Saturday, May 24, 2014

The Future of the Book is Unfinished: John Sundman's "Biodigital"

It used to be that a book was finished. Set the lead type and that was the book, for better or for worse. In some ways that's a virtue- the authors' pregnancy was finite; the labored give and take with publisher and editor would result in a pretty package of ink on bound paper. But at the same time it's a liability. Non-fiction books become obsolete as time leaves them behind. The artistic process isn't neat and clean. For great works of literature, generations of graduate students pore over notebooks, letters and ephemera to try to figure out what the great artist really meant, maybe it was just a big fish?

I find that the most interesting things going on in the ebook world now are being done by people who see books as continuing processes that need not be contained within EPUBs or frozen into PDFs. I notice that these creations fit poorly into today's book publishing machine. Formats go flat, conventional copyrights do copy wrongs; ISBNs go bonkers, bookstores start selling teddy bears and libraries look the other way.

Available at
Which brings me to John Sundman's Biodigital. Oh my god it was good.

As a reader, I found it profoundly disturbing. Disturbing the same way I felt the first time I experienced an earthquake. Having grown up on the east coast, earthquakes were abstractions to me. On moving to Palo Alto after college to take a job at Intel, earthquakes became something we joked about in the fab as we heated silicon wafers to 1200°C inside monstrous quartz tubes. I vaguely thought it would be fun to feel the earth shake. The next year I was a graduate student at Stanford and I felt my first real quake, the one centered in Coalinga. At first it was exciting, but then, as the ground started to roll, I began to worry if it was going to stop. When it was over, my cognitive relationship with the ground had changed. I had never doubted its solidity; suddenly I knew different.

Books aren't carved in stone any more. They are mutable. There, I've ruined them all for you. And there's a deadly earthquake in Biodigital. Whoops, I spoiled that one for you too.

Biodigital is a remix. About 60% of it came from Sundman's earlier novel, Acts of the Apostles, or so he tells us. 40% of Biodigital is new. I've not yet read that Acts, which makes me one of a very small number of people who have read Biodigital first. (I'll report back after reading Acts.) That subversive knowledge nagged at me through the whole book. "Was this chapter newly written, or was it 'original'?" Also, is the reader meant to know the book is remixed? What's supposed to be real in the book? There's a fictional corporate lab, Emverk, in Biodigital that's clearly supposed to be Xerox PARC, but does that make the fictional company real? Why do I care?

You may not share my paranoia of fictional reality if you read Biodigital. Because the reality is extremely vivid and fast-faced. At one point I had the notion that the book was written expressly for me, with inserted references to places I've been, things I've done, and people I've met. I've stood on a ridge on Skyline Drive, I've pored over chip schematics looking for the misplaced hunk of poly causing the glitch on the scope trace; and I've met that crazy guy at the bar in Antonio's Nut House. Somehow I missed that Sundman was there, taking notes. But by the end of the book, things become surreal, dead people start chasing you, and you don't know anymore whether the aromas you were smelling from Peking Garden existed at all.

Acts of the Apostles never really found its place in the publishing pantheon. It was Sundman's first novel. And since Sundman worked in technical documentation in the milieu of the pre-web internet, publishing it himself seemed natural. Soon after the licenses were introduced in 2003, Sundman's friend Cory Doctorow convinced him to adopt Creative Commons for his novels, so Acts was just the second Creative Commons novel ever. Slashdot reviewed it and it became a hackerish cult phenomenon,  even outselling Dan Clancy, Michael Crichton and Stephen King - for a few hours - on Amazon. Two sequels, Cheap Complex Devices, and The Pains followed Acts.

But Sundman still wanted a real publisher and the audience a real publisher can connect to. And after many rejections, he finally found a small publishing house that was doing some great things and he managed to get the publisher interested. As Sundman recounts, she
offered to hire an editor, at her expense, to read Acts, write an analysis, and make suggestions for improving it. So I said, “fine”, and she did so, and a few weeks later she sent me the result, and I had to agree that the outside editor had spotted the weak spots in the book and made reasonable suggestions for improving it. The suggestions were basically for fine-tuning the book that’s already written, not for a wholesale rewrite.
and so the rights to Acts were sold, and Sundman began working on the book that would become Biodigital. Remixing the raw material in Acts, if you will.

Long story short, the indy publisher was sold to another publisher, and the rights to Acts/Biodigital were reverted. So now what to do? How do you go about selling a book that's a remix of another book that's been free? From the buyer's point of view it's very confusing. Which book should be read first? Is Biodigital supposed to replace Acts as the first book in the series? If you've read Acts, do you really want to read Biodigital? From the bookseller's point of view, who's the audience- people who loved Acts?'s "Buy to Unglue" program was a good fit for the book. It uses a dated Creative Commons license on the books it sells. So on April 27, 2016 or sooner, depending on sales, Biodigital gets a CC BY-SA license. That means that Sundman isn't the only one who gets to remix the book. You can rewrite it to Pseudo-BioDigital if you want, and release it yourself under the same license, as long as you credit Sundman. It's a "Free Culture" license (albeit not yet) that allows the book to be never finished.

Biodigital is a novel of technopotheosis. Google that word, by the way. It's the process of humans merging with technology to become gods. But don't get the wrong impression. Biodigital isn't about technopotheosis.  It's about the reactions of people to the way technology changes us. One reaction is to decide it's fictional. Another is to be scared. And a third is to become a god. Really, we're all choosing, one way or another.

So we're merging real technology with real books to make them give them new life, giving them immortality. Bibliopotheosis?


  1. great post. New creative possibilities are opening up, and we might generally feel that technological shackles (such as lead type) are lifting, so inevitably "Books aren't carved in stone any more."

    Another point of view is that there are inherent cultural/communicative reasons for the boundedness of (most) books/texts, existing prior to and beyond print or any technology. This might be suggested by your observations that "From the buyer's point of view [the continuing book] is very confusing," and "these creations fit poorly into today's book publishing machine."

    A classic statement of the inherent cultural function of "fixity" is David M. Levy, "Fixed or Fluid? Document Stability and New Media" 1994 (from another Palo Altan, then at Xerox PARC).

    Or in Paul Ricouer's suggestive term, texts are works of "productive distanciation" -- that is, of intentional boundedness and separation from context, in order to communicate across time and many contexts. Rather like your apt description of ebooks / ePUB as a "website in a container".

    Tim McCormick
    Conversary, Palo Alto

  2. What I find interesting is that in Cheap Complex Devices, the author claims that the chapter The Bonehead Computer Museum by Todd Griffith is stolen and published as a book by someone else. So, to me at least, it seems that this book would be The Acts of the Apostles, where Todd Griffith is a character. Plus, The Bonehead Computer Museum was allegedly written by a machine. So, Todd Griffith would be that machine, yes?!

    But my point is, the author of Cheap Complex Devices claims that the one chapter is stolen and was then published as a book before Cheap Complex Devices was published.

    So, therefore, is it possible that Biodigital isn't the result of wanting to be published? Maybe it's something else! Maybe Todd Griffith wrote it... The world may never know. LOL!