Steve Beard’s Digital Leatherette describes itself as an ambient novel. Set in a cyberpunk world where there is no easily followed plot diagram or narrative, the ambiance is what encourages the reader to progress through the pages. Dealing with all manner of mysticisms, technology, and narrative structures, the novel pushes forward many concepts that only now seem a bit dated considering it was written in 1999. However, it dealt with a few interesting concepts, especially considering the way the novel was written.
Each chapter is a separate e-mail to a secret agent identity, ansa/angel. These e-mails make it so that no linear plot develops, but instead encourages the reader to puzzle together the pieces of narrative to gain an understanding of the world–though it is entirely optional as you can just enjoy the ride. Due to the lack of background knowledge of this futuristic world and the manner in which it very slowly makes things aware of how things run, but not how they reached this point, ambient novel is quite possibly the best way to describe this manner of storytelling. Instead, the reader is presented small vignettes from a movie about John Dee, Edward Kelley (who also later controls Ariel and becomes an allusion to Prospero), and Queen Elizabeth I in a techno-magical world to an interview with Morrissey after he has become an estranged artist who sneers quite readily at his interviewer.
In such a backdrop, Beard easily drops a reference to a virtual art event and the discussion surrounding its inception. This event actually ends up becoming an interactive event, where the ‘players’ are encouraged to compete against Mithras in a race to control the economy and resurrect one’s self as a god in the future. Amusingly enough, Beard points out the similarity wanted from a game like Sid Meier’s Sim City, but concentrating the marketplace rather than metropolises.
It’s the wording around this that is most curious. “All we have to do is make up an allegorical narrative and wrap some cool graphics around it.” Essentially, this game is about the draw, the ludic elements, and the display of the virtual art event. Everything else is an afterthought easily couched in mythology and fantasy.
However, even more wry is the Update on the effect of the game: “Well, the game came out November 5 and it was a smash. Some people wondered whether the combined effect of thousands of networked players having a go at Mithras added up to some kind of psychic attack on the Chamber of London.”
MMO’s are popular. Especially ones that were meant as dadaist pranks and became officially accepted in a literal manner. Considering again the time of publication, this acceptance of the fringe into the corporate entity seems quite prophetic.
The second such instance of a reference to games comes later when an e-mail asks ansa/angel to consider an interaction with Atlantis/MUSH (MultiUserSharedHallucination). The prose is set up exactly as one would expect from a MUSH. Character creation in bio, logging in, checking /who status, and so forth. It continues on to give descriptions of the room, exits, and then proceeds to have the ‘player’ execute certain commands.
This blending of ‘gaming’ and narrative becomes particularly interesting in the trouble spots. Sometimes certain interactions do not work. In switching narrative view, the player is required to log out and into a new identity. It brings to light that switching perspectives in games does not come easily. One must break from one personality in order to inhabit that of another, much as one would do in acting. Instead of a chapter or line break, Beard uses this to illustrate the end of one particular portion of the game and segue into the next. However, each character encounters the next character the player will log, and all these characters were created by the user before stepping into the game itself.
Another particularly catching moment is when the extra-terrestrial hermaphrodite, Nameless, is going through a tower to rescue one portion of this identity’s ‘princess,’ Virginia. While it may sound strange, I could not find myself really thinking it was any stranger than some of the premises old adventure games would have placed a character who happened in on the later portion of the narrative. While going to each of these towers and encountering Virginia, Nameless goes through the same narrative.
The door has four options: Press bell, Push gate, Bang door, Pick lock. Going through the same motions each time, Nameless illustrates just how redundant certain games can be. While it is something we can seemingly accept in games, it made me realize how my speed reading skills immediately kicked in and I began noticing when the pattern would diverge, and paid little attention to this repetitive structure that manifested itself. Afterward I even reread the passages to see if Beard perhaps managed to sneak in some tidbits to purposefully reward the stalwart.
No. The connection seems to be recognizing the grind we go through in games. We will happily go through the same narrative multiple times if it means we progress the plot or somehow aid our own avatar. This creates a conundrum. It certainly was not fun to read. What makes it fun to experience?
Do our minds similarly ‘skim’ these portions of games in an effort to move on to the next time we may encounter the divergent path in the narrative?
If you can manage to find a copy and are not afraid of stream of consciousness novels told via e-mails that depict an ethno-technical cyberpunk world which revels in mythology, theater, and mysticism along technology, user interfaces, and raves, I would recommend you give this one a go. Personally, I gave it 4/5 stars.
Many thanks to my friend Josh, who encouraged me to read it by lending his copy.