Iain Pears has always written complex books – his latest, Arcadia, has 10 separate story strands. To make his readers’ lives easier, he turned to interactive technology
Iain Pears, Arcadia, Faber & Faber Fiction, 2015.
Henry Lytten - a spy turned academic and writer - sits at his desk in Oxford in 1962, dreaming of other worlds.
He embarks on the story of Jay, an eleven-year-old boy who has grown up within the embrace of his family in a rural, peaceful world - a kind of Arcadia. But when a supernatural vision causes Jay to question the rules of his world, he is launched on a life-changing journey.
Lytten also imagines a different society, highly regulated and dominated by technology, which is trying to master the science of time travel.
Meanwhile - in the real world - one of Lytten's former intelligence colleagues tracks him down for one last assignment.
As he and his characters struggle with questions of free will, love, duty and the power of the imagination, Lytten discovers he is not sure how he wants his stories to end, nor even who is imaginary...
I undertook the project because I had reached the limit of my storytelling in book form and needed some new tools to get me to the next stage. I have always written novels that are complex structurally; in An Instance of the Fingerpost, published many years ago now, I told the same story four times from different points of view; The Dream of Scipio was three stories interleaved; while Stone’s Fall was three stories told backwards. All worked, but all placed quite heavy demands on the readers’ patience by requiring them to remember details often inserted hundreds of pages before, or to jump centuries at a time at regular intervals. Not surprisingly, whatever structure I chose there were some who did not like it.
And he offers a forceful critique of the current state of electronic publishing: “Ebooks are now quite venerable in computing terms, but it is striking how small an impact they have had on narrative structure; for the most part, they are still just ordinary books in a cheap format.” Before we strut about our adventures in digital media, let’s reflect on that last phrase: “just ordinary books in a cheap format.” O brave new world, which is like the old world, except that you can get it off-price at Wal-Mart.
Pears’s comments prodded me to reflect on just how little revolution there is in the digital revolution. As The Who said, “Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss”. This fact is somewhat obscured in the heavily digital world of STM journals, but even there it is misleading. The PDF is still the coin of the realm, Impact Factor is derided everywhere and worshipped by all, and the budgets of academic libraries continue to demand the greatest strategic attention. Where innovation has taken hold is not so much within the primary content type but surrounding it: altmetrics, new search and discovery tools, and data analytics.
When you look beyond the journals world, what is striking is not how extensive digital inroads are but how they stop at the wilderness of print. So, for example, the college textbook market, which seems a natural for electronic textbooks, now records about 3 percent of its unit sales as ebooks. (College publishers misleadingly report higher figures because they claim a digital sale for anything with a digital component. So a student pays $200 for a print textbook and then goes online for supplemental material. The publishers put that $200 into the digital column.) Trade publishers are running around 25-30% for ebooks, a big number but not a revolution. And that percentage varies widely by category. Linear fiction (especially young adult novels and adult commercial novels) is more heavily skewed to ebooks, but other categories, particularly books that are not straight narrative text, are less likely to be sold in electronic form. University presses, with their complex page makeup — not to mention the predilection of their owners to write in the margins — record about 15% of their sales as ebooks, a figure that is rising.
What Pears’s comments make us see is that there is no reason to publish in digital form unless that form does something that print cannot. The stringing together of multiple narratives, as in Pears’s own work, challenges the limitations of the printed page. This point is not original to Pears; I would point in particular to Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch and John Barth’s Chimera as early experiments in the testing of the limits of the printed page. (Barth himself calls attention to the nested narratives of Tales of the Arabian Nights.) It is not the originality of Pears’s comments that are relevant here, but their timeliness, as digital technology is now ready to make these “experimental” narratives possible. (Disclosure: I am an advisor to Lithomobilus, an early-stage company that is building and marketing a software platform to enable the kind of multiple narratives Pears describes.)
What’s interesting to me about Pears’s situation is that he started with an idea and then set out to develop the tools to manifest that idea. It’s clear from his article that he was not particularly adept with digital technology and found the process of developing the app to be frustrating. I would think that most times innovation flows in the opposite direction: a new tool appears on the scene and people then learn how it can be used (that is, capability precedes innovation). Sometimes those tools are put to unambiguously positive ends; an example would be the close analysis of metadata to enhance online discovery. Sometimes the tools surprise everyone with what they make possible. Think of the digital CD in the music industry. Introduced to improve audio quality and lower costs in manufacturing and distribution, the digital nature of the CD made Napster possible. Had anyone in the music business seen that coming, we would still by purchasing LPs.
For those of us working in academic and professional publishing, the experiments of a literary writer may not seem particularly relevant. I think otherwise. One of the unfortunate aspects of STM publishing today is the assumption that we all know what an article should look like and the only meaningful questions are those about the quality of the content and the ability to find relevant pieces (and cite them and so forth). We are changing how we measure the value of articles (altmetrics) and how we find things (new discovery tools such as Google Scholar), but how has the article itself changed? The article is as much a literary form as a sonnet or an epic poem; the forms enable some things and prove unwieldy for others. I suspect that the multiple narratives of Pears’s fiction will someday find an analogue in expository writing that enables intersections of one theme or thread with another, which would provide, as it were, a new form of discovery.
In the meantime we should give Pears’s latest a chance–and then ponder its implications beyond the world of fiction. You can download the app here. - Joseph Esposito
I began Arcadia – a novel conceived and written for an app – over four and a half years ago when a lot of people were musing about digital narrative. After working my way through three publishers, two designers, four sets of coders and a lot of anguish, I am no longer surprised that few others have done anything about it. I also understand why the NHS database could go five times over budget and not work. What should be a simple task – write story, create software, publish – turns out to be anything but in practice.
I do not even have any natural enthusiasm for computing, which now perplexes me even more than it did when I began, and I certainly did not want to thrust myself into the vanguard of digital innovation. Rather, I undertook the project because I had reached the limit of my storytelling in book form and needed some new tools to get me to the next stage. I have always written novels that are complex structurally; in An Instance of the Fingerpost, published many years ago now, I told the same story four times from different points of view; The Dream of Scipio was three stories interleaved; while Stone’s Fall was three stories told backwards. All worked, but all placed quite heavy demands on the readers’ patience by requiring them to remember details often inserted hundreds of pages before, or to jump centuries at a time at regular intervals. Not surprisingly, whatever structure I chose there were some who did not like it.
As I wanted to write something even more complex, I began to think about how to make my readers’ lives as easy as possible by bypassing the limitations of the classic linear structure. Once you do that, it becomes possible to build a multi-stranded story (10 separate ones in this case) where each narrative is complete but is enhanced when mingled with all the others; to offer readers the chance to structure the book as best suits them. To put it another way, it becomes fairly straightforward (in theory) to create a narrative that was vastly more complex than anything that could be done in an orthodox book, at the same time as making it far more simple to read.
So, the reader can begin with the character of Henry Lytten, an academic, and follow his route as he takes time off writing a story to catch a possible spy; as he writes, the reader can switch to the story of Jay, one of his characters, and the order of reading determines whether Jay’s actions are caused by Lytten’s writing, or the other way round. Or the reader can follow Rosie, who looks after Lytten’s cat until she meets Jay. Or perhaps Angela, a minor character for much of Lytten’s story, who Rosie finally meets and simultaneously never meets. Minor characters can become major ones at will, and central characters become bystanders equally easily.
Keeping control of all these plot lines was difficult, and when moulding them into the software it was vital to keep a strict discipline, making the technology the servant of the story rather than its master; the worst outcome would have been a sort of techno livre d’artiste that generated visual shock-and-awe to the point that the actual story became almost irrelevant. The app was conceived to help the business of reading, not to make the reader go “wow”. Arcadia is ultimately just a story; a tale of three worlds, historical, ideal and dystopian, with a cast of characters whose actions and decisions change and affect their surroundings and interconnect endlessly. It is also about memory and storytelling, and the possibility of drawing together fragments of all the great tales of the world as they are remembered by one or other of the characters.
Ebooks are now quite venerable in computing terms, but it is striking how small an impact they have had on narrative structure; for the most part, they are still just ordinary books in a cheap format. An analogy is the early days of cinema, when film-makers did little more than plonk cameras in front of a stage and film a play. It took some time before they realised that by exploiting the new possibilities the technology offered – cutting, editing, closeups, lighting and so on – they could create a new art form that did not replace theatre, but did things theatre could not. Computing power properly understood and used can perhaps eventually do something of the same; not supplant orthodox books – which are perfectly good in most cases – but come into play when they are insufficient.
Writing Arcadia did produce odd effects in ways that an ordinary book or ebook could not; scenes became more episodic and vignette-like; the demands of shifting from one point of view to another, and then to multiple ones in different worlds, required different ways of writing. Most peculiarly of all, I found that the story was most easily structured by looking at it visually; whole strands were expanded or even deleted simply to create a more pleasing shape in the writing program I was using. On every occasion, the more satisfactory the appearance, the better the story read, and I still haven’t quite figured out how that works.
As the story evolved, so did the design of the app and that, in turn, influenced the story, even though I decided early on to be rather conservative. It has minimal graphics, no music and no animations. The reader does not choose outcomes or influence decisions, and there are no prizes or levels. You read the text; how you see characters depends on how much of it you read, where you start, and whether you read strand by strand, or hop from one to the other.
Above all, the way the strands of story could be mixed or kept separate offered a liberation from those shackles known as genres. It is inevitable that authors, consciously or not, slot themselves into some category or other, and if they do not, others will do it for them. Writing Arcadia loosened those restraints. It is a spy story, a fantasy, a historical novel, a romance, a mythology and a work of science fiction. It is a meditation on literature and narrative, or just a light-hearted romp. Naturally that means that one strand or another, one theme or another, may displease. But you can always leave that bit out. - Iain Pears
Iain Pears, An Instance of the Fingerpost, Berkley, 1999.
In 1663 Oxford, a servant girl confesses to a murder. But four witnesses--a medical student, the son of a traitor, a cryptographer, and an archivist--each finger a different culprit...
"The greatest historical mystery novel I've ever read." Peter Simpson, Ottawa Citizen
"May well be the 'best historical mystery' ever written." Sunday Boston Globe
"The finest pure storyteller working in popular fiction.... We should stop calling him a thriller writer and, as we have done for le Carré, simply call him a great novelist." Malcolm Gladwell
"Theological argument, bibliophilia and code-cracking on the way to a thoroughly surprising conclusion.... The author is unquestionably a learned scholar as well as a nervy and ingenious plot-master." The Atlantic Monthly
England of the 1660s was full of political and intellectual turmoil, speculation, and experimentation?not to mention a cast of colorful and controversial characters. It is firmly within this maelstrom that Pears (The Last Judgment, LJ 2/1/96) has set this massive historical whodunit. A fellow of New College, Oxford, is found dead of arsenic poisoning (from a fancy carafe of brandy), and a young woman of the evening is accused, sentenced, and hanged for his murder. Case seemingly closed. But no, four very different versions of what really happened to the late Professor Grange related by four eyewitnesses to the crime weave a convoluted fabric of religious, scientific, and political intrigue. Basing his novel loosely upon an actual case from the period, Pears pits the key minds of the day?Boyle, Locke, Wren, and others against one another as each takes a shot at gaining from the event. Strange bedfellows indeed. Followers of Brother Cadfael and the works of Anne Perry and Umberto Eco will revel in this smartly paced, rather tongue-in-cheek tour de force. - Susan Gene Clifford
An Instance of the Fingerpost is that rarest of all possible literary beasts--a mystery powered as much by ideas as by suspects, autopsies, and smoking guns. Hefty, intricately plotted, and intellectually ambitious, Fingerpost has drawn the inevitable comparisons to Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose and, for once, the comparison is apt. The year is 1663, and the setting is Oxford, England, during the height of Restoration political intrigue. When Dr. Robert Grove is found dead in his Oxford room, hands clenched and face frozen in a rictus of pain, all the signs point to poison. Rashomon-like, the narrative circles around Grove's murder as four different characters give their version of events: Marco da Cola, a visiting Italian physician--or so he would like the reader to believe; Jack Prestcott, the son of a traitor who fled the country to avoid execution; Dr. John Wallis, a mathematician and cryptographer with a predilection for conspiracy theories; and Anthony Wood, a mild-mannered Oxford antiquarian whose tale proves to be the book's "instance of the fingerpost." (The quote comes from the philosopher Bacon, who, while asserting that all evidence is ultimately fallible, allows for "one instance of a fingerpost that points in one direction only, and allows of no other possibility.") Like The Name of the Rose, this is one whodunit in which the principal mystery is the nature of truth itself. Along the way, Pears displays a keen eye for period details as diverse as the early days of medicine, the convoluted politics of the English Civil War, and the newfangled fashion for wigs. Yet Pears never loses sight of his characters, who manage to be both utterly authentic denizens of the 17th century and utterly authentic human beings. As a mystery, An Instance of the Fingerpost is entertainment of the most intelligent sort; as a novel of ideas, it proves equally satisfying. - Amazon.com Review
Iain Pears, The Dream of Scipio, Riverhead Books, 2003.
In national bestseller The Dream of Scipio, acclaimed author Iain Pears intertwines three intellectual mysteries, three love stories, and three of the darkest moments in human history. United by a classical text called "The Dream of Scipio," three men struggle to find refuge for their hearts and minds from the madness that surrounds them in the final days of the Roman Empire, in the grim years of the Black Death, and in the direst hours of World War II. An ALA Booklist Editors' Choice.
Critic Harold Bloom once opined that literature is a series of misprisions, or misreadings, by writers of their predecessors. Although Pears might not have had Bloom in mind in his latest novel, the premise is an unlikely embodiment of Bloom's thesis. The story unfolds in three time frames, in each of which a man and a woman are in love, civilization itself is crumbling and Jews become the scapegoats for larger cultural anxieties. In the first scenario, Manlius is a wealthy Roman living in Provence in the empire's crepuscular 5th century. Although he has received the last echo of Hellenic wisdom, he is surrounded by believers in a nasty sect he despises Christianity but must find some means to protect Provence from the barbarians. In fighting for "civilization," he becomes a bishop and the promoter, almost accidentally, of one of the West's first pogroms. In the next narrative time period, a manuscript of Manlius's poem, "The Dream of Scipio," a neo-Platonic allegory, is discovered by Olivier de Noyen, a Provencal poet of the 14th century. As his 20th-century interpreter, Julien Barneuve, discovers in investigating his violent death, de Noyen was attacked because he got caught up in a political intrigue in Avignon while trying to save his love, Rebecca, from a pogrom unleashed by the Black Death. Barneuve, Pears's third protagonist, has a Jewish lover, too, but is enmeshed in the racist policies of Vichy France. Pears has a nice sense of what it means to live in a time when things fall apart, and not only the center but even the peripheries will not hold. But the readers who flocked to An Instance of the Fingerpost might not find the pages turning so fast in this less mystery-driven outing. - Publishers Weekly
Iain Pears, Stone's Fall, Vintage Digital, 2009.
John Stone, a man so wealthy that in the years before World War One he was able to manipulate markets, industries and indeed whole countries and continents, has been found dead in mysterious circumstances. His beautiful young widow commissions a journalist to carry out an unusual bequest in his will but as he begins his research he soon discovers a story far more complex than he could have ever imagined...
As the story moves backwards through time, from London in 1909 to Paris in 1809, before concluding in Venice in 1867, the mystery of John Stone's life and loves begins to unravel. The result is a spellbinding novel that is both a quest for the truth, a love story that spans decades and a compelling murder mystery.