(Last modified 7 July 1997.)

Wanderjahr: Sidebar 2

Location: Edmonton
Date: 6/24/97

This is a digression, about a hypercard stack that turned out to be something very different from what I originally believed. (I'd intended to run various sidebars as adjuncts to the main travelogue, but have only done so once previously; still, this item seemed like the right sort of thing for a sidebar.)

Uncle Buddy's Funhouse is a Hypercard stack, which is to say (for those unfamiliar with the Macintosh) a hyperlinked set of "cards" very much resembling a set of Web pages packaged and distributed as a unit (you install it on your own disk, rather than requesting a page at a time from a server). The hit game Myst is largely a well-produced Hypercard stack, which gives some idea of the potential of the medium, a potential which has thus far gone largely unexploited in my opinion. It seems to me that Hypercard has largely been supplanted by the Web, which is easier to create for and more easily accessible.

This particular stack was a review copy that PJ received a few years back. It started out by claiming that Art "Buddy" Newkirk, a writer, had disappeared, and stating that he'd requested that you (the reader/player) be given the enclosed materials. I assumed at first that it was a game, the object of which was to figure out what happened to "Uncle Buddy." I clicked my way through the stack: it included an issue of a computer poetry magazine; a reprinted-by-permission review of the music of an obscure band called "the reptiles" (of which Newkirk was a member); a partial screenplay written by Newkirk; a rambling disjointed piece of email from Newkirk's friend Emily (with whom he seemed to be somewhat obsessed); and "The Fictionary of the Bezoars," an illustrated hypertext glossary detailing the exploits, philosophies, and in-jokes of a group of Syracuse University drama students, philosophers, and hackers in the late '80s. I gradually came to the conclusion that this Newkirk guy, one of said SU alums, had taken a sort of snapshot/cross-section of his real life, the sort of thing one would expect to find on a Web site these days, and turned it into a hypercard stack (with, for no reason I could discern, this framing device about him disappearing; bait, I guessed, to get people interested). There was an enormous amount of detail, some of it fairly mundane, which gave a strong feel for what Newkirk's life was like. There was also some odd software included as part of the stack: a program that randomizes the order of words in a text file (called "Burrows," with an icon of a burro, named after William S. Burroughs); an interactive zoomable world map that didn't work very well; a modern Tarot system with an entirely new set of cards. The art was all squiggly computer line art; you could tell what things were supposed to be most of the time, but obviously not drawn by a professional. Oh, and the package had originally arrived with a cassette tape of music by the reptiles.

I had pretty much given up on the stack as kinda-interesting-but-not-worth-serious-perusal when PJ told me the password to the password-protected section. (It's supposed to give you a hint to the password, in a cool wordgame I saw later, but for some reason it didn't offer me the hint, so I never would've guessed it. And by the way, a piece of the Fictionary of the Bezoars, as it turned out, would've been very useful in figuring out the password.) That section, called "Auntie Em's [something, I forget what] House" was a topsy-turvy version of the first section, viewing each part of the Funhouse through a distorted mirror. "Auntie Em," it became clear, was Newkirk's friend Emily, who had written/created this second section. The second section was much smaller than the first and largely incomprehensible (though occasionally entertaining), but contained two particularly notable bits: a newspaper clipping from the late '80s about the death in a car crash of two SU students (one of whom was named Arthur Newkirk), and the section mirroring Emily's email from the first set, which was the most lucid and fascinating piece of prose in the whole stack, a compelling explication of Emily's relationship with her (now dead) father, who'd been an influential writer of the '60s who took pains to hide his real name from the general public.

I began to be more interested in Newkirk and his friends, as pieces began to fit together. I didn't have the complete picture yet, but felt that spending a few more hours perusing the stack would eventually reveal the complete picture. I found a text piece, not actually part of the Hypercard stack, which turned out to be a biographical note from/by/about Newkirk, saying that he was now a professor in Rhode Island, talking about his interest in hypertext, listing some of his favorite authors. It became clear to me that Newkirk was somebody I would like; I determined to track him down on the Web, send him email, and find out whether he'd done anything with the Web to compare to this Hypercard stack.

So a couple days later I did an Altavista search for Arthur "Buddy" Newkirk. And rapidly found out something that stunned me, that I refused to believe until the evidence became overwhelming:

Newkirk is entirely and completely fictional.

Uncle Buddy's Funhouse is a work of hypertext fiction created by a guy named John McDaid. It's published by a company called Eastgate, who also publish several other hypertext fictions. I assume that McDaid shares some of Newkirk's background (that would explain the audiotape, anyway), but presumably not all of it. I don't think I've ever encountered a fictional character before whom I was this convinced was real... I haven't contacted McDaid yet; I'm not quite sure what I'll say to him when I do. It was a disorienting and disturbing experience, and I'm not at all sure what I would've thought of the stack had I known from the start what was going on. (Imagine that you're surfing and you come across a large Web site -- couple of hundred short pages, of the sort you can find attached to any homepage on the Web but a little more extensive than most -- which give you a fairly complete picture of the site's author; and then you learn said author doesn't really exist. How would you feel?) It tied in nicely with some things I'd been pondering about respecting privacy in fiction and about creating artificial personas for online interaction, but I haven't come to any useful conclusions on those points yet. A fascinating experience, and one that scrambles my previous paradigms about hyperfiction.

Okay, enough. Back to the travelogue.


Jed Hartman <logos@kith.org>