Thomas M. Disch - David Lehman Interview
"A Conversation with Tom Disch"
Southwest Review Vol. 73, #2, Spring 1988
by David Lehman
I interviewed Tom Disch on Saturday, November I5, I986, at his Union Square apartment in New York City. Our subject of discussion was Disch's computer novel "Amnesia," which had just been issued by Electronic Arts, a software firm in San Mateo, California. Portions of the interview appeared in my article on electronic novels that ran, under the heading "You Are What You Read," in the January 12, I987 issue of Newsweek.
Disch, 47, is a tall, sometimes bearded, heavyset man who once; played a professional wrestler as a bit part in a movie, never released, of Rosalyn Drexler's Smithereens. He is an extraordinarily prolific and versatile writer. To such novels as Camp Concentration and On Wings of Song, he owes his formidable reputation in science-fiction circles. But much of his fiction, while it plays energetically with the conventions of various genres, eludes easy classification and has won him many admirers among readers who ordinarily hold no truck with genre fiction. Disch is also an accomplished poet, adroit at manipulating verse forms, and with a gift-perhaps better appreciated in Britain than in the States-for using verse as the medium for civilized discourse. He is an unconventional writer, not because he adheres to the principles of this or that self-styled vanguard group - in fact, he stubbornly remains his own man - but by dint of his readiness to embrace new forms of composition and to do so at an impressive level of imaginative alertness. His decision to write a novel for the computer follows from this predilection to appropriate the new and to make it his own. We talk over espresso and poppyseed cake.
LEHMAN: I'd like to begin by asking you about the origins of "Amnesia." Please don't say "I forget."
DISCH:: In a way, it's true: I forget my own life all the time. Books I read twenty years ago I remember much more clearly than the details of my own life. So amnesia was a natural subject for me.
LEHMAN: What name for "Amnesia" do you prefer-an electronic novel, an interactive fiction, or what?
DISCH: Well, I tried to invent a term for it that would work the way "movies" did for motion pictures, because someday, someone will have to invent a term that's less clunky than interactive fiction. My candidate was "microfiction." History will have to decide.
LEHMAN: Have you heard of "participa-stories"? I'm afraid that one won't work.
.DISCH: No. I don't think that's going to work.
LEHMAN: The candidates I've heard - "interactive" ext adventures," "electronic novels," and so forth - don't cut it; each is too much of a mouthful. "Video" would be perfect, but it's already in use. We'll have to wait for lightning to strike. Probably a tabloid journalist will come up with the winner.
DISCH: And we'll all be embarrassed by it. [N. B.: In a piece Disch has since written for The New York Times Book Review, he proposes another candidate: "U-Dun-Its," on the model of whodunits.]
LEHMAN: Back to the origins of "Amnesia." When did you decide to write a novel in the form of a computer game?
DISCH: Glen Hartley, who was working then at Harper & Row, called me in to consult about a software, interactive fiction project they were considering with Cognetics, the company that programmed "Amnesia." And before I did my consulting they had to introduce me to the existing software. The best thing at that point was "Deadline," I believe. I was quite surprised by it. I had a friend who played a primitive version of "Adventure" but it struck me as no more than a glorified maze problem and it didn't excite my imagination. But when I saw "Deadline" I realized that here was the possibility of a new art form. I consulted with Harper'& Row as I was supposed to, and then I went away that summer, and came up with the idea. There's a single page in my 1983 notebook that reads "Amnesia: A Computer Interactive Novel." From that, everything unfolded. Nothing more seemed to be required to convey why that seemed such a good idea. When I went back to Harper & Row in the fall, I had to say little more than that-and they bought it on the spot.
It is the natural subject for the form. There are many thrillers that have been based on the premise of amnesia; it is one of the basic melodramatic ploys thriller writers have at their command. The past life finding out who you are, and what you've done in your past life, and whether you're a guilty creature or a good person - that drama can be played again and again, and it is perfect for. a form of fiction that is addressed to the second person singular, you. It's like the machine is constantly asking the player, who are you? And if you answer in your own person, you'll always be wrong. In order to play the game, you have to become in your imagination the you that I, the writer, am imagining.
In a way, that puts every reader consciously into the situation that the novel reader is in without ever being aware of it. When people are reading a novel, enjoying it vicariously, they become the you of microfiction. And so, in a way, this is popular deconstruction, because it makes everybody consciously aware of the relationship between writer and reader. You're not a reader anymore; you're a player, playing with the author. I have to anticiipate the moves of the player, and play against his anticipated moves; and for the player, it's really a direct intellectual engagement with the author. In a sense, that's what all modem criticism is trying to make fiction. A critic like Barthes is trying to make us read fiction as though it were participatory; you shouldn't be just passively afflicted by the ideas of the author. Criticism is trying to get us to stay mentally alive while reading a book, and not just to-accept the author's fiat as a godly creation that can't be contradicted or changed. So now, with the new technology, it's be¨come possible to have a kind of fiction that does what our criticism demands. And the irony is that it should be happening on the popular level rather than in the upper regions of the intellectual stratosphere.
It seems to happen with every new art form. The first novelists wrote books that were regarded as disreputable. I mean, proper ladies weren't supposed to read French novels in the eighteenth century; they were considered appropriate for housemaids. A novel was not something a well-brought-up person read; if you were well-brought-up, you'd read Virgil over and over and over again. The Elizabethan theater was, again, a very shady bunch of people, by no means respectable. It was a long time before movies became intellectually respectable for critics to write about in a highbrow way. And here we go again.
The nice thing about it is that, when an art form is young, the artist working in that form has a twenty or thirty year period of freedom from critical attention, and that can be very beneficial.
LEHMAN: The nice thing about it is the absence of historical self-consciousness; there's no past to overwhelm one with what's already gone down. I mean, now you have a Brian De Palma whose movies are obsessed with their antecedents. He's a brilliant filmmaker, I think, but a lot of his movies have a hard time escaping from, or transcending, their antecedents. He's an extreme example, but movies now are afflicted, if that's not too strong a word, with a consciousness of their own artifice, their own origins and precedents. You see a movie like David Lynch's "Blue Velvet," which is quite an interesting movie, and you know the filmmaker is terribly aware of the film noir tradition. But if you look at the films noirs of the 19403, they're free of that-they're the original thing. I think that's what you're getting at.
DISCH: It is, yes.
LEHMAN: You have no hesitation in calling this a new art form, I notice.
DISCH: It absolutely is.
There are so many things you can do in a novel that you can't do here, so you've got to forget about those virtues. Just consider the way in which we read the text [of a computer fiction] - it's a series of stops and starts. You can never build up the narrative momentum that you have in a novel. You have a screenful, or at most two screenfuls of prose, and then you have to give the player something to do. You have to keep the sense of that participation alive in the player, or else you're just reading a book in which the computer becomes an electronic pageturner. Properly done, that means that you can never count on the kind of tranced immersion in an imagined story that the novel reader gets. What you have to do instead is create an excitement in the involvement with the player. This requires a whole set of strategies that bear no relation to novel-writing. They're much more like game-playing, but playing a game with someone who isn't there. But it's not just a game either, because the narrative element is, fi¨nally, essential. And so the question of what makes a good paragraph has to be answered in a different way. The units of good writing here are more nearly like the panels of a good comic strip than like the paragraphs of a novel.
You have to create a single, clear, coherent image. And then you also have to be aware of the possibilities of branching, and telling not just a single story but creating an environment in which a story can grow like a houseplant in various directions. You have to be in control of that; as with a houseplant, you have to prune some of those bifurcating limbs. All of these are problems, or possibilities, that ordinary fiction doesn't have to contend with.
LEHMAN: You know who's a good literary antecedent for this? Borges.
DISCH: Certainly one can create a lovely microfiction that would be called "Borges," simply using the elements of his fictional universes, the permutations and combinations there. I think lie's as adaptable as [Arthur C.] Clarkeís "Rendezvous with Rama," which was adapted for interactive fiction, and it's one of the most suitable choices, because that novel's fascination wasn't an ordinary novel's; it simply explored an environment.
LEHMAN: In many ways the computer novel still seems to be in a primitive state.
DISCH: The simplest interactive fiction has very little plot fascination, at this point. The early nickelodeon microfictions were basically environments to explore.
In "Amnesia" you can explore all of Manhattan. For some people the major fascination with. the game is that it's this enormously simulated environment. And that's an essential quality of good microfiction, or whatever we choose to call it. But for some people the maplike feature is the exclusive fascination. There's a new one called "LA," which is a graphic rather than text-oriented game, with this elaborate simulation of Los Angeles. In the future, as memory systems become larger and larger, it'll become possible to create an ever more detailed simulation of an existing environment. I look forward to the day when itíll be possible to have memory systems in our hardware of such power that I can bring out an expanded version of "Amnesia" that will create a totally illusionistic sense of New York, in which every street comer has its own unique experience and is tied to the actual reality of the place. This is a possibility. And because that would be such a huge undertaking, microfictions, like soap operas, will eventually have to be written by teams of writers, because the ideal fiction will have so much text that a single writer I couldn't produce that much work.
LEHMAN: How would you say that your game-novel differs from the early avatars, the text adventures like "Zork"?
DISCH: It does in a variety of ways. For one thing, it's simply larger. The imaginative environment you can explore is larger, and I think it's designed to give an illusion of changing variety. I mean, if you're walking through a city and you come to a certain spot and the same thing happens every time you're there-it's like reading a pop-up book, there's not much surprise the second or third time around. To create an imaginary environment in which surprising things happen is the trip. And I think that "Amnesia" does that better: the illusion of change within a physical environment of large dimensions.
And, then, simply the story. It should be for my critics to say this, but my ambition was to create a story more like the kind that a grown-up would want to read in a book in terms of whether the characters are lifelike, whether the humor is adult, whether the prose is palatable. Infocom's were the best that had gone on before this. The best of those was a pastiche of thirties detectives: it was at the level of Agatha Christie's "Mouse Trap," which is to say, primitive-and you couldn't always say that it was tongue-in-cheek. Sometimes it was just crude, and for reasons that relate back to what I was saying earlier-it's that comic book frame-by-frame.
To create a vivid character in a single paragraph you have to use broad strokes. In order to make a character in a story work quickly, and for the few takes he has when he's on the scene, you'd have to go for pretty grotesque, Micawber-ish brushstrokes. Hardboiled fiction tends to do that; indeed, most popular fiction creates wooden characters out of a set of cliches, and those characters, those cliches, are sort of the bag of tricks of the modem commedia dell'arte. They're in everybody's repertoire. Take a vamp. Any capable hack can create a female character who comes on like Zsa Zsa Gabor in a paragraph or two, and most readers will expand on his cues and "see" a performance much like Zsa Zsa's in the theater of the imagination. Villains can also be conjured up with a few sturdy cliches. Luke, the first villain to appear in "Amnesia," would be a case in point. The moment he enters you know you should hiss.
LEHMAN: It strikes me that it's going to take lot more time to read "Amnesia" from beginning to end than it would take to read an ordi¨nary novel.
DISCH: Oh, yes. The people at Electronic Arts estimate it would take forty hours playing time, from beginning to end. But remember, people are paying more money for this than for an ordinary novel. [As of September 1987, that's no longer true. "Amnesia" had its price cut to about $15 and is accordingly selling a lot better than it did at $40.] I think that in terms of hours of involvement, it's value for money, and also I think a large number of the people who get it are more likely to repeat the experience, especially once you escape the hotel [in the narrative] and enter the simulated Manhattan. That has a model-building interest that's independent of the narrative. I can imagine lots of people spending time fooling around in the simulated Manhattan of the game, whereas you wouldn't do that when you're reading a novel; you wouldn't go back to reread the descriptive passages by themselves.
LEHMAN: The idea of turning the reader into a player, of maximizing his participation in the novel, interests me. It's a form of multiple choice fiction, one could say. The reader has the experience of multiple choices at any and every point. You put it very well when you talked about the second person point-of-view as the central conceit. When you involve the reader to that extent, what you've introduced is a whole series of rewards and penalties into the experience of reading a novel.
LEHMAN: Let me make sure I have my facts straight. Electronic Arts is the producing company. Cognetics is the New Jersey firm that programmed "Amnesia."
DISCH: They and I were independently contracted by Harper & Row to create "Amnesia." And then, halfway through the writing and programming of it, Harper & Row left the software business, and had to keep their leaving of it a secret to their own staff, up to the last minute. Therefore, they went so far as to spend quite a lot of money producing the packaging that never got used, and all the documentation. So that material is sitting-I don't know what's become of it, I suppose it was finally turned into pulp. But they had done the whole run of producing thousands of these full-covered packages for "Amnesia" [before abandoning the project]. I was, as you can imagine, very upset.
This happened at a time when many software publishers were leaving the field. Some of the places where one might have thought to go weren't possibilities, because all their work was done in-house, by salaried personnel instead of by independently contracted artists working for royalties. Infocom at that point was all house-written, for example. So we had to find a company that would be willing to work on the same arrangement as Harper & Row. Cognetics were doing the programming, but they didn't have the capital or distribution system to produce and market the finished product.
In the end, being abandoned by Harper's turned out to be a good thing. Electronic Arts, who adopted the project, is one of the best and most successful producers of entertainment software in the business. They had not yet done any interactive fiction, and when they bought this, they could see they weren't buying a pig in a poke; half of the work was done. When they bought it-and they had a great deal of enthusiasm for it-it wasn't just speculative enthusiasm, since they could see what they were getting. Once the deal with them had been struck, I really had to get working, because in the time when I didn't know whether there was any hope for it, I turned to other projects. I started a film script, for example, based on the same story.
LEHMAN: When I played the novel, there were certain things I noticed that reflect a keen sense of irony and humor - and also seemed to me to reflect your interests as a prose writer and poet. One thing that struck me was that, when the player finds himself naked in the hotel room, he turns on the television and one of the first things he sees is the game show "Wheel of Fortune." What I liked about that was how you restore meaning to that phrase, "Wheel of Fortune," because that aptly describes the situation the player is in; but at the same time there's a fidelity to the actual TV program, where one has to guess names or words on the basis of some letters. So that moment in "Amnesia" works by both metonymy and'metaphor: "Wheel of Fortune" is exactly what the player might find when he turns on the set, and it's also a statement of his condition. Then you repeat the experience, as though it were a leitmotif, when the player gets, as he must, to the sauna area and he sees, instead of "Sunderland Health and Sauna Club," the sign with some of the letters peeled away. Thinking these must be clues, I wrote on a scratch pad that n, t, and s are missing in the "Wheel of Fortune" game and that a whole bunch of letters are missing on the wall of the health club. That seemed to me to have a kind of poetic resonance: that sense of words trying to form themselves out of partial erasures.
DISCH: Later on, youíll get a computer disk out of the hotel safe. Its very important to return to the hotel and ask for something in your safe deposit box. When you do, the safe deposit box opens with a password. Forgotten the password, havenít you? So you have to figure out what word out of all the words there are in the world is the password. Because you have to have that computer disk: it turns out that the story of your life is written on it, and that story is accessed by a series of rhyming riddles/ and they get progressively more difficult. So part of the mid-game fun is getting to the User Friendly Computer Store and accessing your disk on their computer and solving the, riddles/ and that accesses another portion of your lost past life as recorded by yourself. It turns out there was a period in your life when your amnesia was developing in a progressive way; you were losing your memory a byte at a time. And in the period, you took the precaution of writing down what you could remember of your past before it was all forgotten.
LEHMAN: How can you guess the password?
DISCH: Think of what was in the hotel room.
LEHMAN: A TV, a computer, typical hotel furnishings, a Gideon Bible with a reference to John 1. Well, "the Word" is certainly all important there.
DISCH: Okay. How does it go?
LEHMAN: "In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and. . . "
DISCH: You got it.
LEHMAN: So nothing in the story is a red herring?
DISCH: That wasnít.
LEHMAN: How about the stuff you see on the TV, the news broadcasts and so forth? Obviously/ the rioting at the Texas penitentiary is going to be important information. But I also noticed that if you keep turning the channels you get punished.
DISCH: Any non-productive action that is persisted in too long brings punishment.
LEHMAN: I was always clever enough, when I woke up naked in the hotel room, to put a sheet or a towel around me.
DISCH: Yes, thatís what you/re supposed to do. Have you tried to see what happens when you don/t?
LEHMAN: The maid comes in and you blush all over. Do you lose points if this happens, or what?
DISCH: No, but if you go out in the hall without a towel or a sheet, various things can happen, none of them nice.
LEHMAN: I did get out of the hotel, by the way, though it took me long enough.
DISCH: Another thing you can do, if you're interested in awful fates, is take your life rather than face the firing squad. Have you ever met Charon?
LEHMAN: Indeed, and I had to try to figure out my name. Once, I was right when I said my name was "Xavier Hollings" and he said "very good, now what's your middle name?" How was I supposed to figure that out?
DISCH: No matter what you answer when you're in hell, it's not going to help, right? But the object there was simply to create a nightmarish experience in which you keep saying "let me out of there/' and nothing would help-because that's what hell is, isn't it? Nightmares are perfect for a computer game. In "Amnesia," there's also one that takes place in a department store. Both of those situations are what I call "greased slides": no matter what you do when you get into such a situation, the next thing that's going to happen, is going to happen. Your screams are ignored, your blows are futile, and any action you might take is useless. That's perfect for describing a nightmare, that's precisely the feeling of a nightmare.
So I put in a judicious admixture of greased slides in the story. When you get off on one of the cul-de-sacs that leads to your death, and you get taken off to Texas to be executed, you have a choice of your last meal, and each choice is another greased slide, with a few forks along the way to vary it. A greased slide is a railroad track that once you're on it, you can't get off it. It's a series of actions that are participatory but doomed to reach a certain end. They're fun to write. There's also a kind of greased slide that works like a loop: you always wake up and return to the narrative.
LEHMAN: Such as the nightmare you have when you're in the sauna?
DISCH: It's a participatory nightmare in that there are certain choices you have but none of them is especially beneficial.
LEHMAN: "Amnesia" seemed to me to induce paranoia in the player, and that's an extremely addictive condition. My first time playing, I started it at 1:30 on election day, over at my next door neighbor's house, with him looking over my shoulder, and we didn't boot down until nine that evening, though we took about an hour in the late afternoon to vote and have hamburgers at Friendly's. Now there must have been a reason for so intense an involvement, beyond the things we've been talking about. And I would point to the element of paranoia-nameless, unreasoning, unreasonable dread, that we as readers find so contagious and addictive a state of mind. Paranoia is a condition in which what frightens you the most, attracts you the most.
DISCH: It's certainly true of that kind of movie. Think of the popularity of paranoid imaginings not just in thrillers but in a fair amount: of science fiction-like that of Phillip K. Dick, who's one of the modern masters of paranoia. It truly is involving in a way that, for instance, romantic comedy is not. And I suppose it does activate our suspicious natures when we read those things. We have to imagine, why would somebody be doing this to me, what are their motivations? You're always speculating as to why seemingly nice people might not be so nice. It's a habit of mind that conventional morality systematically discourages. We're not supposed to think the worst of people, We're supposed to develop warm and trusting relations with them. A fiction that forces you to do the opposite is releasing an awful lot of repressed material. So it's not surprising that there should be a pleasure in allowing yourself to indulge your paranoid fantasies, vicariously.
LEHMAN: Like your written fiction, the game has a similar emphasis on alternative possibilities, alternative realities, an afterlife being one of them.
DISCH: Well, I'm in the habit of considering a fictional world in which you can move into the afterlife. Everybody, supposedly, credits the notion of an afterlife. But the only novelists who deal with it treat it humorously, as though they were non-believers, which I always thought was odd. I take it as an indication that most people don't really believe in the afterlife, the way they say they do. In fact, they're embarrassed by it as a serious possibility. Otherwise, it would appear in fiction.
LEHMAN: Can we talk about your poetry for a minute?
DISCH: You and I share a similar basic aesthetic in the poetry. It depends upon quick leaps, from sentence to sentence, phrase to phrase, constant shifts of gear, moving fast and making quick curves. An insistence on being surprising: making that a primary value for poetry. It's at the root of my poetry, certainly, and it's the absolute essence of interactive fiction. Every screen in "Amnesia" must occur as a surprise. You always have to be ready to shift off in another direction. You have to be fast on your feet and ready to move responsively and quickly to sudden events as they appear.
I want other writers to get involved doing [interactive fiction]. The pleasure of virgin territory is such a rare pleasure. You literally are doing things that are innovative. How much innovation is there really in written fiction? In interactive fiction, the whole vocabulary of techniques hasn't been invented yet, let alone codified.
LEHMAN: Ready to take out your crystal ball?
DISCH: There can be multi-player interactive fiction games in which you and another player on the same machine, or on machines hooked together to a mainframe, would interact as separate characters, just as three or four people can play "Monopoly." What this requires, of course, is a great deal of RAM memory and a lot of figuring out how it would work. The illusion of entering a counter-world would then be even more persuasive.
You could also hook it up to film worlds via video disks. We'd already have interactive movies if video disks had been more successful at creating a base of users.
All that lies ahead. I think there will be computer networks, like TV networks, in which you interact with an ever-changing story much as you can now tune in to a soap opera.
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