1986: Uncle Roger

Uncle Roger
by Judy Malloy
First Performed: December 1 1986 - January 29 1987 (File 1)
Language: Plain text; later Unix shell scripts and AppleSoft BASIC
Platform: The WELL (original); Apple II (boxed version)

Opening Text:

I drank too much red wine. The Broadthrow’s party is looping in my mind, nested with brief dreams and nightmares.

[Note: Excerpts throughout are taken from the author’s preferred final version of the text, except for the keyword searching example, which is taken from a screenshot of the interactive WELL version circa 1987. The article contains brief discussion of the ending of the story.]

It’s 1969. A young woman in Boulder, Colorado is working for an engineering firm that’s building the Orbiting Solar Observatory satellites, the world’s first space telescopes. She’s there to help computerize the firm’s databases, not build satellites, but can’t help stopping often by the viewing platform overlooking the clean room to watch this glorious piece of hardware be assembled. “People entered in lab coats,” she reminisced later: “the thing was gold, it was shining, it was huge, it was intricate. It was—beautiful. Absolutely beautiful.” And yet at the same time, another part of her was sad. Because outside of working hours, she was also an artist, and had struggled like all artists for even the smallest scraps of funding: fifty dollars for materials here, a week-long residency there. Looking at the multi-million dollar satellite, the culmination of a decade of expensive work, she realized no artist would ever have the budget to make something so incredible.

But then a different thought struck her. “Okay, an artist cannot create that,” she remembers thinking. “I cannot create an Orbiting Solar Observatory. ...But an artist could use technology.”

The woman was Judy Malloy, “a slight woman with sandy blonde hair” and an infectious enthusiasm: when excited she would lean sharply forward with widened eyes and gesture expansively, as if ideas might flow in and out through pupils or be captured by hands. Her mother had been a journalist and writer, and her father had read Homer to her and her brothers growing up. She got a degree in literature with a concentration in art, and found a job at the Library of Congress working in “a huge, huge warehouse, full of card catalogs... to work on the cards, we rolled around on chairs.” In the mid-1960s such catalogs were just starting to be computerized, and Malloy jumped at the chance to become an expert in an emerging field, taking a FORTRAN class offered at one company she worked for. At that time the women there, as at many firms, weren’t allowed to wear pants or have long hair: she had to hide hers under a wig.

But when she let her hair down after work, Malloy had an entirely different life as a writer and performance artist. On a high school field trip to New York City, she’d slipped away to visit the Guggenheim and ended up hanging out with “two artists in their studio as they tossed back sips of whiskey and played chess.” As an adult she became active in local art spaces wherever she lived, turning her writing into spoken word performance pieces accompanied by slide illustrations, or into installations where words were projected on backgrounds or painted onto canvas. She wrote single-page short stories and left mimeographed stacks of them in bars, or passed them out on street corners. One New Year’s Eve found her:

on the streets of San Francisco, on Broadway and Columbus, dressed in red satin shorts and a blue satin cape passing out chapter 12 of SUPER LUCY, a serial about Lucy, a clerical worker, who encounters common workplace situations and problems and deals with them in unorthodox ways—leaving behind her a trail of bosses tied to their chairs with masking tape, system analysts locked in supply cabinets, and blatantly misfiled 3x5 cards.

At first her work and her art stayed mostly separate. But by the end of the 1970s she had become intrigued with the notion that databases, those mechanical and soulless ways of sorting and archiving huge stockpiles of information, might become distinctly modern tools of artistic expression. She had come up with a notion of “molecular narrative units” that could be accessed in different orders or recombined to create stories without traditional structure. She began to explore these ideas in her art. She founded a company called “OK Research” and wrote to big businesses requesting information for a new database she was compiling. She didn’t mention the database would be used for performance art, not generating new business leads. One OK Research installation surrounded the viewer with hundreds of blown-up texts taken from the piles of literature she’d received in the mail, enormous out-of-context koans like LIQUID CHROMATOGRAPHY IS AN ART and FOR ADVENTURE I WORK AT RAYCHEM and HERCULES PROFAX WILL SET YOU FREE.

Then she began to make custom artist’s books out of card catalogs. On each card she’d paste a fragment of prose or imagery, and label the index tabs not with words but cut-up pieces of photographs: readers could flip through the catalog accessing cards in any order they liked, charting their own course through a story.

“The Woodpile,” card catalogue artist book by Judy Malloy, 1979 (image courtesy judymalloy.net, modified by upsampling from lower-resolution image).

Later she worked with battery-powered address books, a then-common desk accessory in which sorted business cards could be accessed by the press of button marked with a letter of the alphabet. Instead of professional contacts, Malloy filled hers with fiction. She removed the letters from the buttons to leave twenty-six blank keys, mechanical bookmarks to random sections of a story; the reader could push them in any order they liked. But the projects were frustrating: each was time-consuming to create, and they could not be duplicated or shared. Malloy believed experimental literature should be circulated to a broad audience, not locked up in a gallery, but she could see no way to publish or distribute her database narratives.

It might seem odd in hindsight that Malloy hadn’t thought of using computers in her projects. But she still thought of them as the behemoths she’d been trained on, massive mainframes with their restrictive hours, gatekeeping technicians, and maddeningly fiddly punch cards. By the 1980s the personal computer had arrived, but also a divorce: in the middle of the decade Malloy was a single mother struggling to keep food on the table, and for a long time her own computer seemed a frivolous expense. In 1985 she finally bought a used Apple II, but mostly for her son, who did schoolwork and played Infocom games on it. She tinkered with some commercial database software, but the computer mostly seemed a distraction from more serious work. She was almost 45 years old, and it seemed an unlikely time for a radical change in direction.

But then change came to her, in the form of The WELL: an influential early online community. Founded in 1985 by Stewart Brand, editor of the Whole Earth Catalogue, WELL stood for Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link, and it had a mission of providing cheap access to online communities for the San Francisco Bay Area. Dial-up bulletin board services were becoming more popular, offering email, information databases, and discussion boards; but most were still outrageously expensive, some charging $15 to $25 per hour to connect or even more for industry-focused networks. The WELL charged just $3 an hour, and aimed to be a democratizing space open to anyone, with a network of forums—“conferences,” in WELL-speak—on subjects ranging from parenting to rock music to technology to religion. An old friend of Malloy’s from the art world, Carl Loeffler, had been invited to bring his performing arts space and magazine Art Com onto the WELL with its own conference, the Art Com Electronic Network or ACEN. Loeffler’s magazine had a long tradition of experimenting with new formats, having put out issues on videocassette, audio tape, and microfiche, and he hoped ACEN could be a place not only for art discussion but where artists could publish original, born-digital work. Loeffler invited Malloy to conceive of a piece that could be shown on ACEN.

It was as if all the threads of her life had come together. “I was struck, I was thrilled,” she later recalled:

I already had those skills. I knew how to think about the algorithms, I knew how to do the basic programming... I realised that I could do what I’d been trying to do with the card catalogs. ...I started working on them before I could actually make the vision I had for the kind of literature they were meant to be into something real by using the Apple II. It was sitting on the desk in our house, you know, it was right there. ...[I could use] the computer to fulfil a vision I already had.

On December 1st, 1986, a new topic was created on the ACEN conference called “A Party in Woodside,” the first “File” of a project known as Uncle Roger. Following in the Homeric tradition, Malloy had decided she would “tell” the story live, logging on each day to post new fragments—“records,” as she called them—of a tale that would only make sense when a reader compiled its disparate threads like a researcher following trails of references. Each record would contain only a few lines of the story, and each would be tagged with metadata: its relevant keywords.

Uncle Roger usually wears tweed suits which look
as if he has had them for a long time.
He is short and plump, and when I was younger,
I thought that his briefcase was glued to his right hand.

Because one day when we picked him up at the station,
he said to my Mother: "Given that I live on the train,
I wish that they would serve martinis,"
I also thought
that he lived on the Boston & Maine.

*uncle roger *family *jenny

Malloy at first urged readers to copy each record by hand into a local database program—something most tech-savvy WELL readers would have had on hand—and index them via the provided keywords. As the story grew, they could find their own connections and pathways through it. She called it a “Serial Novel for the Net,” a “random-access narrative,” a “database novel.” Pretty soon she had a regular audience, who would drop by the conference often to catch up on the latest pieces. “Somebody told me it was their bedtime story every day,” she remembers with a smile. A second topic was created for discussion of the piece: though anyone could have posted in the original thread with the ongoing story, no one ever did, keeping it clear for Malloy’s daily entries. Eventually some technical folks on ACEN helped her make a tiny program out of UNIX shell scripts that let readers search the posts by keyword, or combinations of keyword, allowing even those without their own database software to access the story with its intended interface.

choose one of
the keywords below and type  it
at the prompt

jenny       puffy        uncle roger
dreams      jane         miss gorgel
jeff        jack         jenny's family
tom         dorrie       men in tan suits
louise      rose         chips
mark        laura        refreshments
caroline    david        the house

?  jenny

do you want to combine another keyword with  jenny
type  y  or   n

?  y

what keyword do you want to combine with  jenny

?  jeff

There is a funny feeling in my stomach,      
and I can't erase Jeff's image. It hovers over my bed
like the image of God when I said the prayer
that began "Heavenly father hear my prayer, 
keep me in your loving care"
and lay in bed in the house in Massachusets.

God was a sort of long, dark man 
who hovered horizontally over me 
and had no face.

<return> or stop   

Pressing return would show the next match with that combination of keywords, then the next and the next, leading inevitably to:

There are no, or no more records that include
 the keyword(s) you chose  jenny, jeff

The user could then try again with a new keyword search, continuing as long as they remained interested: the piece tracked no state and “Woodside” had no explicit ending, letting the user dictate the duration and style of their engagement.

The story that emerged from the fragmented records was unlike almost any that had previously been told on a computer: more literary, free of genre trappings, concerned with people and emotions more than objects and actions, and strongly tied to the time and place of its creation. Set in the Silicon Valley of the early 1980s—when hardware, not software, was king—the story is narrated by a young woman named Jenny who’s moved from the East Coast to California, much like Malloy had a decade earlier. Jenny takes a job nannying the kids of microchip tycoon Tom Broadthrow, and “Woodside” takes place at a party of chip industry movers and shakers held at the Broadthrows’ swanky home. “Like a guest at a real party,” Malloy wrote, “the reader hears snatches of conversation, observes what strangers are wearing and meets old friends. No single reader experiences the evening in the same way.” Her ex-husband had been a semiconductor engineer, so she drew from real experience in navigating the surreal excitement of an industry rapidly positioning itself as the center of a realigning world. Exploring Uncle Roger reveals a sometimes satiric, often familiar portrait of male-dominated tech culture and the women doing their best to survive within it.

"There are many stories in the Valley," said Dorrie.

She was easy to listen to.  Jane and I sat quietly. 
"Some are fairy tales, but there are nightmares.    
Look into the nightmares 
and you'll see Tom Broadthrow's name
every other page."  

I looked at Tom.  
He has a slight build, sandy hair and a pleasant smile. 

"Why do you work for him?"   

"Someone has to protect the girls on the line."   	

<return> or stop   [return]

Jeff kept talking about custom chips.
He got very excited.  
I looked into his eyes which are brown.
I wanted him to keep talking.
"What is a custom chip?" I asked.

<return> or stop   [return]

Mark cut through the thick green frosting of the cake,
put a large slice on a paper plate
that had pictures of snowmen running around its rim.
"I have some photos of me surfing on my new surfboard," he said.
"They're in my room. Do you want to see them."

The most outlandish character is Jenny’s uncle Roger, an inveterate prankster and shameless womanizer who keeps turning up in the story like a bad penny. “He’s a semiconductor industry analyst,” Jenny notes when she first sees him arrive at the party: “He might even have been invited.” Piecing together enough records reveals Roger is involved in a chip espionage scheme, a real phenomenon from a time when the company that could make the fastest silicon could crush its competitors. Malloy calls Roger a Falstaffian character: “you can’t tell who he is or what he’s doing throughout the story,” and his aggressively lecherous behavior is intertwined with unexpected kindnesses and quick reversals.

The character of uncle Roger might be read as standing in for all the frustratingly complex relationships with men that women in the tech industry have dealt with, in the 1980s and every decade since. He pays Jenny’s tuition, and he hits on her friends; he’s family, but not to be trusted; he involves her in his schemes without asking for consent, but in the end gifts his stolen chip design to her boyfriend, wrapping up the story in an unlooked-for happy ending. “It’s the kind of trick that would happen in the theater this was based on,” Malloy observes: she deliberately conceived her story in the style of a jig, the bite-sized comic interludes that would bookend more serious stage drama in Shakespeare’s time, bawdy satires filled with stock characters, clowns and tricksters, and scheming villains.

He ate about 1/4 of the salmon cream cheese loaf,  
from the end that Puffy hadn't licked.  
"Where is the bathroom?" he asked. 

"There are three upstairs," I said. 
"The one that adjoins Tom and Louise's bedroom
is closest to the top of the stairs."  

"Thank you", said Uncle Roger.  
He put a large chunk of sourdough baguette into his pocket 
and headed upstairs, whispering "Be careful, Jenny,
this is a dangerous household." 

But the story is also about Jenny coming into her own, learning to assert herself and define her place in the new terrains of both California and a world increasingly dominated by technology. Malloy later extended the story with two more “Files” that interweave more of Jenny’s flashbacks and dreams into the main storyline, framing them as the result of a wandering mind as she works a tedious new job at a word processing center.

The woman at the station to my left is typing steadily.
Her husband is an IBM salesman, and she
keeps his picture in a small silver frame
beside her computer.    
Cold water dripped down my face.
I looked at myself
in the mirror of the ladies room.
David wanted me to go back East with him.
I was having dinner with Jeff next Monday.
Uncle Roger wanted me to be a file clerk.

Water splashes had left dark spots on the front
of my gray sweater. I took off the silver
barrette which held my hair away from my face
and put it in my pocketbook.
"Do you have any money?" he asked.

"Only about $5.00 ," I said.

He reached in his back pocket,
pulled out his wallet, and handed it to me.
"See if I've got any," he said.

David had over $50.00 in his wallet.
In a side pocket was a picture of Linda.
I took it out and looked at it. She was
wearing a white sun dress, and her long red hair
was blowing around her face.
David was looking at the road.
I tore the picture into little pieces and
put it back in the pocket of his wallet.
"You have about $50.00," I said. 

A woman’s story had never been told like this in a text game. While there had been a handful of earlier female protagonists and women authors, those stories had rarely strayed beyond genre archetypes or delved into the inner lives of their characters. Jenny was one of the first women in a digital fiction to be more than a cardboard cut-out. Malloy recalls that Jenny’s voice was perhaps inevitably shaped by the technology her creator had used to write it. “I was not a poet when I started writing Uncle Roger,” she recalls:

But there was a fifty-character limitation on Datanet... So I kept each line to fifty characters. You can see that in the way Uncle Roger flows. [It’s] a bit choppy: but that’s Jenny’s voice also. It flows that way. I wrote to the fifty characters. Well, by the time I was finished with three Files and three hundred lexias writing to fifty characters—I was a poet.

Malloy finished her original telling of “A Party in Woodside” at the end of January 1987, with a record consisting solely of the three words “END OF DATA”. Over the next year she would create File 2, “The Blue Notebook,” and File 3, “Terminals.” For File 3, Malloy experimented with shifting from a search-driven to a randomized interface: “in the same way [information] comes and goes in the narrator’s mind,” she wrote, one of the hundred records of “Terminals” would appear at random each time you requested a new one. “Sometimes one record will be repeated several times,” the instructions note, “or one part of the story will be submerged for a long time”—perhaps never to surface at all, for some readers.

Malloy published the completed Uncle Roger through the new Art Com Software, designed to give computer artists a route to distribution. The original edition came on three floppy disks, one for each File, in a transparent plastic box, with labels and disk sleeves covered in hand-inked lettering.

Malloy came up with the term “narrabase” for her project, and wrote a program of the same name to make it easier to author new ones. “Instead of baseball statistics or information on the migratory habits of fresh water fish,” she wrote, “narrabases contain fictional, narrative information.”

Each file is a pool of information into which the reader plunges repeatedly, emerging with a cumulative and individual picture. Thus, the narrabase form uses a computer database as a way to build up levels of meaning and to show many aspects of the story and characters, rather than as a means of providing alternate plot turns and endings. (source)

Malloy wrote more narrabases, continuing to bring her artist’s instincts to experiments in new forms of writing and storytelling. A critic wrote that reading her work is like “stepping into a labyrinth in which you’re lost and finding things at the same time.” But her specific project would become eclipsed in literary circles by the more general phenomenon of hypertext fiction that would rise to prominence a few years later, built around a metaphor of clickable words rather than searchable archives. For years, Malloy would not get the credit she deserved for being one of the earliest pioneers of “electronic literature,” as the literary hypertext movement came to be called: pieces by men writing later became more famous and better-studied. It wasn’t until the 2010s that feminist scholars like Kathi Berens and Dene Grigar helped shine a stronger spotlight on Malloy’s crucial early achievements. Even so, her work has remained largely invisible to the wider world of commercial and hobbyist text game authors. Almost none of the women behind the 2010s resurgence of hypertext powered by Twine, for instance, knew the story of the woman who’d helped pave the way for the form, twenty-five years earlier.

Malloy never stopped writing. She proved surprisingly prescient about the ways technology would soon change how people read: “In the 21st century,” she wrote in 1992, “readers will turn on and interact with literature that is displayed on affordable, book-sized computers.” But she wasn’t willing to wait for that future to arrive, and has created dozens of projects over the decades since that explore different interfaces to stories and new paradigms for reading them. In a 2012 interview she leans forward with excitement, eyes wide and gesturing broadly as she talks about a work in progress:

I’m working in musical notation... essentially I’m creating text that comes out on three or four different screens. ...I’m scoring it. So you know, I have 4/4 time, I have to translate that into a slower time. So I’m writing scores! And I’m really excited about it... to me, this is amazing.

Malloy’s work continued to take inspiration from the classics as much as new technology. When asked to contribute to a book called The Future of Text, she sent in a chapter composed entirely of quotations from the past, including this one from Virginia Woolf that echoed her 2012 project: “I should like to write four lines at a time, describing the same feeling, as a musician does; because it always seems to me that things are going on at so many different levels simultaneously.” In 2020, at age 78, her active website tracked an astonishing eight new projects she was involved with that year. “For me it is a continued focus on the distinction of screen-based story set in motion,” she wrote:

the hunting, gathering and remixing of ancient and contemporary narrative; the thrill of creating a way to score words like music; honing the craft of telling a story in the public square of the Internet; and the interactivity of allowing the reader the choice to click rather than wait for the word music to progress.

An interviewer once compared Uncle Roger to the nonlinear, stream-of-consciousness writing of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Malloy’s answer engaged less with style than the way both works were critical darlings but popular duds:

People will say to me, “Well, this story [Uncle Roger] wasn’t influential because nobody else did it.” You know, as a writer, is that your goal? Was that Hemingway’s goal? Was that Joyce’s goal? Was that Virginia Woolf’s goal? Who writes like Joyce now?

In the video an infectious grin splits her face, and her eyes are sparkling like a trickster’s.

Next week: Infocom’s last Implementor writes a game in a genre that ‘80s men won’t admit to reading and ‘80s women want to move beyond. Will it suffer a fate worse than death?

The original version was thought lost for years, but you can now play a DOSBox emulation of Uncle Roger that approximates the boxed floppy release; there’s also a web version from the 1990s that replaces the searchable keywords with hyperlinks. Thanks to the Pathfinders project for extensive archival work on Uncle Roger; their interviews with Malloy were the source for quotations unattributed inline. Malloy’s own writings over the years in various art periodicals and on her website were also major sources. You can find out more about Malloy and her latest projects at judymalloy.net, or find her on Twitter as @JudyMalloy.