Mongoliad, nanotech novelists: Neal Stephenson and Greg Bear, and e-lit futures

Kit Eaton at Fast Company recently featured  some information about a ‘new’ novel (both in form, it’s an app and in content, it’s being written by Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear, and others). From Eaton’s May 26, 2010 article,

Late yesterday in San Francisco, at the SF App Showcase, a sneaky little startup company called Subutai demonstrated some of the tech that’ll be going into the Mongoliad app. This oddly-named creature is actually what we’re interested in–a reinvention of the novel as a serialized publication through a dedicated app. Stephenson isn’t the only one taking part, as both Greg Bear and Nicole Galland will be writing too, but Stephenson is really the core of the project.

This is exciting, as anyone who’s familiar with his [Stephenson] Diamond Age novel will attest: This book imagines a future where a super-smart, partially artificial intelligent book is created, and acts as a young girl’s life guide. The hope is, obviously, that Stephenson uses his imagination to leverage novel and unexpected aspects of smartphone or tablet PC tech to transform the resulting publication into something surprisingly new … possibly even more of a transformation than paper-based magazine publishers are attempting as they rejig their content models towards the iPad. Words like “para-narrative,” “nontextual,” and “extra-narrative” certainly suggest this.

Both Stephenson (Diamond Age, 1995) and Bear (Blood Music, 1988) wrote, at a fairly early stage,  stories/novels that featured nanotechnology. For example, Diamond Age’s  ‘partially artificial intelligent book’ is made possible with nanotechnology. Unfortunately, no details about the novel’s content were revealed either in Eaton’s article or on the company’s, Subutai, website. Eaton’s article does offer this,

Speaking at the SF event yesterday Subutai’s CE Jeremy Bornstein revealed that there would be gaming and social media events wrapped around and inside the novel, and even demoed a user profile page that included a measure of a user’s “standing” in the Mongoliad community. There was also scope for users to “rate” portions of the story as it progresses. And while it seems that user interaction won’t play a role in the actual text of the publication, it’s going to be such a blended-media thing that this means user’s inputs still affect the overall performance.

This doesn’t sound like anything outside of the ordinary community-building exercise that many authors and media publishers are engaged in these days but, as you can see in the first excerpt from Eaton’s article, they’re hoping Stephenson will come up with an unexpected way to exploit the capabilities of mobile technology.

As for the show where Mongoliad was announced, here’s a little more information about it (from an article by Daniel Terdiman on CNET’s geek gestalt blog,)

On Tuesday night, Socolow and Dale Larson, his partner in a consulting firm called SF App Studio, hosted the sixth iteration of their app showcase, the SF AppShow. And before a packed house of more than 200 people–their biggest crowd so far–at the famous 111 Minna Gallery here, the two gave a series of app developers the chance to get up on stage and take six minutes to explain their projects.

Part DiggNation, part Demo, and part real-world App Store front end, the SF AppShow seems to have a growing influence in the world of app development–be it for Apple’s iPad or iPhone, Google’s Android, or the BlackBerry–and the people who create the mobile products and evangelize them.

This all brought to mind Kate Pullinger, a writer who works both in the traditional media (she won the 2009 Governor General’s [in Canada] award for literature, The Mistress of Nothing) and is well-known for digital novels such as Inanimate Alice. This is from her April 29, 2010, posting titled, A Writer’s View of the Future of Publishing,

Over the past ten years I’ve been deeply enmeshed in discussions about the future of writing, and the myriad ways in which the new technologies have the potential to change literature. My interest is in text, and what happens to text when you put it on a screen alongside the full range of media computing offers. I write ‘digital fiction’, works that are not digital conversions but are ‘born digital’, using text and multimedia to tell a story that is meant to be viewed on a screen.

However, as well as digital fiction, I also write books – novels and short stories – and have been functioning as a writer within the traditional publishing industry for more than twenty years. I’ve watched as the publishing and bookselling industries have struggled to come to terms with the new technologies and what they have to offer to both readers and writers. I’ve had many discussions with agents and publishers about what the future will hold. I’ve stumbled down my share of blind alleys, waking up to discover that last night’s certainty (fiction for UK mobile phones!) is this morning’s well-that-was-a-dumb-idea (fiction for UK mobile phones!).

Kate first wrote this piece for The Literary Platform (from their About page),

The Literary Platform is dedicated to showcasing projects experimenting with literature and technology. It brings together comment from industry figures and key thinkers, and encourages debate.

The key word circulating in book publishing at the moment is ‘experiment’. The showcase will demonstrate how traditional publishers and developers are experimenting with multimedia formats, how established authors are going it alone, how first-time novelists are bypassing publishers and how niche literary magazines are finding wider audiences.

Getting back to Mongoliad, I look forward to following the project’s progress especially in light of Kate’s comments about fiction for mobile phones, “last night’s certainty (fiction for UK mobile phones!) is this morning’s well-that-was-a-dumb-idea (fiction for UK mobile phones!).”

Two final comments. First, I was a student of Kate Pullinger’s at De Montfort University’s Masters of Creative Writing and New Media programme, which is now defunct. Second, I got curious about Subutai and it turns out it’s the name for a Mongolian general (from the essay on New World Encyclopedia which, in turn, has been modified from an essay originally found on Wikipedia)

Subutai (Subetei, Subetai, Sübeedei; Classic Mongolian: Sübügätäi or Sübü’ätäi) (1176–1248), also known as Subetai the Valiant, was the primary strategist and general of Genghis Khan (Temüjin) and Ögedei Khan. The son of a blacksmith, he rose through the ranks and directed more than 20 campaigns during which he conquered (or overran) more territory than any other commander in history. He gained victory by means of imaginative and sophisticated strategies and routinely coordinated movements of armies that were more than 300 miles away from each other. He is most remembered for devising the battle plan that destroyed the armies of Hungary and Poland within two days of each other, by forces almost a thousand miles apart.

I am amazed that someone who didn’t have telephones, telegraphs, or any other form of communication (pony express?) that could have traversed 1000 miles within two days to give updates and deal with changing conditions managed to destroy two armies at that distance from each other.

2 thoughts on “Mongoliad, nanotech novelists: Neal Stephenson and Greg Bear, and e-lit futures

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