As may be appropriate for a complicated work, this preface turns out to have two parts. This first page is mainly concerned with the work itself and its relationship to electronic literature. The second has a more thematic focus. Feel free to begin there if you like. Taking any default link from the second page will bring you back here. If you change you mind about reading the preface, you can enter the Garden here.

Nearly 31 years after its original publication on diskette, Victory Garden has come to the World Wide Web with the help of the Electronic Literature Laboratory (ELL) at Washington State University Vancouver and The NEXT project of the Electronic Literature Organization. Many people deserve thanks for this.

Though I initially planned a faithful conversion from the work's original platform, Storyspace, to HTML, CSS, and JavaScript, it became clear early on that the Web version should be a distinct work: Victory Garden 2022. I have left the writing and textlink structure generally unchanged but have substantially revised the non-selection or "default" navigation scheme, an important feature of the work. There is also a new reader interface, designed by Andrew Thompson of the ELL, connected to a few hundred lines of JavaScript written by me. There are also more than 150 new images.

Why commit this act of conversion? One answer might draw on paleontology. Hypertext fiction and its brief “Golden Age” can be compared to the explosion of sea life in the Cambrian Period, with works like afternoon, Victory Garden, Uncle Buddy's Phantom Funhouse, Patchwork Girl, Marble Springs, and Figurski at Findhorn on Acid figuring as creatures from the Burgess Shale, odd evolutionary first drafts that remind us of possibilities either abandoned or no longer much in evidence.

Things change. The history of electronic literature, as Leonardo Flores has ably described it, follows the development of computing itself, from elite practices to widespread sociability. The old hypertext fictions were made on and intended for machines whose constant-dollar cost would buy a basic car today. (Jay David Bolter began developing Storyspace on an Apple Lisa, with a list price in the late 1980s around $11k -- Honda Civic money in 2022.)

When people engage with digital literary art now, they are far more likely to use smart phones and tablets, implying a different kind of investment of both time and money. Very roughly speaking, this trend has de-emphasized long-form work like prose fiction in favor of more attention-efficient genres – bots, memes, social-media performances, and the like. When electronic literature does go large, it tends to have a conceptual agenda, setting out to interrogate art, language, and techne itself. I am thinking here of the works produced for National Novel Generation Month, or Nick Montfort and Stephanie Strickland’s Sea and Spar Between, or Allison Parrish’s Articulations.

To be sure, digital narratives have not died out. The genera/genre survives. We could draw a Linneaean line from Rettberg and company's The Unknown and Steve Tomasula's TOC to Tender Claws' Pry and Inkle Studios' 80 Days. It's probably significant that the last item in this series is a highly successful adventure game designed for mobile devices. As dinosaurs survive in the present through their avian branch, so maybe long-form digital fictions make it into this century by becoming games. In addition to Inkle, consider the Twine world, and especially the most recent release of the Harlowe story format, which includes modular, connectable structures called “storylets” that seem designed for larger-scale projects.

But about that dinosaur story. My great gray cat, Bing of the Nebelungs, regularly reminds me he’d gleefully murder all the avian dinosaurs in our garden (this is not permitted), and therein lies an evolutionary lesson: alterations to the ecology matter. Thunder lizard, meet felis domesticus. Things change and the story gets complicated. Maybe fiction can persist in what’s been called the “Ludic Century,” but not without an inherent tension.

For me, the most salient reminder of this tension is Anna Anthropy’s masterpiece, Queers in Love at the End of the World, which I consider (in every sense) The Last Hypertext Fiction. The premise of this work is a link-driven story relentlessly interrupted by a countdown to extinction. As the media critic Claudia Lo has shown, it is possible, with and through persistence, to identify a long-form aesthetic in Queers in Love, but that effect is in no way simple. Any extensiveness in the work happens through an encounter with rupture and erasure, literally sous rature. As the game keeps saying, “Everything is wiped away.” (Which, except for some tailfeathers, is Bing's plan for the starlings.)

Of course, the title of “Last Hypertext Fiction” is inescapably ironic. By manically serializing frustration, Anthropy satirizes the fail-forward principle of game culture. It's a wise move. Progress, survival, and inheritance are convenient tropes for literary history, but a timeline of cause and effect has limitations. Life is not straightforward. As Stephen Jay Gould learned from the Burgess Shales, the “tree of life” is more like a bush -- or indeed a rhizome.

People who make hypertext fictions tend to understand rhizomatics. Scott Rettberg, journeyman of that craft, is no exception. In his survey of electronic literature so far, he writes: "Electronic literature is experimental literature that generates productive tests of particular admixtures of literature and technology, but it is also fundamentally about a sense of play and a sense of wonder" (Electronic Literature, p. 203). These things we make do indeed constitute an Unknown, a set of initial conditions from which we can anticipate certain emergences – but prediction is always tricky. As someone once quoted me saying, “we specialize in surprises.”

“Electronic literature is experimental literature.” This was certainly true of Victory Garden in 1991, written with versions of Storyspace that predated its commercial release. Besides Jay Bolter and Michael Joyce, not many people knew what hypertext might mean for writing. At least one high priest of the new technology found the prospects “doubtful at best.” But “doubtful at best” might be a motto for experimentalists. We are at our best when we begin in doubt, or conditional skepticism. This probably won’t work, but wtf if it does?

Equally important, though, what if it doesn’t? Failure is an option in any experiment, and there is often much to be learned from negative results. Which brings me to the Victory Garden of 1991.

Following the model of the first Storyspace fiction, Joyce's afternoon, I designed the original version with an elaborate system of “default” links that could be activated without a text selection, allowing the reader to navigate through repeated keystrokes – “a wave of Returns,” as Joyce had put it, referring to that key we now know as “Enter.” In Victory Garden, these key-driven readings would differ according to the way the reader traversed an initial series of forking paths called the Labyrinth.

In fact, though, these default paths never worked as intended. As a complete explanation would be tedious, I will just say that default links in Storyspace can overlap and intersect, so that the Paths I laid out tended to run together. It is all but impossible for a reader to follow most predefined tracks. The experience is generally chaotic. Most readers, if the astute critic Alice Bell is any indication, seem to have skipped the Labyrinth in favor of the graphical table of contents (Garden Map) I added just before publication. Which brings me to Victory Garden 2022.

The new version still includes default Paths, the Labyrinth, and the Map, but I have added a new navigational structure that departs significantly from the chaos of the original. This is a set of 43 Streams, sequences of pages that present scenes, events, and riffs (Dene Grigar aptly calls them "routines") as discrete units. These skeins of writing were always present in the work – they were the skeleton over which its strange flesh was originally laid – but they were not until now visible to the reader.

Once Streams were brought to light, it seemed logical to present the reader with a list from which to choose (see Streamlines). This created a further problem: what should be the order of the list? Addressing this problem led me, for the first time, to give Victory Garden a provisional chronology or reçit. Once this order was set, it seemed inevitable to cross the Streams with the old Path structure and create a super-default Path ("Garden") that runs through all the Streams as listed. This path is now available to readers on entry, and can be followed, abandoned, and resumed at will.

The sequence I have imposed remains ambiguous and non-definitive. The fates of several characters will change if the reader steps off the Garden Path. There are clear contradictions even within the path. The work retains all its textlinks (and more), with their capacity for variation and surprise.

Still, facts are facts. I have provided an authorized, 850-page reading order, divided (with handy illustrations) into 43 suspiciously chapter-like parts. The “Streamlines” page might as well be a table of contents. A certain conclusion looms.

I still decline to concede that hypertext fictions are inevitably caught in the gravity well of Planet Novel. This is a major reason the work is still called "a fiction" and not the n-thing. I have to admit, though, that the evidence leans the other way. Perhaps, as our Dedalian teacher knew back in the day, we can only manage arcing trajectories and temporary orbits. Any able flyer must know when to deploy the drogues and stick the landing. Maybe we all wake up sooner or later in some Hotel California, the house of you-can-never-leave.

These reflections suggest a new literary experiment, starting with a set of questions. What happens when you come back to a work that is now nearly as old as you were when you wrote it? How much will either of you have learned in the interval?

Or to put this in more general terms: Is there a phase of experimentalism we might (dubiously) call post-experimental – “post” only in the sense that it comes after initial results, with the arduous benefit of hindsight? In other words, as art rides out on the tidal surge of technology, can we allow for eddies and backflows, moments of recursion that complicate any progress narrative? Is it okay, in the final reckoning, to be a living fossil or a dinosaur in the garden?

Time to feed the cat.

As you were...