It was a dark and stormy Net. At least, it's become that way for fiction.
The Web has been as generous to those experimenting with putting fiction online as Monica Lewinski has been to Bill Clinton: a promising tease followed by an uncertain future. Artistes who saw a new kind of canvas for telling a tale and authors desperate for another outlet for their output rushed to publish Web sites a couple of years back. Many garnered critical acclaim, popular attention, or both.
But results of these experiments would discourage even supporters of cold fusion. For example, consider Webisodic fiction. The Spot (www.thespot.com), a serial soap launched in 1995 about a group of housemates, shut its virtual doors at the end of last year after its owner couldn't make a business out of the substantial audience the site drew. The Microsoft Network commissioned, and then rapidly canceled, a wide range of highly touted, and poorly received, fictional "shows" that also closed around the end of '97.
Attempts to peddle linear fiction on the Web are likewise anemic. While a handful of sites like Seattle-based Alexandria Digital Literature (www.alexlit.com) boldly try to sell short fiction where no one has sold short fiction before—Alexandria emphasizes more than 200 previously published science fiction, fantasy, and horror shorts for anywhere from 35 cents to $2 per download—one traditionally best-selling author confided in me that his total download revenues from another, similar site have amounted to less than $10. Some linear fiction sites are solely labors of love. Seattle writer Michael P. Calligaro provides what he calls "the Daily Dose" of his science fiction serial The Mystikeep (www.mystikeep.com), complete with a nice summary for newcomers and a glossary to keep all the aliens straight. Still, don't expect action figures anytime soon.
The problem may be threefold. First, the Web allows anyone to be a publisher. Unfortunately, that means absolutely anyone—without the quality filter that a good editor provides. Second, computer screens suck as vehicles for reading lots of tiny text, as any recipient of an epistle-length e-mail can attest. It's not likely to improve until a small, cheap, portable reading device hits the market and subsequently takes off. (Several have been announced, including one $200 unit from Bellevue's Librius, but the acceptance of a device that is more fragile than a $8 paperback is uncertain.)
Third, and perhaps most important, overall readership for short fiction seems to be in decline. This month in San Diego at Westercon 51, the annual West Coast science fiction and fantasy convention, attending writers and editors bemoaned the sagging market for fiction of all lengths—a dip that will compound difficulties in drawing readers to the Web. One need look no further than the newsstand for proof of what many writers and publishers hope is just a cyclical lull: The number of short-fiction magazines can be counted on the appendages of one biped.
The Web has routinely been offered up as savior for small software publishers, comic books, short or serial fiction, and just about everything else that's struggling in the real world. Yet in the near term, it appears the Web will only be a good repository for fiction as long as the writing is limited to Internet business plans.
How do you get rid of spammers? A creative solution is suggested by David Brin, author of The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Freedom and Privacy? (Perseus Books, www.awl.com/gb/authors/ brin/transparent.html). Brin contends that instead of protecting privacy with masks and shields, organizations and individuals who want our private information should make their private information just as accessible. What about spammers who disguise their identity yet have our e-mail addresses and other personal details? "I have nothing against laws," Brin responded at a recent book signing at Elliott Bay Book Co. in Seattle. "I have nothing against bounties. I'd put a bounty on these guys."
It's in the pi
Quick—where does 123456789 first appear in pi? According to Seattle author David Blatner, at the 523,551,502nd digit. That, and other details about the number even computers can't conquer, is in Blatner's recent The Joy of Pi (Walker and Company; www.joyofpi.com).
3.14159adnauseam is making a film comeback as well: Pi (www.pithemovie.com) opened this month in New York and starts July 24 in Seattle. The genre: paranoid thriller. No surprise. According to Blatner, the first 144 digits of pi add up to 666.
We have a winner
Congrats to Steve Vitalich of Puyallup, winner of the contest to name the first version of Windows after Windows 98 merges with Windows NT (Byte Me, 6/25). His nomenclatural nominee? Assuming Microsoft doesn't get all the Y2K bugs worked out, Windows 1900. He gets a package of tchotchkes from various computer industry trade shows. Runner-up honors go to Steven de la Torre, who postulates that the next version would be called Windows Zero, except that, in typical Microsoft fashion, it'll be a year late—and renamed Windows Won.
Frank Catalano, a Seattle-area analyst for computer industry companies and the co-author of Marketing Online for Dummies, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.