A Novel Where Each Copy Is Different…
Subcutanean is a book that regenerates itself for each new reader. Created by award-winning interactive fiction author Aaron A. Reed, the book tells a story of two friends with a complex relationship drawn into a labyrinth of parallel realities. The text has been authored with hundreds of variations ranging from tiny details to whole sequences that appear in some versions but not others. Each copy contains a unique telling of the story: no two are ever quite the same.
Insecure college senior Orion loves music, books, and his best friend Niko. When the two of them find a secret basement in their rambling old off-campus house, at first Orion’s thrilled. It’s another secret to share, another adventure to maybe, at last, bring them closer together.
But something’s wrong: the basement doesn’t end. Blandly decorated halls stretch on for miles past peeling wallpaper, empty bedrooms, and countless stairwells always leading down. Soon they realize Downstairs is a snarled tangle of possibilities, more and more opening up the deeper they go. Something down there multiplies everything: architecture, emotions, even people.
Together they must navigate an increasingly dangerous labyrinth that peels back their friendship to raw and angry roots, filled with two-faced doppelgängers, treacherous architecture, and long-buried secrets. Most dangerous of all is Orion’s consuming obsession: somewhere down there, is there a Niko who loves him back?
To create Subcutanean, Reed created a custom syntax for authoring multiple versions of words, sentences, or even entire scenes that differ from one version to the next. While the book’s plot doesn’t branch– each version has the same core outline– the different versions can reveal different details, unfold in different locations, introduce alternate plot threads or characters, trigger setup or pay-offs in other chapters, and resolve the characters’ stories in different ways. In combination, this library of alternatives means there are countless possible ways the story can be told.
Each time a copy is ordered, Reed’s custom software creates a new “rendering” of the text from the master source material, typesets it for print as a paperback book, updates the text on a print-on-demand service and orders a new copy. The rendering code has to deal with a number of unique challenges, like how to handle “widows” and “orphans”– single lines appearing at the top or bottom of a page, considered ugly by layout pros– when there’s no way to predict in advance how long any sentence, paragraph, or chapter will end up being, and where any piece of text will fall on the printed page.
No two copies are quite the same, and once printed, a given version will never appear again.
“The story of Subcutanean was inspired by my experiences as a young gay man starting college in a very red state,” Reed says. “My coming out process itself had been pretty painless, but I was cripplingly shy, and didn’t know how to meet people, navigate crushes, or find self-confidence. The book is set in the late 1990s, before marriage equality or same-sex stories being widely represented in popular culture, and that was a difficult time and place to find yourself. But I think anyone, gay or straight, can relate to that anxious feeling as you enter your 20s that you never got a tidy coming-of-age story, that maybe a different turn at the right moment might have set you on a different path, and that path might have been a better one.”
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