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Urban novelties: How Bristol itself became a short story

<em>These Pages Fall Like Ash</em> turned a city into a fantasy novel, making Sarah Ditum see her home with new eyes.

New Statesman

The idea of wandering, experiencing, discovering a city is lost to a time before smartphones. Now, you're very likely carry on your person a computer capable of mapping your route from point to point so you never get lost, and once you get there, connecting you to somebody you already know. Wherever you go, your world can can be constrained to the scale of the five-inch screen in your pocket.

Storytelling experiment These Pages Fall Like Ash is billed as a reinvention of the paper book in a digital era, and it is. The fragmented episodes of the story (a collaboration between academic Tom Abba, arts collective Circumstance, and fantasy novelists Neil Gaiman and Nick Harkaway) are delivered as downloads from Raspberry Pi terminals dotted around the city of Bristol. To help you interpret the world you gradually uncover, the price of the ticket also includes a wood-bound notebook containing a glossary, some scraps of supporting narrative and a cryptic list of the locations where each chapter can be found.

The story itself is a collaboration between these media, the paper and the pixels. The notebook is a beautiful object – the teasing use of revelatory cutouts and concealing blocks of black censor's ink remind me of BS Johnson's Albert Angelo. But over the course of the experience (I think experience is the right word for These Pages Fall Like Ash), it is overshadowed by an even more impressive physical artefact: the city itself.

The story itself is a subtle, watery reflection of the real environment – and in Bristol's case, that means drawing heavily on its geography as a port and river city. The story suggests a time of flood in the future, when the walkways you move across will be drowned and the urban landmarks reinterpreted to suit the needs of an odd and alien culture. These Pages Fall Like Ash makes it necessary to attend to the streets you walk through, if only because what you are invited to imagine is so starkly different.

You see the river and the ghost signs, the ancient pubs and the not-so-ancient university buildings more sharply as you make the effort to see something else entirely in their place. Early on, it becomes clear that the fiction involves two cities sharing the same location, with lesions between them that allow some kind of exchange between the characters; and then you realise that you and every other participant in Pages Fall is helping to shape the outcome of the story.

This shared experience has the strange effect of creating a small, transient community in the city. People walk around with their faces pressed to their portable screens as ever, but for once, we are all peering into the same world rather than a magnified version of our own psyche. At waypoints of the story, we gather and exchange hints of what is to come and where to go next, taking pleasure in sharing the hidden places of Pages.

The accomplishment isn't quite perfect. Not every terminal was working or accessible when I took my tour, and the whole narrative was more than my flaky iPhone battery could take in one charge. Even with a longer lasting device, this would be a work of more than one day – and perhaps rightly so, because the episodic structure makes it a story to be lived in through the retracing of familiar streets, rather than one to be devoured at pace. These Pages Fall Like Ash works in the way works of the imagination should, though: it is something to get lost in, even if you think you know the terrain.

These Pages Fall Like Ash is now over, but the creators have plans for similar events in other cities.