Thinking Outside the Book: Paul La Farge's Luminous Airplanes Takes Off Online

He avoids calling his own work hypertext, preferring the term “immersive text.” The word “hypertext” has already fallen largely out of circulation (Mr. La Farge first conceived of this project in 1999), and the use of the form for literary purposes has been spotty at best. “With the exception of Geoff Ryman’s excellent 253, [hypertext fiction is] mostly pretty tough going,” Mr. La Farge said. “I think the early enthusiasm for the technology might have given writers a feeling of needing to do less writing work, because the form would carry the work. Whereas my sense is that the opposite is true: you have to pay as much attention to the writing of a hypertext as you would to the writing of a novel, or more attention, really, because novels produce a kind of natural engrossment, whereas online you’re always struggling to hold the reader’s attention.”

Mr. La Farge offered his “highly uninformed prediction” about authors increasingly exploring the formal possibilities of e-books: “It’s like when people started making automobiles: first they looked like horseless carriages, then as people got comfortable with the new form, they started to do more of the things cars could do. But since the economic value of fiction is many orders of magnitude smaller than the economic value of the automobile, I’m guessing the transition will happen more slowly.”

In his own writing career, he is content to go slowly on the tech front. He doesn’t rule out the possibility of another digital foray, because “it’s a lot of fun … to be in the position where you get to ask yourself a lot of questions that writers don’t usually have occasion to ask.” But his next planned project is a novel set in the 1930s and 1960s, with no online component attached. For now, he waits to see what the world makes of his latest trick.

“I feel like one of the people who were trying to invent flying machines,” he said. “I’ve been futzing around in my workshop for 10 years or so, and now maybe I’ve got something that flies, or maybe I’ve got a giant steam-powered bat which is going to break into a thousand pieces the first time I turn it on.”