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the Complete Review
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Hamlet on the Holodeck

Janet H. Murray

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Title: Hamlet on the Holodeck
Author: Janet H. Murray
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 1997
Length: 304 pages
Availability: Hamlet on the Holodeck - US
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  • The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace

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Our Assessment:

B- : interesting overview of the state of the art, and some of its possibilities, but not a great deal of vision

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
New Scientist . 27/9/1997 Mike Holderness
The NY Times B 18/7/1997 Michiko Kakutani

  From the Reviews:
  • "(Murray's) utopianism colors all her arguments in this volume, leading her to ignore or play down the more disturbing consequences of technology while unabashedly embracing its possibilities. " - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Holodeck of the book's title is the famous Star Trek "universal fantasy machine" (as Murray describes it), a virtual reality world with which users can interact. The Hamlet of the book's title is a character from a once-famous example of the centuries-old traditional narrative form, "drama". In her book, Janet Murray tries to show the possibilities of narrative in the cyberage -- not just the technical possibilities, but also the new ways of telling (and enjoying and participating in) narratives.
       An eager MIT-based beaver, Murray's enthusiasm for interactive media and the new technology bubble over every page. She points out the narrative novelties that technology has previously wrought, as when the printing press came into being. And she finds that the "multiform story" -- different possibilities within a single narrative -- is also old hat.
       Murray likes interactivity -- the reader or rather user participating in the story. From rudimentary examples of obsessed Star Trek fans who write their own Star Trek stories right up to the Holodeck (and beyond) she sees interactivity as one of the keys of the new narrative.
       ELIZA appears, and MUDs, and all the usual suspects, breezily and simply presented for those not familiar with them. Overall the book is a good survey of what has been and is being done in the field at the moment.
       Murray's theoretical thoughts are a bit more suspect -- the new role of the audience and the new role of the author (or rather: the new concept of authorship). Murray welcomes the reader/user's involvement in the narrative, and his/her ability to guide the story, and that is certainly one of the neat things about modern technology (and it will certainly get neater). We are not fully convinced. Choice is nice, and sort of democratic, but brings with it limitations as well. While arguably choice allows a user to experiment -- to go where they would have been unlikely to go before -- it also allows for predictability, wiping out alternatives as the user takes the familiar route they always take. (Any parent who has read the same story for the hundredth time to a young child knows how highly predictability can be valued.)
       Spreading authorship to a populace ill-equipped to take that responsibility might be empowering to them, but surely will not result in superior narrative (regardless what form that "narrative" takes). The nearest modern-day example we have is cinema, where practically every Hollywood movie is clearly harmed by the involvement of too many screenwriters and producers, all able to give some input. The few movies likely to last tend to be those guided by a single vision -- when the person with that vision has the clout to impose his will. Films by Stanley Kubrick, Quentin Tarantino, Chris Marker, Orson Welles, for example, or, yes, even George Lucas (a fascinating example of a man with great vision and absolutely no imagination and a very rudimentary sense of narrative) clearly stand out above the usual film fare.
       Mass-participation in narrative has always been possible: while the printed narrative lends itself to a single voice, the oral tradition would be an obvious place for involving many people. There is no obvious reason why a single story-teller tells a story, rather than everyone participating in the telling of the story -- unless, of course, the single person can do it far better than the masses. And guess what ? that is the way it is. The temptations of participatory virtual reality, as on the holodeck, are great -- it would seem -- but humans are an amazingly passive bunch and would prefer to "enjoy" their fiction, meta-fiction, or TV passively rather than truly get involved. Perhaps Murray is right and there will be a paradigm shift, but we believe that, just as now (with, for example, the die-hard TV show fans Murray mentions), it will always be a small minority that will want to actively participate.
       Another point to make is that for all of Murray's enthusiasm, and for all the seemingly neat things already out there, most of the new narrative forms are just deadly dull, hardly more interesting than that sixties remnant (still going strong), ELIZA. True, video and computer games are great and fun, but to call these narratives is like calling chess or go narratives -- true, on a certain level, but not a very interesting level.
       There is little as disheartening on the Internet as the sorry state of cyberfiction (or cyberpoetry/drama/whatever) and hypertexts, with those "creating" them offering only the feeblest semblances of art or narrative, taking advantage of technology only for the sake of novelty (which quickly wears thin) and leaving art by the wayside.

       Murray's book is an interesting introduction to the possibilities (and many of the actualities). Combining literary theory with technological information, she is at least talking about the right things. Regrettably she does not offer much of a vision of a truly new narrative form to go with the new technology.

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Hamlet on the Holodeck: Reviews: Hypertext:
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Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Janet H. Murray teaches at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

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