Since at least Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge, and now with Joshua Cohen’s Book of Numbers, we’ve seen the rise of the phrase “Internet novel” — as if anyone knows what that means. Even so, here is an incomplete chronology of the Internet novel, from 1984 to the present day, beginning with William Gibson’s Neuromancer.
It may be argued that earlier novels, genre or otherwise, anticipated the Internet before William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984), but can any of them lay claim to the invention of the word “cyberspace,” or the cyberpunk genre, or the credible hacking novel? Neuromancer might not be an “Internet novel” — not in the way we’re beginning to use the term in 2015 — but would that novel have been possible without it?
Arguably the most important next step in the novel about the Internet was Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (1992), which predates Joshua Cohen’s 2015 novel The Book of Numbers in its equation of ancient (Sumerian/Sanskrit) and programming languages. Snow Crash, like Neuromancer before it, is also among the very best of all Internet novels, and it is probably the second to meld an array of concepts — in this case: cryptography, firmware – into an arresting narrative. One year later, Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep (1993), a similarly ambitious novel, would add a global configuration resembling Usenet to the mix, although it wasn’t until Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs (1995) — arguably the first tech-campus novel (predicted by Ernst Jünger’s The Glass Bees) and the first to feature Silicon Valley — that the Internet novel began to resemble something like realist fiction (incorporation, in America, being a form of reality). Coupland’s novel was also one of the first to feature email as a useful plot element. This brings us to Carl Steadman’s “Two Solitudes” (1995); though not a novel, it is maybe the first literary fiction to bring together digital production and material consumption through email. It begins with the following note:
The Net can be a fast and direct way to communicate. But it’s still only a connection between separate points and separate realities: it doesn’t make two things the same.
Likely because of these separate online and offline realities, in the late 1990s and early 2000s we begin to see literary novels that question the nature of identity, including Sylvia Brownrigg’s The Metaphysical Touch (1998), which is arguably the first online dating novel, and Jeanette Winterson’s underrated The Powerbook (2000), which brings together stories written on the Internet with blurred identities and genderless characters. That same year, Matt Beaumont’s e (2000) became for many the first worthwhile epistolary novel to be written entirely in the form of email. But the best novel featuring the Internet during these years was (of course) Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon (1999), which, among other things, speculated about the rise of Internet banking and (eventual) evolution of cryptocurrencies.
Arguably a drought scene wherein the Internet novel, or at least novels concerned with the Internet, make way for the distractions of the Internet itself, this period is nonetheless notable for a few entries. Lauren Myracle’s YA fiction ttyl (2004), for example, was the first novel to be written entirely in the language of instant messaging. The following year, Dennis Cooper released The Sluts (2005), among the first queer Internet novels, and, to that point, one of the best at dealing with the sexual fantasies engendered by anonymity and the virtual divide. That same year, Hari Kunzru’s Transmission (2005) returned the Internet novel — or, at least, fiction concerned with the Internet as a material theme — to its proper place in global fiction by connecting Silicon Valley to India via its protagonist, an Indian programmer.
In the following years, the novel would come to express the failure of the Internet as a technosexual fantasy; it would likewise begin to (more aggressively) combine the artificiality of Internet forms with more classical literary devices. On this score, David Llewellyn’s Eleven (2007), which takes place over one day, mixes the email-epistolary novel with observance of the classical unity of time. The next year, Juan Goytisolo imagined the afterlife as a digital hell in Exiled from Almost Everywhere (2008), which is the best (if not the first) novel of its kind. In 2010, Internet-derived sex and sexual fantasies hit, if not a high point, at least a high-pitched shriek of pure alienation with Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story (2010), which, because of the upbuilding integration of the Internet into every moment of human existence, must ironically use the word “true” in its title; and Tao Lin’s now-infamous Richard Yates (2010), arguably the standard-bearer for Gchat fiction.
By 2011, more than 30 percent of the world’s population was online, including many users of broadband Internet. This meant at least one thing: MMORPGs were on the minds of literary nerds. Accordingly, 2011 saw the resurgence (or insurgence) of online gaming fictions, including Ready Player One (2011) by Ernest Cline and Reamde (2011) by Neal Stephenson. The following year, likely as a result of the same mid-term technological developments, we would see some of the first literary novels concerned with competing media. Barbara Browning’s I Am Trying to Reach You (2012) predicted much of contemporary cosmopolitan life with its portrayal of dance, performance, and YouTube arts. And Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (2012) was the first, and perhaps only, Silicon Valley novel to rehearse the battle between print and digital consumption.
The following year, Alina Simone’s Note to Self would maintain the trajectory launched by Browning’s novel, by merging questions of digital and spiritual wellbeing. In near simultaneity, Travis Nichols dramatized comment section trolling and its attendant spiritual and mental poverty in The More You Ignore Me. But 2013 truly belongs to Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge, a detective fiction and arguably the first good or great novel to accept the Internet in its material totality as a high-literary theme. Less successfully, Dave Eggers’ The Circle attempted the same.
The novels of 2014 might seem remarkably different, but William Gibson’s The Peripheral, in which digital gaming becomes a wormhole connecting two dystopian periods, is actually predicated on the reality offered up by Zoe Sugg’s Girl Online, which, although ghostwritten, was the first novel by a YouTube megastar and the fastest selling debut fiction of all time.
This year, Joshua Cohen’s Book of Numbers has been called both “the Great Internet Novel” and “the Great American Novel.” The book, published by Cohen at the age of 34, succeeds at doing to the Internet what David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest — also published when its author was 34 — attempted to do to television. It humanizes it.