teaches us the basics--digital environments are procedural, participatory, spatial, and encyclopedic. And, unlike most "cyber-titles," which forecast either technological gloom and doom or unfounded utopianism, her predications are cautiously optimistic.

As digital environments develop into maturity, the associational wildernessess will acquire more coherence and the combat games will give way to the portrayal of more complex processes. Participating viewers will assume clearer roles. They will learn how to become orienteers in the complex labyrinth and to see the interpretative shaping in simulated worlds. At the same time, as these formal qualities improve, writers will be developing a better feel for which patterns of human experience can best be captured in digital media. In this way, a new narrative art will come into its own expressive form. (p. 93)
Just as she instructs as to where things are headed in this new digital realm, Murray also helps define and understand the language to explain this new way of writing and communicating. Terms such as: "incunabula," books printed before 1501, the "Swaddling clothes of Guttenberg's age" as Murray affectionately calls them; "consensual reality," a reference to online role playing; "convergence;" "cyberdrama;" and of course, "cyberbard," all help us grasp the significance of these new ideas and to engage in meaningful conversation.

It is the "how we are going to get there" facet of this text in which Murray's rich research, keen mind, and playful persona best showcase themselves. She tells us:

...the computer can be a compelling medium for storytelling if we can write rules for it that are recognizable as an interpretation of the world. The challenge for the future is how to make such rule writing as available to writers as musical notation is to composers. (p. 73)
And she is crystal clear about the challenges ahead:
What will it take for authors to create rich and satisfying stories that exploit the characteristic properties of digital environments and deliver the aesthetic pleasures the new medium seems to promise us? We would have to find some way to allow them to write procedurally; to anticipate all the twists of the kaleidoscope, all the actions of the interactor; and to specify not just the events of the plot but also the rules by which those events would occur. (p. 185)
The future, as we see it through Murray's informed vision, is radiant with possibility. But that possibility may be controlled in large part by the genius of the "half hacker, half bard" and the financial clout of the entertainment industry. As we move to the "digital appliance"--the combination PC/television/telephone, today's infant cyberbard will surely develop through an awkward adolescence to Murray's vision of Hamlet on the Holdodeck. She says it best:
We are on the brink of a historic convergence as novelists, playwrights, and filmmakers move toward multiform stories and digital formats; computer scientists move toward the creation of fictional worlds; and the audience moves toward the virtual stage. (p. 64) [TOC]
Christine Lapham ( is a technology writer, instructor at the Sage Colleges, and a contributing editor of CMC Magazine. Her Web address is

Copyright © 1997 by Christine Lapham. All Rights Reserved.


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Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace by Janet Murray

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