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ELO 2015: The End(s) of Electronic Literature

Running Out of Time: The Strategies of Ending in Digital Fictions

Raine Koskimaa (University of Jyväskylä)

Panel: Temporalities
Thursday, August 6 • 13:30 - 15:00 (Sydneshaugen skole: Auditorium A)

Ever since the early theorizing of electronic literature, both the beginning and ending of these literary works has been seen as problematic issues. In the spirit of Umberto Eco’s “open work” (in English 1989), especially hypertext works were considered challenging to the closed nature of literary work – there may be several entrances to the work, but even more importantly, there is no fixed ending but rather, alternative, optional exit points. J. Yellowlees Douglas’s The End of Books or Books without End, a cornerstone in this field, provided a detailed analysis of M. Joyce’s Afternoon, putting much emphasis on its various endings.

If the early 1990’s theoretical discussion was mainly concerned with hypertext, the current electronic literature scene with its dozens of new modes of expression, technologies and genres, has grown used to the fact that most of the works do not offer a definite ending, but either a set of alternative endings, or, no obvious ending at all. The openness of dynamic ergodic literature has become such a naturalized phenomenon that there has not been much theoretical interest in the question of ending in electronic literature lately.

The end, however, plays a crucial role in the interpretation and understanding of literature (cf. Reading for the Plot by P. Brooks, 1984 and The Sense of an Ending by F. Kermode, 1967), and this holds true for electronic literature as well. Thus, it is important to investigate the strategies of ending in digital works, and what kind of consequences they have for understanding them. In this paper, we will concentrate on digital fictions with narrative content. Tentatively, it may be stated that they all create a structure of multiple temporalities, and this multiplicity is directly related to the types of ending strategies employed.

Through analysis of various works of digital literature, both old and new, such as Califia by M.D. Coverley (2000), Screen by N. Wardrip-Fruin & al. (2003), Deep Surface by S. Moulthrop (2007), TOC by S. Tomasula & al. (2014), we will focus on the temporalities of digital fiction, both related to its nature as a programmed entity (ergodic time), and as a fictional construct (fictional time), and on what kind of endings they provide. It seems that the two main options are: 1. running out of time in the concrete sense, as in Deep Surface, where there is a strict temporal constraint and when the time ends, the reading ends as well, with a sense of failure, an abrupt ending without proper closure, and 2. running out of time in the metaphorical sense of transcending the fictional time and reaching a new level of experience, as in Califia with its circular hypertext structure and the transcendence offered by reaching the Ocean. These two strategies may be combined, too, as in Screen, where there is a “forced transcendence” as the fictional world collapses when the reader, inevitably, runs out of time in the game-like interactivity with the text.

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