New Possibilities for Digital Fiction

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Digital fiction is often considered in terms of form, interactivity, or experimental possibilities. The kind of digital fiction that is most often read and discussed by academics is emblematic of this focus, including both canonical examples such as Michael Joyce’s “afternoon, a story” and more recently, the flash animation literature of Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries. Such a focus has so far resulted in a digital fiction that makes little space for works that might be literary, digital, and not experimental. To consider both what such a book might be like, and what might be lost by defining digital literature so strongly as a place for experimental practice, this article is centered on the digital book at the center of Neal Stephenson’s “The Diamond Age, or A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer.” The eponymous primer in this print novel is a fantastic digital multimedia book, with leather-bound electronic pages connected through microscopic computers within the pages and the spine. Yet the Primer nods back to the context and social roles of the early British novel, helping its reader to develop an individual self that can navigate a world no longer defined by contiguous nation states. It is a digital book that is engrossing, interactive, and mediates a radical cultural and technological transition. In this way, it represents a non-experimental mode for digital fiction, but one that is definitively digital and actively engaged with readers and broader culture.