I’m an utter Neal Stephenson fan boy. I’ll buy anything he writes the day it’s available. I had Anathem pre-ordered and delivered to me in Berlin because I didn’t want to wait a day. I point all this out by way of disclosure, so you’ll know where my personal biases are coming from when I talk about his newest book, a joint venture with a self-described cabal of other writers including Great Bear and some expert swordsmen. The “book” is called The Mongoliad and it only exists in digital formats. It is a serial novel, with new chapters and bonus material being released each week, and can be read either through the Mongoliad.com site or via an app. Right now there are iphone and ipad apps (I’m using the latter), but there is an Android app promised as well, and I assume other platforms will follow.
The Mongoliad is set in 1241, a time after the death of Genghis Khan but when his successors were invading Europe and ruled over an empire that spanned the length of Asia. We see the story so far mostly through the eyes of warriors on each side of the war, particularly a monastic order of knights known as the Brotherhood of the Shield. But there are also scenes set at the court of the Great Khan in Karakorum and among the priests of Rome. I’m only six or so chapters in at this point, and the story’s still taking shape. Given that Stephenson’s other books, especially his historical novels, usually clock in at around 1000 pages, there’s no doubt much more plot to unfold.
Each chapter of the novel includes links to the in-app ‘Pedia, which itself sometimes links out to Wikipedia or other sites. Here you can read more about the individual characters, places, and weapons that appear in the story. Most chapters are accompanied by illustrations or maps of some sort as well, which add some nice context and flavoring to the story. The pictures are often character portraits, giving readers a good sense of the clothing and accouterments of the period. The maps of course help orient us in the regions of Eastern Europe where the novel’s action takes place and which many readers will be unfamiliar with.
Some of this bonus material is more like a commentary or behind the scenes track on a DVD. There are notes from and interviews with the authors about their process and why they took on this story. The novel begins with an intricately described duel, a gripping piece of action prose. But interested readers can also look at the bonus earlier drafts of this chapter, and read the critiques offered by a modern-day expert in Medieval swordsmanship. The fight description changes considerably through the drafts based on the master’s analysis.
According to Stephenson’s introduction, swordsmanship and the burgeoning Western Martial Arts movement were key inspirations for him when conceiving of The Mongoliad. He’d written numerous sword-fights in his monumental Baroque Cycle and afterwards discovered that, by his own appraisal, he’d gotten any number of things wrong. The bonus material intimates that a lot of the fights in this new novel are actually staged out by the creators ahead of time, and re-staged during revisions. Those are some videos I dearly hope make their way into the app or online, as I think they’d be fascinating to watch.
While it is the story that excites me most about The Mongoliad, I’m almost as thrilled by the new way the book is being delivered to readers. The Subatai Corporation, which produces the book and the software it runs on, is creating a platform that can presumably translate to other books as well. There was a time when serializing literature was commonplace, but reading habits and book selling practices have changed to favor the big box store and the massive release of complete tomes. I’ve got nothing against complete tomes of course, but I think it’s great to have other formats for storytelling available. The proliferation of devices like the Ipad, the Kindle, the Nook color, and the Galaxy Tab are making something like The Mongoliad financially feasible. Moreover, by taking advantage of the technology to include bonus material, links, comments, and community elements, the definition of what it means to be a novel is expanding as well.
I plan to offer updated responses to The Mongoliad as I make my way through it. So far I’m reveling in the serialized novel, both for the story and for its potential as a new form of distribution. It’s still rough around more than a few edges, but a strong foundation is being built, and I can’t wait to see where it goes next.