The Silent History

It’s quite possible that even if you’ve already heard a thing or two about The Silent History, the soon-to-be-released recently released interactive e-book that was largely created by the programmer and storyteller Russell Quinn, you might not really understand exactly what it’s all about, or exactly how it’s supposed to work. In which case: Join the club.

It’s probably fair to say that no interactive or electronic book in existence has ever come close to the creativity or the uniqueness or the altogether newness of The Silent History. Then again, considering that the project was only made available a few days ago, and that I haven’t personally been lucky enough to experience any of the pre-publication previews, I don’t imagine my opinion of the book itself should hold much weight.

In a feature for Wired magazine, however, reporter (and former ReadyMade editor-in-chief) Shoshana Berger described The Silent History as “a sprawling electronic novel that plays with the mechanics of how stories are told, taking full advantage of the tablet’s GPS and touchscreen, along with platform features like in-app purchasing.”

“Judging by samples shared with Wired“, Berger writes, “The Silent History is part book, part multiplayer game, part Google map, and entirely revolutionary.”

Again, considering that I haven’t actually seen or experienced the book myself, I’m probably not the best person to describe it. So I’ll leave that to Berger, who, in her Wired feature, does a great job of explaining the project in simple-enough terms:

“One key difference in how this e-book works is that the narrative is serialized — reminiscent of the days when novels were introduced in magazines and newspaper episodes before they were published in full. The serial is broken into six parts, each one spanning several years in fictional time. (The story begins in the summer of 2011 and ends in 2043).

Readers can join at any time and absorb the back-story. A new episode is quietly synced with your device every weekday for a month and each piece is designed to be read in 10 to 15 minutes — on your commute to work, say. There’s a month break in between each of the six parts, so the entire project will take a year to unfold.

Then there are Field Reports. These digressions from the main plot are geolocated, meaning you have to go to a specific location to unlock the story. For example, the app might direct you to a house protected by a chain-link fence. Once there, the app would pop up a first-person account of an angry mob that rattles the fence.

Eventually, users of The Silent History app will be able to submit their own Field Reports, turning the experience of reading into a collective “choose your own adventure.”

And from the project’s own website comes this description: “The Silent History is a novel that uses serialization, exploration, and collaboration to tell the story of a generation of unusual children.” And: “The story is presented in two forms: Testimonials and Field Reports.”

In other words: Wow. 

To me, that sounds like a fairly even mixture of, say, the real-world outdoor treasure hunting trend known as geocaching, plus the GPS-enabled cell phone audio tours that some of the larger U.S. cities are now offering to tourists, multiplied by a book-length Kindle Serial project. (The Silent History is said to be roughly 500 pages long).

Let me ask you this: How much money do you honestly think a year-long experience like this is worth? If I had to guess the price, I’d probably say that given all the time, money and energy The Silent History has clearly already required of its creators, the cost would most likely end up being outside the budget of the majority of the book’s intended demographic, therefore being its ultimate downfall.

But I’d be wrong. According the project’s FAQ page, “the text itself can be purchased within the app by volume ($1.99 USD) or as a whole ($8.99 USD). The app is available as a free download from the [Apple] App Store.”

And yes, that’s the bad news: If you don’t have access to an iPhone or an iPad, you’re out of luck for the time being, although the project team does hope to offer an Android version of the app eventually, according to the website.

If you’d like to read more about the project, there’s a bit of information in this brief New York Times piece. Also worth reading are these items from USA Today, Buzz Feed and Publisher’s Weekly. The Bay Area NPR affiliate, KQED, also has a great print piece about the book on its website.

As far as I know, the app was first made available on October 1; if any of you are actually reading/experiencing The Silent History, we’d love to hear your thoughts.

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  1. Experimental story telling aside, I personally don’t see the appeal of any kind of serialized fiction. From what I have read, I believe it used to be popular when books were expensive and not that many people could afford them. I hate, hate, hate reading a chunk and then waiting some period of time for the next chunk. Even books in a series can be difficult if the plot of each book doesn’t offer some level of resolution.

    But maybe I’m not the norm, so it could be this kind of thing will become more popular.

  2. I hear you, Carmen. But then again, this particular serial is updated every day — I believe Kindle Serials are only updated every week. The daily updates are supposed to take around 15 minutes to read, and so the idea is that a busy person could read the update during their daily commute to the office, say. (Then again, I’m not really sure how a busy person is supposed to have the time to go clomping all over creation, looking for the GPS-enabled interactive bits!)

  3. The only issue for commuters and a serial that gets updated daily will be connectivity.

    For example – Anyone riding the PATH from NJ to NYC will not have a good experience. There’s no wifi (at least from Hoboken to the city), and I doubt the GPS radio will engage below the Hudson.

    Obviously, not a huge issue for people who don’t rely on subterranean transportation, but still something to factor in to the user experience.

    Just my $.02 based on a couple of days commuting a few weeks ago.

  4. Hi Jean – It’s really good to see that you’re following the blog! I don’t know if you’ve been here all along, but either way, it’s an honor to have you here. (I’m assuming you saw our post about the Aptara survey?)

    As for your comment, I’m a little confused. My experience with Kindle Serials, at least, is that they’re updated in the middle of the night. Of course, your device’s wireless connectivity has to be enabled in order to receive anything that’s being sent wirelessly. But once the content is on your device, you don’t need to be connected in order to read it. You can read it offline, in other words.

    Now that I think of it, though, I’m not even really sure what time of day my Kindle Serials are sent – I just get an email once a week from Amazon, telling me I have a new chapter to read. (I have my own wireless connectivity at home, and so my Kindle’s always ‘connected’ when I’m at home.)

    Also, as for your comment about the GPS: In the case of The Silent History, that feature is actually separate from the text itself. The GPS is only used for the book’s ‘Field Reports,’ as they’re being called. The idea, I think, is that a user would go onto the book’s website, where she would check to see if any Field Reports exist in her city. (There are Field Report locations are all over the world – there are even some in China. On the other hand, people living in small cities or rural areas might not have any Field Report locations near them at all.)

    Anyway, when you’re within meters of the specified location, your iPhone or iPad’s GPS should match the coordinates of the Field Report location (assuming it works properly, of course. I’m sure there will be some glitches from time to time.)

    So, when you’re at the location, you can then watch a brief interactive story on your device (probably with video, audio and some text, although I don’t really know.) That interactive story will relate in some way to the real location you’re standing in. For instance, let’s say you visit a Field Report location that’s an abandoned dock in Red Hook. The story will involve that very dock in some way.

    The idea, I guess, is to completely freak you out … or to at least put you *physically within* the story itself, so to speak. That’s just a phenomenally cool idea, as far as I’m concerned.

  5. So it’s an hour’s reading for $9, I have to wait six months to see how it comes out, and the author has written about some real places I can visit, if I really want to, like a dock, or a fence. Somehow that just doesn’t float my boat. What happened to the idea of creating a coherent world INSIDE a book?

  6. I saw a review of The Silent History on the weekend which was the firs I’d heard of it. I downloaded it on the spot and bought the first volume of the story for $2.

    So far I’m loving it, an engrossing and well written story. I’ve requested and received via email the guidelines for writing and submitting Field Reports. I’ve not had a chance to visit the three Field Report locations in Sydney yet (they’re all a longish drive from where I live) but I plan to as soon as I can.

    This is a fascinating and well developed new story-telling idea that leverages the unique abilities of modern smartphones and tablets while combining the traditional serialised novel with elements of computer games, augmented reality, fan fiction and social networking. I can’t wait to see how it develops in the coming months.

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