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December 2001
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Dungeons and Dragons

Recently I picked up the video for the movie, Dungeons and Dragons, which I had missed, not quite accidently, when it came out. I had every expectation that the special effects would be gorgeous, that the plot would be moronic, and the acting abysmal. I did not expect to be enthralled but I did expect to be amused. I was not disappointed. What does this have to do with books, you may ask? Bear with me.

Some time ago I picked up a book entitled, Hamlet on the Holodeck, The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace, by Janet Murray. The following is a summary of the book:

This book is a celebration of and an exploration of the modes of narrative made possible by the new technologies of the computer and the internet. Fiction creates narrative microworlds. The traditional novel has sharp constraints on the nature of those narrative microworlds that are dictated by the format of the printed book.

The printed book is linear - a succession of words one after another without natural branching. It is a static medium; once the book is set in print nothing moves and nothing changes. It is non-participatory; the author dictates all and the reader is a passive recipient.

The computer enables new narrative possibilities. One is the ubiquitous hypertext link. Progression though narratives space need no longer be a linear march through page after page of text. Narratives need no longer be fixed; the participant (aka the user) can participate in the creation of the narrative.

The printed book is an aristocratic medium. There are two classes of people; authors are aristocrats - they dictate and specify everything; readers are peasants - they have no say in the narrative. The new cybermedia are potentially more democratic - the participants can be both reader and author.

The promise of the new media is still more promise than substance. The technologies are immature and awkward.They are changing rapidly even though it is not clear what they ought to be. The author(s) have new roles. Naked democracy without structure tends to produce meaningless rubble. Authors are no longer lords of the manor; rather they are guides and enablers, creating structures within which participants create and move through narrative. It is not just the technologies that are immature - the new narrative formats are immature.

"Books printed before 1501 are called incunabula; the word is derived from the Latin for swaddling clothes and is used to indicate that these books are the work of a technology still in its infancy. It took fifty years of experimentation and more to establish such conventions as legible typefaces and proof sheet corrections; page numbering and paragraphing; and title pages, prefaces, and chapter divisions, which together made the published book a coherent means of communication." (p28)
It is notable that the new narratives are, in Clive Bloom's terminology , illegitimate. That is, they are low, popular fiction rather than high literature. Fantasy and game playing themes predominate with little psychological depth.
It is that last sentence that I wish to emphasize. The merits of traditional fantasy and science fiction, such as they may be, are not to the point; whatever its legitimacy in the eyes of canon bearers, the sf genre is part of the old order. These new media, these new modes of fiction may borrow heavily from the tropes of extruded fantasy products but they still are a new thing.

The movie is an excellent illustration of the thesis. The special effects were marvellous - the dragons were realistic (surely a contradiction in terms) and the spired cities and the dungeons outdo the best computer games. The characters were out of the D&D handbook - elves, dwarves, thieves, healers, mages, and peasants. (Does D&D have peasants? I really have no idea.)

The plot was the usual: There was a good Empress who bring equality to all of the people and a bad mage who wanted to overthrow her, both to gain power for himself and to retain the priveleges of his class. There was a quest. In the end the bad mage was eaten by a dragon. Slurp. That was good. It would have been even better if the dragon had crunched his bones.

I digress. The odd thing is that the acting was so bad. It was not, I am sure, because they were bad actors. Nor, I opine, was it because of the inanity of the plot; very good movies have been created using inane plots.

Part of the difficulty, I opine, lay with some of the lines they had to deliver. In particular the Empress had to deliver a political speech of exquisitely banal superficiality. The difficulty, though, I opine lies in something more fundamental - the characters that the players had to portray were made of the flimsiest and thinnest cardboard. It takes more than talent to play such roles; it takes genius to bring cardboard to life.

Can Fiction after Books offer no better; is this the face of technological post-literacy? Enquiring minds want to know.


This page was last updated December 6, 2001.

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