What if the word will not be still?
But Dad, those other worlds in the Net, like V-School and Xanadu and the Dreaming... they're... not real. They're just virtual, right?
Nothing is ever "just" virtual, son. But yes, they aren't the same thing as bodyspace. You've known that for some time now.
--from Stuart Moulthrop's Hegirascope 2
Welcome. In this third number of The New River, we break records for length. Stuart Moulthrop's revised and expanded Hegirascope 2 is the longest hypertext we've yet published, and David Sten Herrstrom's new poem, "Leaving a Virtual Reality Exhibit at the Singapore National Museum, I Walk Down Orchard Road to the Temple Park," has the longest title. By far. Interestingly (though not by editorial intent), in addition to this ephemeral connection both works share a serious interest in the shifting nature of our contemporary reality, especially as it is reshaped and called into question by the virtual reality of cyberspace.
Visiting Singapore, a city redolent with history, Herrstrom attends a virtual reality exhibit, and the questions generated by that experience give rise to his poem. In the lyrical and intensely imagistic language of poetry, he thinks about the relationship between perception and place, actual or virtual. "Even if a moment did exist that death could not find," he writes, postulating a possible way of thinking about a reality that's virtual, "the landscape would take time to catch up/ from where I am to where I stand." Place (where I stand) is always altered and influenced by the complex combination of factors--emotional, psychological, historical, intellectual, experiential--that shape the moment of perception (where I am). Herrstrom argues that whatever the influence of landscape, virtual or actual, it lags behind the complex factors that constitute psychological place. Given the difficulty of disentangling reality and perception "in our riddled world," why does the speaker find virtual reality threatening? Why, after leaving the museum, did he "fear/ that the symmetry of a ferocious order had been broken"? What makes reality virtual or actual, given that "being aware" is after all "a transient state of neurons"? The poem takes on these questions in a language full of wonder, mystery, and beauty; and Herrstrom proves himself to be one of the most interesting and gifted poets working seriously with hypertext.
Stuart Moulthrop, long established among our most important practitioners and theorists of hypertext, considers questions of reality, virtual and actual, from a considerably wackier perspective. Hegirascope 2 is a wild ride through a virtual countryside of stories and ideas. There's the taciturn Bent and his adoring Gina, driving across country with something ominous in the trunk of their big, silver Ford. There's the reanimated Marshal McLuhan, taking in the closing years of the Twentieth Century, appearing on The Tonight Show and walking off when he discovers Johnny has retired. There's a couple arguing about Wallace Steven's "Sunday Morning," and there's Annabelle and Ronette, doing nasty things with Fatman, the Congressman--nasty things which include drugging him and implanting suggestions to vote against HR 3258 and the Star Wars Initiative. There's web war and real war, the Book of the Everlasting Book and The Bomb, surfers and sinners and much coming--of all kinds--and going. Along with Moulthrop's own character Laurel, I recommend that you "check out this whacky thing Hegirascope."
Finally, you should also check out Jeanne Larsen's response to Shelly Jackson's Patchwork Girl, the recent and widely-applauded hypertext novel from Eastgate Systems. Larsen's sharp intellect and engaging wit make the essay a special pleasure.
The question Moulthrop poses is central to any discussion of hypertext: "What if the word will not be still?" Though Herrstrom reminds us that of course the word has never been still, that nothing perceived by the mind is still, still hypertext makes the shifting nature of thought and language patently obvious. Compared to the linked word on a flickering computer screen, the word on the page is a stable thing, a still center in a turning world. And so . . . What does that mean? Well, I refer you back to Moulthrop and Herrstrom--and to past and future issues of The New River, where such questions have been and will continue to be engaged by poets, writers, and artists.
Edward Falco Blacksburg, Virginia 15 November 1997