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“The 21 Steps” as digital short story

2010 October 20
by ahageman

I’m writing to share and recommend a text that recently worked very nicely in an “Introduction to Literature” course for me here at UC Davis and that I look forward to transferring into Ecomedia courses in the future. “The 21 Steps” is a digital short story by Charles Cumming posted on the UK Penguin website as part of a six digital story series. The story itself is delivered in a series of quite small text boxes. One clicks a link in the box to proceed to the next bit of the story. These text boxes appear against a full-screen backdrop of GoogleEarth images showing the story’s setting and movement. Often the click to the next bit of text triggers first a movement of the GoogleEarth imagery before the next text appears. Very occasionally, in place of text, these clicks will pop up a text box with a photo instead, either of an object or of a computer screen featured in the story. What follows are two of the concepts and connections that emerged through class discussion.

Intertextuality. In the brief website blurb about the story, there is a link provided to The 39 Steps by John Buchan, the well-known novella that served as kernel for Alfred Hitchcock’s film by the same name. [And, I would argue this lineage is extended into William Gibson’s short story “Johnny Mnemonic” and its film adaptation.] We discussed basic issues of print fiction to film adaptation but were then able to extend this to thinking about whether this latest digital rendition was an adaptation or if different conceptualizations and language of the multiplicity of intertexts might be useful. Students were particularly engaged by the notion that novella to film seemed to them a transfer from a single medium to another one, while this latest transfer seems a hybrid of print, cinematic, and digital/computer media—a literary movie website. Complex discussions of textual ecosystems ensued with a particular focus on the concept of “distributed narratives” that I take from Pawel Frelik’s work (as with The Matrix: films, comics, computer games, websites…).

GIS and Focalization. Ursula Heise raises some excellent questions in Sense of Place and Sense of Planet about how technologies like GoogleEarth are modifying (or not) our sense of being, being earthlings. “The 21 Steps” is a great text for pursuing such questions with students in a classroom. My own approach to teaching “Intro to Lit” is to incorporate formal concepts of POV and Focalization into the production of compelling interpretations of texts and the contexts written into them, and this story offers an extension of formal analysis in light of digital media capabilities. The God’s-eye view presented graphically between the texts creates a dynamic tension with the First Person narration of the text-boxed print. GoogleEarth is something we usually control by ourselves via the keyboard, so there is a seeming interactivity, yet the destinations to which the imaging satellite move in this story are pre-chosen by the narrative events themselves. As such, not only does the visual background create dissonance with the First Person narrator, but it is, itself, uncanny—familiar yet working in an unfamiliar way. Students have described the resulting impression as experimental. When they are encouraged to focus on the variables of POV and Focalization, students find “The 21 Steps” an attempt at bringing the ancient act of narrating up to date with new technologies that are showing us views of ourselves and our world for which we do not yet have narrative capacities.

This is a vital space where we are trying to catch up our narrative capacities to technologically-mediated views (of ecology), where experiments bring together “old” and “new” media, and where critical approaches and tools are leveraged and modified to account for this coexistence of previous, present, and coming media modes. “The 21 Steps” can suggest to students that their conceptualization of the world and what they can do in it is not fully determined, at least not yet.

3 Responses leave one →
  1. Steve Rust permalink*
    October 21, 2010

    I was hooked when the character got on the Tube and and map sped up to account for his rate of travel.

    On a related note, I just found out today that I get to teach Intro to Literature instead of another composition class. I’m planning to focus the class around contemporary literature (and media) of Oregon and the Pacific Northwest where I’ve lived all my life and may finally have to leave if if I want to get a tenure track job in a year or two. I’m therefore taking this opportunity to teach on literature’s engagement with place/space by combining a few ecocritical readings from Buell and others on place/space with a range of literary texts written, filmed, and/or set in the Northwest. I am concluding the term with a novel set here in the Willamette Valley that was written by a friend who teaches at Oregon State. The book is NORTHWEST OF NORMAL (2009) by John Larison. John’s novel fictionalizes the geography of the valley giving towns, rivers, and valleys new names and locations.

    What do you think of the idea of assigning 21 STEPS at some point in the term and then giving students the option of mapping of a final project where they use Google earth to map the fictionalized world of NORTHWEST OF NORMAL onto the actual geography of the valley and then step back and write about the connection between this mapping and ways in which the novel plays with place and space / local and global? Make sense? Would something like that be productive?

    • ahageman permalink
      October 25, 2010

      I really like the idea of using “The 21 Steps” as a platform for a project in your class. If the technological production proves overwhelming for some students, you might consider as an alternative the online annotation a fan produced for William Gibson’s Spook Country. Your class sounds excellent! When I was studying for my MA at Western Washington in Bellingham, I incorporated a couple episodes of Twin Peaks into a unit on regional identity that sparked some crunchy conversations.

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