The Potential of Ebooks, Part 2: Another Modest Proposal

S. by Doug Dorst & J.J. Abrams
I keep thinking about the novel S. and how Doug Dorst and J.J. Abrams intended it to be a celebration of the printed book—they created an experience calibrated to take advantage of aspects that are unique to printed material.

It has me wondering—how do you create a story that equally celebrates ebooks and takes full advantage of the aspects that are unique to electronic formats?

Part of the challenge with such a goal is that we haven’t even come close to developing the full potential of ebooks yet: multimedia integration, burying easter eggs in the pixels, ereader versions of the Konami Code… There’s tremendous opportunity for a level of interactivity that print simply can’t match and we’ve barely scratched the surface.

I’ve already jokingly discussed a proposal to incorporate multimedia components into ebook horror novels—The Potential of Ebooks: A Modest Proposal

For a few months now, though, I’ve been mulling over a more serious idea:

In the world of science fiction, time travel is a standard narrative trope. Within time travel stories, there’s something called the Grandfather Paradox—if you go back in time and kill your own grandfather, then you won’t ever be born and thus won’t exist to travel back in time to kill your grandfather.

There are many ways that writers get around this issue, one of the more common being to use multiverse theory to split timestreams. There’s even debate over whether or not the Grandfather Paradox is actually legitimate or just a red herring.

I bring this up to open the door to think about narratives in which time—sequentiality, cause-effect, action-reaction—is non-linear and mutable. Stories in which a character’s actions can change the events that lead up to those actions.

It’s like a Choose Your Own Adventure story, but in reverse—instead of changing what comes next, the decisions a character makes will change what happened before.

Imagine it as an ebook…

A character acts, and their action changes what happened earlier in the narrative—and the text erases itself back to the point of divergence, and then rewrites itself as a different story moving forward. The text changes as you read it, as the character acts to change the story.

This could happen multiple times. The book could even erase itself completely at the end.

That would be an utterly unique experience that print could never create.

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