Let’s talk about Hybridity

Yes, let’s. We’ve skirted around the subject for so long, teasing the definition and suggesting that it is somehow superior to the status quo

One of the things we’ve tried to make clear is that writing for a digital platform as if it was something else is not going to get you very far. Digital books aren’t novels, they have a set of structural affordances that physical books don’t have. They mix, remix and mash text. They invite reading in an unconstrained order. They ask you to get up out of your chair and walk around. The thing you read on isn’t a book anymore, so let’s stop pretending that you’re always going to regard it, to respond to it, the same way. It will make use of platforms in ways that a conventional book cannot. These might be subtle, hidden things, or they might foreground the whole narrative experience. Either way, if you’re merging two (or more) media, what you’re actually doing is allowing a hybrid form to emerge.

The best way to start might be to think about why nature makes hybrids. The simple answer is survival. A successful hybrid might be better equipped to propagate itself, ensuring the survival of a genus, carrying a parental strain of identity into a changed ecological scenario. It might be arise when one of the parent species is under threat from changes in a natural habitat. Some of these are so successful that we stop thinking of them as new, or strange in any way. Grapefruit are hybrids, as is most bread wheat. Peppermint too. Killer Bees (yes, they’re real) are hybrids. Not all hybrids are successful though. Nature does not always find a way (although, I am delighted to discover that a wholphin is a real thing).

If nature makes hybrids, humans make them too. We cross-fertilize plants to make hardier strains. We bred Killer Bees in the 1950s by cross breeding African and European Honey Bees in order to increase honey production. Leaving aside the fact that 26 swarms escaped (and have spread across the Americas since then), the simplicity of the idea is what you should focus on. To increase honey production. There was a single, identifiable aim, and that was what drove the project. To create a hybrid form for writing, adopt the same clarity.

What are you trying to achieve?

It should, we propose, be as simple as ‘increasing honey production’. It has to be something—if it isn’t, if you’re merging two storytelling forms with no real idea as to why, then there’s no more honey, there’s only money being spent. The novel is perfectly fine where it is, thank you. If you’re determined to port it into a new platform, then that platform has to alter something, offer some way to tell the story that isn’t possible in a conventional form. Otherwise the ghost of the book will manifest, clanking its chains in horror.

Hybridity, here, should also serve story. Make no mistake, if you’re showing off the technology, telling the same thing in fully immersive VR without thinking about what it does to the story then you’ve wasted your time. After the oohs and the aahs, when the dust settles and your audience think about what they experienced, they’re going to talk about the platform and not the story. Let’s see if this helps:

Tarkovsky is a hybrid writer.

There. That sentence has sat in my notes folder for this book since we drew up the first outline. I’ve been waiting to get to it, to make this argument, for weeks.

Tarkovsky is a deliberate filmmaker. He chooses, very carefully, what he wants to show us, and how he’s going to show us those things he considers important. Especially, for the purpose of this essay, Stalker is an exercise in film as a hybrid form. The novel Roadside Picnic from which Stalker draws most of its scaffolding is not the film, that much is clear. At a formal level, Roadside Picnic is a set of chronologically sequenced narratives exploring the existence and nature of six Zones of extraterrestrial significance across the world. The novel is primarly concerned with the zone situated outside the town of Harmont (the precise location is not clear), and is constrcucted as four episodes in the life of a Stalker, Red Schuhart. The events of Roadside Picnic are echoed in Stalker, but Tarkovsky is concered with the formal qualities of film narrative as he sees them. An Aristotelean unity of:

  • action (the story should contain one main action, with few (if any) subplots)
  • time (the story takes place over no more than 24 hours)
  • location (the story covers one physical space—no compression of geography)

is at work in the film, and absent from the novel. Tarkovsky is making film, not writing a novel, and he understands that we read film in a compressed, artifical space and time. As such, Stalker is not permitted the digressions in time and space afforded to the novel, which is a less linear object than his film. He’s made a hybrid form by merging the book and his film, the point of which, Tarkovsky’s ‘make more honey’ is the representation of an Aristotelean unity. His plot (summary stolen here from Geoff Dyer); a guide, or Stalker, takes two people, Writer and Professor, into a forbidden area called the Zone, at the heart of which is the Room, where your deepest wish will come true; is amongst the most direct ever made. Everything else in the film - be it the non-diegetic sound design, Tarkovsky’s obsession with metaphysics, the history of the gulags, even the allusions to Christ, are all in service of that story and that unity of storytelling.

Writing a hybrid form is as simple as that. The rest, as they say, is blood, sweat and tears. The idea. Your ‘make more honey’. Circumstance’s These Pages Fall Like Ash (our physical/digital book hybrid) is about evoking and imagining another city alongside your own. What we do with that is tied up in the way you read the piece - slipping between an unconventional wooden-bound book and a set of geographically specific narrative chunks delivered as you traverse your own city - but it is all about the other city, and the evocation happens in the space inside your head.

If this is all a little definitive, a little dictatorial, then take heart. The decisions you make about your hybrid will be new, because hybrids, by their nature, are new. They are a clash of forms, mediated through an idea.

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