Twenty years on from the publication of Janet H. Murray’s Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace, The MIT Press have published an updated edition of the book originally published by The Free Press in 1997. That the book is deserving of such an update is not in question, its impact on those working on literature, narrative, technology, and games, was and remains significant (as is easily demonstrated by its ever- growing number of citations) and it well deserves its position as a landmark of literary criticism and digital culture.
On its original publication, the book was described as ‘a provocative yet cautious meditation on the possibilities and ramifications of encounters between traditional literature, characterized by the Melancholy Dane, and emerging computer technologies, represented by the holodeck’ (Kirkus Reviews). Cautious it may have been, but it was notable for the optimism with which it approached narrative’s digital future. As Murray notes, [t]he birth of a new medium of communication is both exhilarating and frightening’ (1) and it is indicative of the book’s overall tone that it is ‘exhilaration’ that Murray put first. ‘It seems to me,’ she wrote, ‘quite possible that a future digital Homer will arise who combines literary ambition, a connection with a wide audience, and computational expertise’ (260). This reference to Homer, in line with the book’s title, was undoubtedly intended to grab attention and provoke discussion, but it is also indicative of the book’s origins in literary culture and theory, and a deliberate fusing of print and digital, ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture. That we find ‘Shakespeare, William’, nestled between ‘Sex, virtual’ and ‘Shatner, William’ in the book’s index gives a fair sense of the range of reference, and its provocative strategies. The result was (is) a book that’s highly readable, thought-provoking, and sensibly-speculative.
For those unfamiliar with Murray’s argument, Hamlet on the Holodeck offers a ‘manifesto for emerging creative practice’ (x) that takes a long view of the future of narrative as it develops within, alongside, and out of, emerging digital technologies. (Those looking for a detailed summary might be advised to look to Patrick J. Cook’s 1999 review ‘Cyberdrama in the Twenty-First Century’). Murray’s is a largely-positive vision that of a future in which ‘digital formats can provide an expansion of our storytelling powers’ (359).
Writing in 1987, and noting the arrival of the ‘modern computer,’ Murray asked, ‘Can we imagine the future of electronic narrative any more easily than Gutenberg’s contemporaries could have imagined War and Peace or the Parisian novelty seekers of 1895 could have imagined High Noon? (82-3). Now, twenty years on, some of the book’s future-oriented conjectures have been, or are in the process of being, realized. This to the extent that Murray prefaces the new edition with an anecdote in which a friend advises her to update the book with a three-word tweet: ‘I was right!’ (ix). While much remains to be seen for before this claim can be validated (which it must be said isn’t a claim that Murray herself actually makes), it’s now clear that Murray was asking the right questions of the directions that storytelling might take. The sense that our stories might become increasingly participatory, interactive, and playful certainly fits with contemporary modes of narrative, even while at the same time traditional forms of storytelling, such as the film and the novel show little sign of waning.
In the new edition the original chapters are left intact, with updates offered at the end of each section (each of which comes with a useful set of updated references). Thus Murray’s arguments can be read both as they stood in the late 80s alongside insights derived from nearly 20 years of reflection and commentary. Updating the book in this way makes a great deal of sense, retaining the full sense of the book’s original position in literary/digital history while allowing Murray the opportunity to explain and develop her argument in response to both her critics and the rapidly-changing technological landscape. There’s also something extremely engaging in overhearing the dialogue between ‘Murray 87’ and ‘Murray 17.’
Hamlet on the Holodeck, then, remains a lively and provocative read, and MIT’s reissue offers more than simply the chance to revisit a keynote in the history of digital narrative. Its once-contentious moves (see Murray’s: ‘Who’s Afraid of the Holodeck?’) may seem familiar, but its questions around the impact of the digital on storytelling are now, more than ever, a live issue.