Fiction for the digital age

By PHILIP EIL  |  August 1, 2012

Matthew Derby and Max Winter will have some explaining to do before their reading at the Dirt Palace August 9. First, there is the concept of their collaborative fiction project, The Silent History: it's a Studs Terkel-style oral history set in a dystopian future where thousands of children are born unable to speak or understand language.

Then there is the format. Derby will be reading from the "testimonials" he has written: first-person monologues from parents of afflicted children, doctors who study them, entrepreneurs who market to them, and others. Winter, meanwhile, will be reading from his "field reports": shorter, ancillary narratives that explore the silent phenomenon's infiltration of Providence.

But if all of that is a bit complicated, the delivery of the book may be the most novel element. The "book" they'll be reading from isn't really a book, but what Derby and the project's mastermind — former McSweeney's publisher and editor Eli Horowitz — are calling "a serialized, exploratory novel for the iPad and iPhone." When The Silent History is released in September, readers won't buy the book at a store or download it to their Kindle. They'll download an app to their mobile device that offers the book's introduction and the first batch of testimonials. If readers want more, they can pay to subscribe to the rest of the testimonials, which, in a sort of high-tech throwback to the serial fiction of Dickens' day, will be digitally delivered over the course of a year. Subscribers will also gain entrée to "field reports" accessible only by traveling to sites where stories have been coded into the software. In Providence, for example, a stroll to the Gano Street baseball fields will unlock the tale of a Little Leaguer whose silent teammate disappears in the bramble and junk piles near the upright train bridge beyond right field.

"There are all these technologies embedded in mobile devices that are right now being used for very mundane purposes," Derby says over a beer at the Cable Car Cinema on a recent evening. The author of the sci-fi short story collection Super Flat Times, Derby lives in Pawtucket and works for the Cambridge video game studio Harmonix. "We saw this opportunity to push the boundaries on the use of this stuff," he says. Derby produces a glowing iPad from his bag and summons a beta version of The Silent History's app. Brightly-colored pinwheels slide across the top of the screen, each of them representing narrative chunks spanning the years 2011 to 2043. With the tap of a finger, sections of the wheels expand into testimonials.

He and Horowitz are careful not to boast that this is the definitive future of the book; it's just one possibility. But designing and writing and coding it themselves — the full Silent History team has four members, plus field reporters — the team figures it can grab some control of the future of fiction before powerhouse publishers define it for them.

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