A counterfactual history of digital editions of Pale Fire

July 14th, 2013 § 0 comments

Pale Fire is one of several texts still protected under copyright laws that reflects trends in computing at the time of composition. The novel was published in 1962, a time period in which Ted Nelson was undertaking his initial forays into what we now know as hypertext. Unlike many of the other texts that could be drawn upon for such a comparative critical history, Pale Fire was almost a part of early computing history when Nelson obtained permission for and created a prototype hypertext version of Pale Fire. Unfortunately, the prototype was never publicly demonstrated and is the first in a chain of apocryphal digital versions of Pale Fire. While there are several web adaptations that have appropriated the fundamentals of the hypertext network of Pale Fire, some of the most intriguing remediations of the novel only exist as proposals or private undertakings.


c.1969: Hypertext Editing System (HES) implementation

Nelson’s demonstration utilised Pale Fire in several ways. The computer-based hypertext was not complete, featuring only part of the first Canto and corresponding commentary. This was, after all, a demonstration of a hypertext system and Nabokov’s novel was an example of a hypertext alongside the system’s manual and Vannevar Bush’s “As We May Think.” The poster of the demonstration would feature print copies of the book for those interested in exploring the network further. The performance of the demonstration would be augmented by a tape recording of excerpts from Shade’s poem, not to demonstrate the system’s multimedia capabilities but rather to enliven the presentation.


1994-2001: non-Web hypertext adaptations

Jimmy Guterman, Nabokov hypertexts. Alt.hypertext. 28 March 1994; John Lavagnino, Nabokov in cyberspace. Posting to NABOKV-L. 15 May 1995; and Charles Cave. Creating a hypertext version of Pale Fire. Posting to NABOKV-L, 8 May 2001.

Although these follow a standard template, the methods vary depending on the popular software at the time and the experience of the author. Implementations have been proposed or undertaken on platforms such as Storyspace as well as programmed in Perl. Many of the proposals suggest that the author wants to replicate a variety of conditions including a frequent obedience with Kinbote’s description of the index cards. Although there are many extant web-based hypertexts, these proposals explore fertile territory outside of web adaptations.


2006: Pale Fire Wiki

Jerry Friedman, “Pale Fire Wiki?” Posting to NABOKV-L. 12 October 2006

A post on the Nabokov mailing list proposed a transformative wiki edition of the text, presumably using MediaWiki, to not only to construct the explicit linking network but also add extra-textual commentary akin to Kinbote’s original design that would eventually overrun the main text. The value of such a proposal does not lie in its archival value as a site for annotations, but rather in the ways in which allowing a read-writable version of Pale Fire allows for new creative interpretations of Kinbote’s role as commentator and editor.


2006: Augmented edition


The most ambitious proposal for an electronic edition of Pale Fire engages with digital media to supplement the print copy rather than replace it entirely. One of the major problems with previous hypertext editions of Pale Fire is that any linking mechanism disrupts the distinction between explicit and implicit links in the novel. This proposed augmented edition with two-dimensional barcodes, annotations and track-backs separates the mechanics from the text allowing readers to opt-in to any extra-textual content, as well as generating a record of the reader’s traversals that would offer invaluable evidence to assess claims that Pale Fire is a novel that requires rereading.


2009: Videogame

This proposal offers very little details of the final content and represents the greatest departure from the text as a textless game. It is difficult to speculate how the novel’s themes can be mapped over to a videogame (Escape from Zembla, perhaps?) and there are certainly more apt candidates in the Nabokov corpus (Laughter in the Dark and Lolita would be good source material for Interactive Fiction). Nonetheless, this proposal exemplifies the excitement for digital editions of Pale Fire and one of the potential futures for the digital humanities and Nabokov.

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