The Disappearing Book

No, not disappearing the way you think. Neil Gaiman and Nick Harkaway help redefine the experience of reading. 

“Book? What’s a book?” I’ve been asking myself that a lot lately, and I keep getting different answers — but none so quirky or inventive as the one Tom Abba and Duncan Speakman have come up with in Bristol. Abba, who heads an interactive media program at the University of the West of England, and Speakman, of the Bristol art collective Circumstance, have conspired with the novelists Neil Gaiman and Nick Harkaway to construct a story that starts out as a book but then unfolds as a digital text that people read on their smartphones or tablets. It’s called These Pages Fall Like Ash, and it’s a tale of two cities — cities that exist in the same time and place without, somehow, ever bumping into each other.

The book, encased in a wooden box and sold at the local media center for £12, is actually two books — a book about Bristol that contains a lot of blank pages, and a guide to the other city by an unnamed resident of the place. This resident has what Abba calls “a missing other” — a husband maybe, she can’t quite remember. He can’t remember her either, possibly because he’s slipped out of their city and into ours. Caught between parallel worlds that seem inexplicably to be bleeding into one another, he finds reality to be a flimsy construct and memory a remarkably imprecise guide.

Bristol is an ancient and layered city, a site of human habitation since prehistoric times. In the 18th century it was known for pirates and slave traders; more recently, it’s given us Massive Attack and Banksy. But the Bristol in These Pages Fall Like Ash is somehow disappearing—not unlike the digital text that readers of the story have been downloading from tiny Raspberry Pi computers hidden on window ledges and the like across the city. You might click on what appears to be a hyperlink, for example, and instead of taking you somewhere else, it would cause the words to simply vanish.

“I was always keen on making text onscreen not behave like text on a page,” Abba said when I asked him about this. “The book is a finished object — it’s not likely to change. That’s not true with digital text.”

Abba is not a fan of what conventionally passes for digital storytelling. He considers ebooks the worst of both worlds—lacking the tactile and graphic pleasures of real books, while sacrificing the true potential of digital in favor of a wan simulation of old habits like page-turning. As for choose-your-own-adventure stories — the default idea of interactive fiction for most people — he dismisses them as a fad from the ’80s that hasn’t advanced since.

His current experiment in interactive fiction, made possible by government funding for the arts, began its run on April 20, the date the wood-bound book went on sale, and reaches its conclusion this Wednesday, May 8. Readers won’t have any measurable impact on the outcome, despite intimations to the contrary, but they will get to discover some curious things about their city. A half-dozen or so locations of historical resonance are tied to the narrative, from the soaring Georgian halls of St. Nicholas Market to a brutalist postwar streetscape whose blank concrete walls are being used as a canvas for graffiti and street art. Other landmarks that figure in the story have been destroyed or were never built in the first place.

Neil Gaiman and Nick Harkaway were brought in early on to transform the initial, rather sketchy idea of two cities inhabiting the same space into a story with characters and a beginning, middle, and end. First it was Harkaway, who came in from London to spend a day with Abba and two members of Circumstance and help them flesh out the concept. A couple of weeks later, after Abba and Duncan Speakman of Circumstance had worked out the rudiments of a plot, Harkaway and Gaiman came in for a day together. They spent it thrashing out character and motivation and origin and endpoint, and then Harkaway went off and pounded out a rough skeleton they could hang their story on.

“If you’re not a writer,” Harkaway replied when I emailed him about this process, “and specifically if you’re not a writer of long-form narratives, it can be hard to appreciate the complexity of the transition from lightbulb idea to actual story. I have a dozen lightbulbs a week. The majority of them suck, so I don’t even break step. Two or three are worth pursuing a bit. You get to a point where the question is whether the idea has enough of what you want in it to be worth the effort of transforming it into a real story, as opposed to a flash photo of one.”

They ended up with a “book” that’s as evanescent as the story it tells. Information in the printed book turns out to explain gaps in the digital text, and the digital text turns out to explain gaps in the printed book. That’s why the Bristol volume has so many blank pages—so you can mark it up and take notes. The text in the book doesn’t change, yet the book itself is interactive in a pre-digital sort of way.

These Pages Fall Like Ash is about the interdependence of the physical world and the digital. It occupies the spaces in between — between physical and digital, between a city that exists and a city that doesn’t, between fantasy and reality. The way the Bristol in the book is disappearing is a reminder of the way books themselves are disappearing, along with newspapers, magazines, notecards, photo albums, wristwatches, cash, and so many other things. In its place you’ll find — well, I think we have to wait for the ending for that.

So, what is a book? I put the question to Harkaway, whose most recent novel, Angelmaker, is a marvel of fantasy and invention that in some odd way reflects the world we live in. “Honestly?” he replied. “A supercompressed cross-section of the identity of the author, heavily encrypted as narrative and primed to unfold in the mind of the reader.”

Page-turning not required.