Individual Work
Unnatural Habitats

“Unnatural Habitats” (UH) is a poetic hypertext pastiche by Canadian writer and scholar Kathy Mac, published in issue 1:3 of the Eastgate Quarterly Review of Hypertext (1994), alongside Kathryn Cramer’s “In Small and Large Pieces”. It has 96 writing spaces and 288 links, requiring 1400 kb of RAM. The work explores the spatial affordances of Storyspace hypertext both formally and thematically. It engages with the ways in which modernity’s phallogocentric strife for teleological technological progress and masculine dominance has created numerous subjugating, alienating and potentially fatal spaces for humans and other animals.

The work is an intricately interlinked cycle of poems, divided into twelve individual paths. Yet these paths do not directly map onto twelve independent habitats. For example, the two across the top (“Apollo 13: Reentry” and “Apollo 13: Interface”) literally interface and leave the reader looping between them whilst revolving around the same poetic material, the failed Apollo 13 mission in 1970. Similarly, the two paths at the bottom of the contents page are both composed of fragments of other paths and lexias, thus generating a summative intertextual quilt representing a “blanket made out of pieces”.

Following in the footsteps of visual and concrete poetry, UH exploits the spatial constraints of a lexia window for textual positioning and perceived movement. It places short poetic segments, or stanzas, in various places on the screen, forming either upward or downward movements when read according to the default paths. For example, the “Alberto Santos Dumont” section describes an ascending and subsequently descending movement in the default reading path, thus depicting the take-off and landing of an aeroplane or, on a more abstract level, the rise and fall of Dumont’s health and achievements as an early 20th century aeronautic pioneer. By contrast, the “Submarine Patrol 1915” path describes an overall downward movement, but it also suggests, via Storyspace’s “Navigation” functionality, that readers move to the Dumont pathway after finishing the final lexia, “Sub: border”.

Mac's emphasis on the spaces and links between individual words and lexias is unconventionally linear for a pre-web literary hypertext, yet it interweaves its component paths in complex and metaphorical ways. The unidirectional loop between the two Apollo 13 paths is paralleled in the second part of the work, where readers cycle unidirectionally between “Signifier, sign, sold”, “Living vicariously, “Endowered” and “Quilt”. Although this moves them between seemingly disconnected storyworlds such as that of a Dolphin in a show aquarium, a computer addict in a basement, situations of domestic abuse in Islamic culture, and the repatching of an army uniform into an AIDS quilt, the cycle has internal cohesion afforded by the theme of unnatural lived and textual spaces. The final and bottom section of UN then picks up the theme of text as an interwoven structure. “The texture of falling” begins with a definition of “TEXT” as “woven; also fabric, structure, from ‘texere,’ to weave”, exposing textuality as “Just a blanket made out of pieces”. This path again dissipates into fragments of lexias visited in other sections of the work and ends with the final lexia from “Apollo 13: Reentry”, thus adding a sense of closure to the work. The final lexia in this path (“13-Reentry/Fall”) reiterates the material ambivalence between outer space and represented, textual space, and underscores the liminality of spaces between natural and unnatural habitats, perceived as both “noise” and “silence”. The spatially separated period following the tapering end stanza further materializes and visualizes the end of this path and the text as a whole.

The work's title image is a SuperPaint file (an early graphics editing software developed by Richard Shoup at Xerox PARC). It shows a collage of pixelated, flowery shapes on the left, set against a woven texture at close view. The title text is formatted so as to change from italics to sans serif bold and back. These conceptual and aesthetic clashes echo the theme of the work, foregrounding alienation and experimental textuality.

Author statement: 
Eastgate catalogue and folio blurb: "Composed of linked poems and paths of reading that trace through the work as a whole, Unnatural Habitats weaves together the poetry of twelve unnatural habitats - primitive submarines, crippled spaceships, basement apartments - and the women and men who live in them. ... Canadian poet Kathy Mac explores the consequences of American idealism, from the Apollo 13 tragedy to the U.S. invasion of Kuwait.”