Call Me Digital . . .

Q: There was this Chinese movie I really dug last year called Lan Yu. Snooping around some fan sites, I noticed the flick was adapted from an "underground Internet novel." Which got me thinking: Is there some dazzling body of cyberliterature I'm missing out on?

For now, readers unschooled in Asian tongues will find the "underground" (i.e., free) cyberlit pickings relatively slim. The bulk of American online fiction still consists of voyeuristic sorority-pillow-fight accounts and sword-and-Valkyrie sagas—not exactly scintillating prose. The situation's quite different across the Pacific, where Chinese and Japanese authors have been churning out innovative Internet novels since the mid 1990s—novels, alas, that are too infrequently translated into English. That said, there are some stateside gems, and one hopes avant-garde handheld technology will spur Yankee cyberlit to greater heights.

The source material for Lan Yu is 1997's Beijing Story, whose pseudonymous author is identified as "Beijing Comrade"—"comrade" being not only the traditional Communist salutation, but also a term of endearment between gay Chinese urbanites. A bummer tale of star-crossed male lovers, the sexually explicit Beijing Story likely would have been bowdlerized by government censors had it been submitted as a dead-tree publication. Instead, it was distributed via e-mail and newsgroups, and quickly became the My Big Fat Greek Wedding of China's Chelsea boys. The various English translations, however, tend to disappoint; the best one Mr. Roboto came across, by Hong Kong journalist David Fung, is serviceable, but a smidge stilted. Cozy up to the pathos at www.joygiftshop.com.hk.

Another recent art-house hit, All About Lily Chou-Chou, is also based on a cyberlit source, an Internet novel by Japanese director Shunji Iwai. Though the subject matter's near and dear to Mr. Roboto's heart—adolescents escaping high school misery by strapping on giant headphones—an English translation has yet to emerge. Same goes for Taiwan's Sunny Doll, a romance about baal-worshiping teens, which got the silver-screen treatment two years back.

If your Mandarin is wobbly, or your Microsoft Chinese Service Pack is as skittish as Mr. Roboto's, there are some native works to consider. Comic-book fans are ordered to immediately check out Broken Saints (brokensaints.com), a graphic novel that's nearing its 24th and final chapter. (OK, so the authors are Canadian—close enough. Insert Rush joke here.)

More cutting-edge, at least conceptually, is Douglas Rushkoff's Exit Strategy (Rushkoff.com), a so-called open-source novel to which readers have added their own footnotes and annotations.Bits of the Pi-meets-The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test tome are still kicking around Usenet; if you like, please splash out $11 for the Soft Skull paperback, OK?

Horror mogul Stephen King, of course, netted $463,832.27 for his experiment in online serialization, The Plant, two years ago—and at the rate of a buck a chapter. "The profit potential," he wrote in a London Guardianthumb-sucker on cyberlit, "is unlimited."

Rather than money, the big barrier to better American cyberlit is that, unlike many Asian consumers, we're none too fond of reading words on screens. Ask a thousand blokes on 34th Street whether they'd be up for reading a 90,000-word novel on their Dell, and you're likely to get 997 ixnays on the yberlitcay.The solution, of course, is to have screens look and feel more like paper, which is exactly what researchers at Philips Electronics are getting close to. This May, they announced they'd created the first-ever "paintable" LCDs—wafer-thin displays that don't need those pesky glass cases, but rather can be affixed to virtually any surface. Best of all, they can be bent or even folded, meaning you might be able to roll up your handheld's screen like a dog-eared copy of the Voice.

No definitive word on when fold-up screens will debut, but when they do, they should coax more budding authors into abandoning the page, not to mention their publishing houses. When it comes to English-language digital fiction, neither man nor woman can live on poorly written erotica alone.


Input questions at bkoerner@villagevoice.com.

 
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