Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Ada Lovelace Day

Hello, readers. Today is Ada Lovelace Day. Ms. Lovelace, besides having a name* nicely suited to a Victorian burlesque act, is generally considered to be the world's first computer programmer. She was a friend of Charles Babbage, imaginer of the Difference Machine, and she wrote of possible programs for his imaginary machine. She also articulated the concept of symbolic manipulation that foresaw the capabilities of computers to be more than mere "number-crunchers."

As part of Ada Lovelace Day, some thousand and more bloggers have pledged to write about a woman in technology they admire. Examples would be here, and here, and here. And also of course, here, which would be the place you are now and which will shortly discuss the work of one Shelley Jackson.

Shelley Jackson has illustrated Kelly Link's books. She has also written her own books, such as the short story collection The Melancholy of Anatomy and Half Life, a novel about conjoined twins, Nora and Blanche, which won the Tiptree Award. What is unusually spectacular about Shelley Jackson, though, is her forays into unconventional manners of storytelling.

Electronic literature is a literary genre consisting of works that originate within digital environments. In other words, a Google scan of A Tale of Two Cities does not a piece of electronic literature make. Examples of actual electronic literature would include SMS (text message) novels, as well as interactive fiction and hypertext fiction. It happens that perhaps the best and most well known piece of hypertext fiction was written by Shelley Jackson. It's called Patchwork Girl. It was published in the old times, when Prodigy and Compuserve roamed the Interweb. 1995 to be exact.

Patchwork Girl is the story of Frankenstein's second monster, the companion for monster number one. If you are remembering that in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein this second monster was destroyed, you are remembering correctly. Shelley Jackson's story imagines a different thing, that Mary Shelley herself completed work on this second monster, who subsequently falls in love with her creator and then travels to America. Readers read the hypertext by clicking links and images that one further into the story's world. It's immersive and cool and an experience difficult to replicate with a normal book, seeing as how it's made of paper and impervious to clicking.

But what matters my opinion. Listen to noted critic Richard Coover:

"Perhaps the true paradigmatic work of the era, Shelley Jackson's elegantly designed, beautifully composed Patchwork Girl offers the patient reader, if there are any left in the world, just such an experience of losing oneself to a text, for as one plunges deeper and deeper into one's own personal exploration of the relations here of creator to created and of body to text, one never fails to be rewarded and so is drawn ever deeper, until clicking the mouse is as unconscious an act as turning a page, and much less constraining, more compelling."

So, readers, knowing you are the patient sort, go forth and travel back to a time before twit-lit. Partake in the history of literary electronica. Celebrate women, technology, and stitching.

Happy Ada Lovelace Day.


*Technically, her given name would be, Augusta Ada King, and she happened to be the Countess of Lovelace.

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