With the continual danger and rather bleak ratio of favorable to
unfavorable outcomes present in Edward Packard's The Third Planet
from Altair, Espen Aarseth's comparison of the conventional fiction
reader to the cybertext reader becomes all-too-quickly evident.
In Cybertext , Aarseth illustrates this key difference clearly,
stating, “The reader's pleasure is the pleasure of the voyeur. Safe, but impotent.
The cybertext reader, on the other hand, is not safe….” In a text with only six
favorable outcomes amid some thirty-eight possible conclusions, indeed the reader
seems intensely vulnerable – even doomed perhaps – if he were to travel
only a single path. The odds, quite simply, are against him. It requires luck and
a certain clever anticipation to properly guide one's character to a successful
completion when faced with the seemingly infinite paths of the book.
As it is, however, the majority of the text operates within the boundaries of
four main paths originating from the second (or in Path 4's case, the first)
decision he makes. The construction of the novel therefore conforms to Marie-Laure
Ryan's model of “the Tree”, wherein the choices are largely branching binaries
constructed “to guarantee that choices will always result in a well-formed story”
(Ryan, 52). Though Ryan notes the subtle convergence with the “directed flow chart”
model, due to the text's merging paths
in the plot map),
the primarily branching structure (featuring only four such merges) simplifies its definition somewhat.
This creates a kind of subtext for the story, wherein one is more easily able
to explore the smaller decisions he might make as they pertain to the general
direction in which their story has headed. There are additionally even a few cases
where a potentially conclusive decision positions both outcomes on adjacent pages.
The unique scenario created by these juxtaposed outcomes creates from the text
a kind of meta-narrative, wherein one is engaging the process of the
cybertext more than the plot itself. Upon deciding whether to betray or follow
the mind-controlled captain on page 12, for instance, one is rewarded with both
outcomes on the adjacent pages 24 and 25. Their blithe obedience may have cost
them their death in the story, but at the same time they need look no further than
the other open page to have made the “correct” decision. This scenario openly reveals
the manner of causality that fuels a cybertext, giving the reader at least the occasional
“safe” vantage point. In effect, both decisions -- including the "correct" one -- are available
to the reader, and the voyeuristic vantage point of the standard literary reader is temporarily
restored. Though this may not have been the intention of the author, the effect, as an element
of interactive fiction, seems notable.
Beyond these things, the layout and content of the text are fairly straightforward.
A few noteworthy features, as described further in the
are the Conclusion Paths, and Terminating Branches. Though Main Paths 1 and 2 are the longer
sections of the text, each feature interesting features for concluding the story, the form
of near-inescapable sequences of would-be conclusion decisions. In these, the reader is led
through a series of 50/50 chance decisions that result in either a conclusion (always a
cliffhanger or death) or another 50/50 chance decision. If navigated through guesswork alone,
this would mean a 1-in-8 chance of “survival,” and in Main Branch 2's case, the reader's reward
would come in the form of an inescapable dilemma between cliffhanger and death. Once more,
Aarseth's observations about the perils of the cybertext seem particularly well-founded.
Though a very simplistic construction of the cybertext genre, The Third Planet from
Altair , and Choose Your Own Adventure novels in general provide the basic
framework for analysis of Aarseth's “Textual Machine.” In this model, Aarseth details the
interactive relationship between text, medium, and reader, to attain the working “machine”
of cybertext. Despite its simplicity, Choose Your Own Adventure illustrates this
interrelation perfectly, as the active cybertext requires the verbal sign (the text of the
story), the medium of the book (constructed mechanically, to link within its pages), and
the active participation of the reader to attain a coherent story. Though printed upon pages,
this same interrelation occurs in the more technically advanced instances of cybertext, such
as Andrew Plotkins's Shade , wherein a reader must actively guide the character
through textual input. Though bearing no similarity in terms of Ryan's cybertext models,
each bear the requisite elements of the formal system , insofar as a cybertext
requires a set of tokens (in this case the Altair pages, or the commands and
resulting lexia within Shade ), an established starting position for these tokens
(the linear first few pages of Altair and the initial prompts of Shade ),
and a well-defined set of rules for manipulating these tokens (the page transitions / text commands).
In this way, the similarity of style can be applied to generally all cybertext, as each require
the active input of the reader to assemble a coherent product from the textual machine.
Essentially Altair is a very simplistic model for cybertext, wherein its similarity
to the conventional novel (words upon printed pages, page-turning for progress, illustrations
for the young readers) proves a favorable aspect in terms of accessibility. If only for its
exemplification of Marie-Laure Ryan's “tree” model and its formal system construction, it makes
for a worthwhile reference in terms of demonstrating the cybertext genre. Once expanded into a
plot map, however, the elements of its construction give rise to certain
emergent features that prove
more complex, and actually quite compelling. More on such details can be found upon
the map itself, and the