the review of internet literature

i've decided that it's going to be internet literature month over here, even though it's already the 19th (of november) as i write this. is this because i sat down at the keyboard this morning at a loss for ideas, clicked the "get random thought" button over at the thought orphanage, and got "lit crit of the internet"? perhaps.

at any rate, if you've been in a bookstore lately and have any taste whatsoever, you can probably tell things are quite dire in traditional publishing. obviously you can always retreat to the safe haven of reading tried-and-true Old Books, and that works fine most of the time as there are many eternal truths, but sometimes you want something representing the modern zeitgeist. also, there's something to be said about living authors whom you can actually track down and accost, gesturing to some passage of theirs while asking "what did you POSSIBLY mean by this??" or perhaps attempting to assassinate them if you feel they've committed some sort of crime against art or islam or something.

luckily, nowadays if you can't get published there's always the internet. unluckily that's also where all of the people who would (should?) never be published under any circumstances are. the sheer volume alone results in a serious curation issue, since more people are probably writing on the internet than anywhere ever before. once upon a time, this was the duty that fell to publishers, being the arbiters of taste by deciding what to publish and distribute, but now they've been completely seduced by mammon and gatekeep only based on perceived profit potential. so now it falls to internet's invisible college to sift through mountains of porn and trash (often both) to find works worthy of being deemed literature, and spread them to other Literature Enjoyers via hypertext. this is my contribution to the cause.


some characteristics of internet literature in general

The Northern Caves

nostalgebraist, 2015

An online message board devoted to a cult fantasy author wrestles with his baffling final book.

as soon as i reached chapter three and saw the absolutely flawless early noughties forum thread recreation, i knew that this was something i had been trying to find for a long time: a work written using the native writing forms of the internet. not only that, it was also a work exploring the early fandom culture that emerged thanks to those new forms of online communication, as geographically-distant loners congregate based on their shared obsessions. truly internet literature at its most apropos, covering the internet itself.

what really carries the northern caves is the incredible, almost virtuoso range of nostalgebraist's writing. composing believable and distinguishable dialogue for multiple characters is already difficult enough, but writing threads of sometimes-lengthy forum posts is a whole different ballgame. yet nostalgebraist manages to capture the essences of several different types of "forum guy" so convincingly that if you ever hung around forums like that back in the day, you'd swear that you've run into some of the "chesscourt cafe" posters before, or even been one of them yourself. every detail is there, down to each character's distinctive forum signature or location listed in their profile. it's probably the most accurate fictional representation of an early noughties forum that will ever be put to (digital) paper.

nostalgebraist's range is also demonstrated in the extensive excerpts from the writings of leonard salby, the "cult fantasy writer" in question who may or may not have gone insane by the end, but either way was certainly a very weird guy to begin with. they say only the best actors can pull off realistic bad acting (even though it comes so naturally to bad actors!) and i think the same is true when it comes to good bad writing. i would say things are taken even a step further in the excerpts from the in-universe book the northern caves, which for the most part look like gibberish or insane ramblings, however with just enough structure or internal logic that it seems plausible that the characters believe it may be some sort of finnegan's wake-type barely-comprehensible masterwork.

the story itself progresses very well in the beginning and middle, building up to the in-person meeting and new revelations about salby and his final book. suspense builds even further as suddenly horror elements start coming into play... and then the plot stumbles, and falls into an abrupt and rather unsatisfying ending. i suppose this is another risk of writing serially, sometimes you just don't know where you're gonna go from chapter to chapter and end up writing yourself right into a stumbling block, like being unable to decide if you're writing a horror story or an exploration of how the one-sided, parasocial relationship fandoms and fans form with an author can go awry. overall i still think the northern caves is worth it, as the writing and the buildup really is on point, and i've yet to see anything else like it in terms of themes or style.

There Is No Antimemetics Division

qntm, 2008, 2015-2020

An antimeme is an idea with self-censoring properties; an idea which, by its intrinsic nature, discourages or prevents people from spreading it.

Antimemes are real. Think of any piece of information which you wouldn't share with anybody, like passwords, taboos and dirty secrets. Or any piece of information which would be difficult to share even if you tried: complex equations, very boring passages of text, large blocks of random numbers, and dreams...

But anomalous antimemes are another matter entirely. How do you contain something you can't record or remember? How do you fight a war against an enemy with effortless, perfect camouflage, when you can never even know that you're at war?

Welcome to the Antimemetics Division.

No, this is not your first day.

the scp wiki has long been one of the most unique writing communities on the internet. i suppose it was only a matter of time before it spawned something that could be considered a Great Work, and it seems i'm far from alone when i propose that there is no antimemetics division is it. the essential spirit of the collective scp-verse runs through it: a hopeless secret war against overwhelming eldritch forces, barely kept at bay only through ingenuity and the indomitable human spirit. the familiar trappings of bureaucracy (protocols, forms, documentation, hierarchies) recast as the final, desperate attempts to constrain cosmic chaos closing in. if you read one scp work, make it this one.

what really makes there is no antimemetics division stand out is that it is stupendously clever, if you already haven't gathered as much from the blurb. i've always had an interest in memetics and would have loved to read a literary treatment of the concept, but now that seems almost TOO obvious. as you can see in the blurb, the concept of antimemes is instantly familiar yet also strangely foreign, something that you realize has been there all along without being noticedha ha what if this is because the idea of antimemes is actually an antimeme... isn't it strange that we have a distinct word for meme but not its opposite? i am reminded of the similar blindspot with regards to the word fragile, where it was necessary to coin the term "antifragile" because the "true" opposite of fragile, something that actually gains from shocks and disorder, was not covered by words like "robust" commonly thought to be the opposite of fragile. around this compelling core concept, qntm manages to construct a whole world within the scp world, exploring the implications of antimemetics in directions both expected and unexpected.

i will say that after a very engaging first half, things start to drag a bit in the second half. mainly this is because of a shift from more psychological horror centered around cycles of forgetting, towards more conventional gore and mutiliation. there's also what i suppose you could call an interlude that introduces some creative new concepts building on what's already been introduced, but they're largely dropped as soon as the interlude is over and not well integrated with the rest of the story like other parts of the worldbuilding. i suppose this is partly as a consequence of how the story was written, as the author took a several-year break after finishing the first half, which can more-or-less form a standalone narrative. it's possible qntm wasn't originally planning on continuing, but was struck by a sudden wave of inspiration years down the line.

either way, i do still think there is no antimemetics division is worth finishing to the end. after all, it's not all that long in its entirety, and there are still sections in the second half where the antimemetics you've come to know and love returns in top form. i also think the ending does succeed in wrapping everything up quite nicely. someday, maybe you'll find yourself reading there is no antimemetics division with the strangest sense of deja vu and realize, this is not your first read-through...

just like hamburger; exactly like hamburger

tim rogers, 2017

in which two hyperthymestics encounter an ancient city; they discuss many labyrinths (some figurative) and one library (always figurative)

i don't even know what to say about this one other than that i sincerely believe this may be the best piece of writing of the last decade, casually posted one winter day to freaking MEDIUM. apparently all thirty thousand words were written in a single twelve-hour marathon session in what i can only imagine was some variety of divine inspiration, channeling cosmic energies into the keyboard. it happens to many but rarely for so long in one go. all i know is that i will be first in line to purchase his first novelit's called chronicle of a tennis monster apparently. is he gunning for DFW already???, if it ever comes out.

but somehow none of that is even the most bizarre, the most surreal, the most incredible part of this story. perhaps you've heard the name "tim rogers" before. this is because for the past couple years, he has spent his time making outrageously long and intricate youtube video game reviews. the most promising literary talent of this generation is a Really Long Video Game Video Essay guy. i'm still not sure how to feel about this. maybe he has the right idea. writing is dead, and i should be filming reviews of videos essays instead of doing... this.

after reading "just like hamburger", i simply had to have a peep at rogers' recent filmography. i will admit in advance that i find most videos in the Really Long Video Game Video Essay unbearably pretentious. i think they're able to get away with this because most gamers are woefully uncultured, and i also suspect many of those really long videos are only put on as background noise as i refuse to believe there's anyone who's sitting down with rapt attention to watch a guy drone on about legend of zeldanote to self: replace this title with a funny fake name at some point or whatever for literally half a day.

so, i ended up watching the first thirty minutes or so of his tokimeki memorial video, which i chose because it intrigued me as it was the only game i hadn't heard of before. the video is also his most popular, and SIX hours long in total. immediately it was obvious that this was not just another video game review, i felt echoes of "just like hamburger" everywhere, it was practically another literary autobiography but in video form. the game is untranslated and unlikely to ever be, so instead rogers vividly recreates his first experience playing for the viewer so that they can feel the impact it had on him without having to play it. in a way even if you did play the game yourself, it would be impossible for you to have the almost transcendent experience rogers had with it as a result of the unique context in which he played it, an inexperienced young man in a foreign country, practicing the language and having his mind blown by this whole new genre of game where you just hang out with girls. the faux mask of objectivity, of "critical distance" that most reviewers try to maintain is completely discarded. no matter how it's disguised, in the end a review must always be about the specific subjective experience of the reviewer playing the game, and rogers turns the old review dynamic on its head by putting aside all pretenses and focusing specifically on his unique experience of the game. watching, you realize that perhaps it is in the nature of all reviews that they always reveal more about the reviewer than the subject of the review. anyways i now have a playstation copy of tokimeki memorial 〜forever with you〜. i still have not played it or finished watching the video.


scott alexander, 2016-2017

Kabbalah is true, all patterns are meaningful, and the world runs on a combination of strained analogy and wordplay. Big Silicon Valley corporations copyright the Names of God and make a killing. International diplomats transform the ancient conflict between Heaven and Hell into a US-Soviet proxy war. An autistic archangel and his eight-year old apprentice laboriously debug the laws of physics. A group of billionaires hire a magical ship to go find God and tell Him what He's doing wrong. Cells of militant Unitarians harbor dangerous placebo terrorists. And amateur kabbalist Aaron Smith-Teller, distant relative of nuclear physicist Edward Teller ("Not ushering in the apocalypse is not really a family strong point") discovers a legendary Name of God and hatches a plan to usher in the Messianic age from his home computer, which goes exactly as well as you would expect.

a refreshing take on both science fiction and fantasy. i guess this might be because religion is usually pretty far out of the minds of most scifi/fantasy readers and authors. but turns out that for a couple thousand years now, jewish mystics (proto-nerds, basically) have been building up a complex lore and magic system in the form of kabbalah, just ripe for exploitation by an astute scifi/fantasy author. you have to tread delicately, though, but for an avowed atheist and so-called "rationalist", scott manages to display an impressive amount of erudition and respectful engagement with religion in unsong. there are limits, however, and sometimes you get the feeling like the characters are just "kabbalah fans" constantly making references to it, trading memorized trivia, cracking jokes about it, debating the "lore", altogether the same kind of thing you might see star wars fans do with the star wars movies. it just doesn't feel like the way true believers would act, even though in-universe, kabbalah is quite obviously and literally true. i think this might all stem from scott approaching kabbalah and the bible as simply great works of literature (he is also a big fan of blake) and thus putting himself into a "fan" relation with them, distinct from the way in which the "faithful" engage.

besides that, unsong is almost relentlessly clever, mostly with its wordplay. usually this is a plus, as a lot of really interesting philosophical concepts get brought up, but sometimes it feels almost too clever. what started getting particularly annoying were some of the extended "strained analogy" (see the blurb above) sections, which stopped being interesting or impressive because they were not even all that clever most of the time. this probably wasn't such an issue back when unsong was originally being serialized, since if you were following along those sections might be several weeks apart, however if you're reading it all at once it just feels like they keep on coming.

all in all, unsong is quite a unique and imaginative work, but it does fall prey to a lot of the common issues that dog internet literature. the story as a whole lacks tightness, and there are a lot of little branches and digressions that while often cool and interesting, never end up getting picked up again. this is exactly where editors can come in handy, although in follow-up posts reflecting on unsong, scott seems committed to relying mostly on feedback from fans, the perils of which i discussed above. however, he did announce his intention to eventually get it properly published and released a lengthy list of edits he was considering, so i do look forward to maybe reading a more polished version of unsong someday.

The Tim Tebow CFL Chronicles

jon bois, 2014

A Three-Million-Yard Football Odyssey

now here is a truly niche work: a surreal web novella about football, illustrated in accordance with bois' peculiar graphic sensibilities of google earth and mashed-up pictures with occasional blatant computerized brush strokes, all shoved through a filter that has everything come out bleary. i wouldn't call it good, just... distinctive, although the blurry, dream-like quality of the illustrations is definitely in line with the story. anyways, i only heard about bois from a friend whose interests aligned with that exact niche: literature & football. i've never really been into sports and probably never will be, but thanks to talking with him i kind of "get" the appeal now and am no longer one of those smug intellectuals/nerds scoffing in disbelief at the "idiots" who like watching meatheads run around fields with a ball while binge drinking and eating. how my friend got this across was by framing sports as a sort of real-time storytelling in individual games with dozens of characters involved as players or coaches or even fans, and where each game ties into the story of a whole season or even into the expanded universe of a team's entire history.