By Mark Athitakis
April 19th, 2013
Editor’s Note: For those who have been reading or following The Silent History, a serialized fiction experience delivered via iPhone/iPad app, then you know that the main narrative concludes today, more than 6 months after the October 2012 launch. We asked Mark Athitakis (@mathitak)—a writer, editor, critic, and blogger—to review the project.
The developers of iPad book apps have exploited public-domain literature of all sorts, but no one book seems to have captured their imagination quite like Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein. An app produced by the New York Public Library is stuffed with commentaries and original documents connected to the 1818 gothic tale, including a reproduction of Shelley’s handwritten manuscript. A lush rewrite produced by the British design firm Inkle gave the novel a choose-your-own-adventure cast, allowing readers to inhabit the minds of Dr. Frankenstein and his monster alike. A Brazilian-produced app called Frankie for Kids retools the story for tweens, using animation and sound effects to lesser effect, but proving further that this particular monster refuses to die.
Why so much interest in Shelley’s tale, when so many other free and familiar options abound? (No similarly rich options relating to, say, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or A Tale of Two Cities are currently on offer in the App Store.) Maybe everybody loves a horror story. Or maybe developers have found the Frankenstein story an apt metaphor for what the iPad reading experience represents: a shift in human behavior, a rewiring of an action as simple and familiar as reading, and its new relationship to technology. Something new, grafted onto the old. As University of Southern California professor Henry Jenkins says of Frankenstein in a Q&A on the NYPL app, the novel is “centrally concerned with the limits of knowledge and the disruptive potentials of technology.”
Inhumanity versus humanity, humanity versus technology, technology versus narrative—there is, now, an app for all that. The more time I spent with The Silent History, an interactive e-book for the iPad and iPhone, the harder it was for me to avoid connecting it with Shelley’s novel, both in terms of its story and in what it suggests about how we relate to storytelling. Released last October, the novel is framed as a series of dispatches about the emergence of humans born without the capacity for language. Told in brief “Testimonials” by a host of characters—27 of them, each with less or more importance to the story—it tracks the phenomenon of “silents,” and the public’s shifting attitudes toward them, from 2011 to 2041.
The primary instinct when assessing a new piece of electronic storytelling is to consider how fully it employs the new options available to it, rather than anything about its inherent virtues. So the most meaningful question relating to The Silent History—is it any good?—has to take a back seat to other questions. But those questions are important too, and the “good”-ness of the novel (which we’ll get to) is in many ways a function of those other questions.
Is it user-friendly? Very much so: The chapters, a new one released every weekday, are brief and punchy, designed to be consumed without too much effort during commutes or waiting in line. (The former smoker in me thinks of them as cigarette-break long.)
Is it well-designed? That too. The app’s colorful design corrals the Testimonials into elegant circular holders; tapping a wedge in the circle calls up the particular author, location, and date of the chapter, and a button within each entry lets you see all previous entries contributed by that narrator. A slick introductory video cleanly establishes the story’s Frontline-ish, now-it-can-be-told tone. When a new chapter is ready at 6 a.m. Eastern time, the app plays a tone, brief enough to be unobtrusive but somber enough to get your attention—true to the book’s dystopian mood, it’s a chord in the key of “uh-oh, something’s just happened.”
Is it interactive? Audaciously so. The app’s makers have designed it to accommodate “Field Reports” by readers that are meant to supplement the Testimonials. And the makers have insisted that both the Field Report writers and their consumers get as site-specific as possible. In order to read a particular contribution, you must physically be where the report is pinned on the map included in the app. As I write this, there are more that 250 Field Reports available, including 25 in the San Francisco Bay Area, 34 in and around New York City, 19 in London, and 13 in Brisbane, Australia. In the Washington, DC, area, where I live, I have access to only one Field Report. And it turns out I don’t have access to it: Its pin appears to be dropped inside the Oval Office, and a civilian like myself can’t get past the White House gates and close enough to access it.
But in a way, that’s only shown how well the app has done its job. I want to know: How did the President respond to an epidemic of silence in 2015, when a whole generation of parents had begun to go mad with heartbreak and confusion?
For nearly two decades, the Testimonials explain, the chief response to the silent epidemic (“Emergent Phasic Resistance,” to use the official term) was fear and contempt. The epithet mutetard became common. The silents mostly kept their own council, gathering in groups small and large, baffling onlookers. By the early 2020s it becomes clear that the silents have developed their own means of communication involving facial expressions. But while researchers see a communication breakthrough in those tics, the torches-and-pitchforks crowd sees only further evidence of the silents’ inherent monstrousness. One regular Testimonial contributor, Margaret Lafferty, launches an anti-silent group out of concern that they’re scheming. “Those moon-faced kids staring and squinting and twitching at each other, like their skin’s being prodded by underneath wires, and who even knows what they’re transmitting?” [6.2]
To the central (and Frankensteinian) question the plot raises—can we, should we, take the not-quite-human and make them fully human?—arrives neuroscientist Dr. August Burnham. Skeptical about the virtues of face-talking as a language (“it just doesn’t have the potential to escalate” [5.3]), he pursues a translation mechanism, hitting pay dirt in 2034 with a device he calls the Soul Amp, which grants silents the ability to speak. When he tests it on an early patient, Calvin Andersen, his speech stuns his parents, who “slid off their chairs and knelt on the floor as if God himself had entered the room.” [13.2]
The Soul Amp takes off—by the late 2030s it’s Federal law that all silents be implanted with one, and the story’s central tension is in the rise and fall of the device. Calvin reports that he was initially thrilled to speak: “[T]he implant had lifted me up above the treetops and allowed me to soar freely in the sky where I could take in the whole endless horizon.” [13.5] Four years later, though, with implants managed by a central computer and tools allowing tweaks to silents’ voice and diction, some kind of puppeteering is going on, and Calvin is poised to revolt from Burnham: “[B]ecoming his living experiment has in no way set me free. I am not a happier person. My soul is not singing.” [18.2]
As with many novels that alternate among a cast of narrators—and here’s where the “is it any good?” question enters the discussion—the reader winds up being invested less in the character that’s speaking than with the milieu he or she occupies. How, exactly, did Calvin’s mood shift from liberation to oppression? We’re never sure—there are too many other Testimonials in the mix to let the reader feel fully invested in just his. The four-year gap between reports from him is filled with plenty of scenes, but nothing about the shift in his emotional pitch. That sketchiness is the chief flaw in The Silent History—because each entry is so brief, and hews so closely to official-transcript style, the story acquires a tonal similarity that flattens Margaret’s high dudgeon and August’s arrogance and Calvin’s frustration. Too long to serve as an imitation of a punchy oral history and too brief to serve as chapters, the Testimonials become subservient to the app’s larger need to keep the story moving, and establish an overall mood of anxiety across the country.
Which is itself pretty flat, even though the Testimonals are datelined all over the country, from Maine to Brooklyn to Northern California, where the first successful silent schools and communes took root. How much has America changed in the 30 years tracked by the novel? Hard to tell. There are hints that the America of the future has become increasingly influenced and perhaps bested by Asia—violence in Pusan is mentioned, kids listen to Kazakh black metal and “Pho Hop,” adults watch Noh theater and Indonesian knife fights—but the epidemic of silents appears to be the nation’s chief concern. There are vaguely apocalyptic noises—hunkering down in missle silos, raids on central servers—but the armies of doom that such dour circumstances imply don’t come into view.
Such sketched-out storytelling is essential to The Silent History as a project—it is a feature of the app, not a bug. In order to accommodate a variety of perspectives from outside contributors, the core text needs to strip itself of some of its own authority and lend it to those who might contribute Field Reports. And what the creators want out of the Field Reports is not narrative thrust but a contribution to an overall vibe—that the epidemic of silents can happen anywhere. Indirection and vagueness are the stock-in-trade of the horror story, of course—they free us to project our own terrors onto the story. What The Silent History has done is engineer itself to accommodate a universe of projections beyond our own. Consider the writing guidelines produced by the creators of The Silent History for the field reports: “The technological aspects of this project should provide an opportunity to look outward, not further downward,” they explain.
To rephrase that a bit more bluntly: The Silent History is engineered to privilege breadth over depth. The story has its share of engaging characters who retain a novelistic consistency and integrity. I was particularly taken with Francine Chang, who winds up in California’s Bohemian Grove, transformed from a masters-of-the-universe playground to a commune of silents. But her stability is a counterpoint to the silents, whose behavior constantly shifts across the decades: They morph from a compassionate if odd clique to a children-of-the-corn-ish murderous tribe. Is this an autonomous demographic category or victim of talking humans’ meddling? Ultimately, they are whatever readers (or, more to the point, the Field Reporters) say they are. A pair of Field Reports set in 2018 foreground only the inscrutability of the silents. One is written by a boy who’s been barred from hanging out with a silent girl who’s “caged-up” and kicking at the wall of her room. In another, a woman observes a homeless man, a “neighborhood mascot” who inexplicably becomes a magnet for the silents: “Twenty, thirty kids crowded on that sidewalk, and him sitting in the middle, enormoums and beaming and chattering, them staring at him, rapt, absolutely adoring.” That there’s no evidence of the silents behaving in so cultic a manner with “normal” people in the core narrative doesn’t matter; the app is engineered to contain multitudes.
That’s a troubling way to treat the core characters in what would add up to a 500-page novel in print. The horror of Frankenstein’s monster was in the gap between his urge to be fully human and his inability to transcend inherent monstrousness. When it gains the ability to speak, he revels in his newfound potential to connect: “I imagined that they would be disgusted, until, by my gentle demeanour and conciliating words, I should first win their favour and afterwards their love,” he tells his creator. The silents have no analogous clarity of purpose. So when a central plot thread involves a silent couple’s effort to save themselves and their child from implantation, where are readers supposed to place our sympathies? Especially if they never have the opportunity to tell their stories? By its closing chapters, this feels less like a carefully cultivated ambiguity and more like a purposeful slackening to accommodating interactivity. Art for app’s sake.
It is the duty of the creator of any book app to assume that whatever sense of immersion we enjoy in a conventional book can be improved upon. More things to become immersed in, the logic goes, means more immersion, which means a better book. The makers of The Silent History have considered this matter carefully. It’s not promiscuous with bells and whistles. But it strongly favors a popular buzzword in publishing circles: community. The Field Report model is designed to give the book’s consumers something to contribute, which in turn is designed to be talked about. The site-specific demands on readers serves a viral function as well as a gatekeeping one, and adds a dash of gamification (to use another buzzword) to the book.
The book app as a concept will perfect itself when their makers recognize how to address each of these opportunities for the needs of its stories. Where The Silent History struggles is in weakening its core narrative to accommodate others’ attempts to shore it up. “As you’re writing your field reports,” the app guidelines explain, “ask yourself if the entry could plausibly be read and enjoyed in any random location; if so, you’re probably not sufficiently utilizing the actual experience of the setting.” This mandate could be the future of literary fiction, or little more than a glorified walking tour supplementing it. How much of the narrative thrust of a story should a novelist give up for the sake of other contributors? The Silent History is an argument that storytelling needs to make concessions to the crowd in the name of “engagement.” (It may say something that the app doesn’t emphasize who actually wrote it; the names of its four lead contributors are tucked in the app’s credits section.)
In 2040 an arrogant Dr. Burnham makes a statement about his work: “I want to be memorialized not as a puppet master but as an innovator, a codebreaker who breached the steel walls guarding the delicate machinery in the human brain that creates pure language.” The makers of The Silent History are after something similarly audacious, rewiring the narrative experience in a new way. But we readers are meant to understand that Burnham’s comment is soaked in hubris, and there’s a clear lesson in his failure: He should have known that his creation would revolt against attempts to rewire human nature. There’s a classic novel about that. A few variations on it are available in the App Store.
About the author: Mark Athitakis is a writer, editor, critic, and blogger who’s spent more than a dozen years in journalism. His work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, Washington Post Book World, Chicago Sun-Times, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Washington City Paper and many more publications. His blog, American Fiction Notes, launched in January 2008, has been honored as a Top Ten Book Blog by Readerville’s Karen Templer and one of 10 Really, Really Smart Literary Blogs by the Elegant Variation’s Mark Sarvas.
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