Never mind the classics and sci-fi; poetry is going virtual too

The latest from the world of ebooks

A different kind of beast: the interactive Frankenstein, by Dave Morris

A different kind of beast: the interactive Frankenstein, by Dave Morris


In the battle between digital fiction and paperbacks, at first glance the ebook appears to lose out. Research regularly finds that, for fiction readers, the ereader’s function is merely convenience, a way of transporting a personal library with ease. Fiction demands immersion in an imagined world and, as a rule, a reader prefers to experience the writer’s world unmediated. From the reader’s perspective, technological interfaces distract from, rather than enhance, the experience of getting lost in a story. Of course, that depends on the type of story being told.

The most common digital format for fiction is the standard ebook, which offers nothing more than an e-ink version of a traditional book. However, publishers have slowly been experimenting with the possibilities offered by enhanced ebook models, and the opportunity they offer for providing the reader with extra content. The most obvious place to start was with the classics, where the reader would be more likely to be interested in the context of the book as well as the story. The recent issue of A Clockwork Orange (Random House for iPad, £9.99), for example, combines interactive text with archival documents and video and sound recordings. If you are struggling to decode Burgess’s Nadsat slang, you can get instant integrated translations. If you are rereading, or studying, the book, extras include being able to flick through the original annotated typescript and commentary by Burgess’s heirs, including Martin Amis.

Frankenstein , by Dave Morris (Profile Books, £4.99), is a different kind of beast, whose innovations are just as educational in aspiration, but more playful. This interactive book offers period etchings and medical sketches to illustrate Shelley’s scientific story, but the best addition is the way Morris’s original story makes you a character in the novel too, although there are certain powers – such as altering the story’s end – that remain outside of your control. Although classic work is widely available for free in ebook form from sites such as Project Gutenberg, it seems to be only a matter of time before these enhanced versions become the standard for classic literature, which is often first experienced in an educational setting.

The addition of videos, hyperlinks and extra content to new fiction, however, is more problematic, and often feels like an unwelcome distraction. Do we really need to know about an author’s creative approach while we are reading his or her latest novel? Iain Banks, who this week told us the sad news of his illness, is one writer to have his own iPhone app (Little Brown, free), which enables readers to access free extra content that complements his books, whether in paperback or digital format.

Regular features of this type of fiction enhancement include soundtracks or original soundscapes, which are less prescriptive than the inclusion of images. There are rumours that new technologies are being developed to provide more literal soundscapes to ebooks – the sound of whistles blowing at train-station settings, for example – though these future interfaces are not unlike the noise-generating books beloved of toddlers.

Unsurprisingly, science fiction is the genre that has most thoroughly embraced digital possibilities; it typically involves futuristic technologies and multiple universes in multiple time zones. Digital editions often allow the reader to move back and forth at their own pace between time-spaces and settings, the way they might in a role-playing video game. The enhanced edition of George RR Martin’s historical fantasy Game of Thrones (Harper Voyager, £3.67), for example, takes advantage of such digital offerings, with interactive genealogy and a one-touch map that allows you to keep track of what’s happening in Westeros or King’s Landing at any time, as well as the standard audio clips.

The future of fantasy in digital format, meanwhile, is particularly exciting, potentially allowing for an enormous amount of author-generated content to be made available to the reader. Think of the possibilities for the work of Tolkien, for example, whose committed readership would relish the inclusion in a single device of his voluminous notebooks and drawings alongside the Middle Earth books.

But there are also writers tailoring their craft specifically for the digital realm, placing technology at the centre of their narrative and of how we experience the story. The Silent History: A New Kind of Novel (Ying Horowitz and Quinn, $1.99) is a project co-authored by Russell Quinn, Kevin Moffett and Matthew Derby, specifically for the iPhone and iPad, and an Android version is forthcoming.

Set in the future, The Silent History tells the story, in a series of daily instalments, of a group of children born without the ability to create or comprehend language. The story, which takes the form of oral testimonies, is enhanced by Field Reports, which activate when your mobile device matches certain, broadly defined GPS coordinates. Although it is prohibitively expensive to produce such sophisticated technology, it marks an exciting unity of the digital and traditional reading functions.

And the potential is not just limited to popular genre fiction. Between Page and Screen (Siglio, $24.95) is an “augmented reality book of poems” developed by Amaranth Borsuk and Brad Bouse. In its paperback and digital form, the pages presented to the reader offer only abstract geometric patterns and a web address, where the poems – a series of letters between two lovers struggling to map the boundaries of their relationship – are read using a browser and a webcam; they do not exist on either page or screen but in the space that the reader opens up between them. Part conceptual art, part poetry, this is an impressive showcase for the way digital technologies can be harnessed to mirror the altered consciousness of virtual realities.

Sara Keating is a cultural journalist and critic