May 23 2009 3:31pm

Weekend Getaway: Tumbarumba

Please note: this is a Firefox extension; if you use a different browser you won’t be able to see this.

Tumbarumba is an interesting idea for an online magazine from artist Ethan Ham and author Benjamin Rosenbaum. The idea is to take stories and insert a fragment of the story into the text of an article you're already reading online. To quote:

Our intention is for the reader to not only have the pleasure of finding and reading the stories, but also the momentary disorientation of stumbling upon a nonsensical sentence as well as a heightened awareness of textual absurdities (of which only a fraction will be the result of Tumbarumba).

I’m not familar with Ethan Ham’s work, but I do know Rosenbaum’s. His collection, The Ant King and Other Stories, from Small Beer Press was one of my favorite story collections from last year. It’s available as a Creative-Commons download in several formats, so that's a bonus Weekend Getaway this week! Seeing Rosenbaum’s name on the project assures me that the fiction will be top-notch.

Here’s how it works: You download the extension for Firefox, and then go back to reading webpages. Occasionally, a sentence will make no sense in context of the main text you’re reading. When you hover your mouse over it, it turns into a hand, indicating a link. You click on it, and the text expands, click again, and you get more text, and so on. Eventually, if you click enough times the entire story opens up using the formatting of the original page you were reading. On the right, I have an image with highlighted text to show how it is flowed into the existing text on the page.

I learned of Tumbarumba through a post made by Rudy Rucker. I agree with Rucker that it’s an unusual way to present a story (he actually states that it’s “not the kind of presentation most writers would pick!”). You can’t point someone towards the entire text of the story as you'll need to uncover it on your own through random occurrence. It took more than a half-hour before I stumbled upon some nonsensical text that I could click into a story.

The story I found, “Sequins” by Mary Anne Mohanraj (see image below), was found ‘on’ Jeff VanderMeer’s site, and was formatted according to the styles and CSS of VanderMeer’s site. This meant that some of Mohanraj’s story was in the body text, some in the sidebar, and some of it in the footer section. Not the easiest or most appealing way to read a story.

I do like the concept, even if it’s difficult to work with. I’ll keep playing with it over the coming weeks and see what other stories I uncover. It is frustrating that I can’t go and just read the stories, but that’s not their point. It does look like once you uncover a story it stays uncovered, although whether that’s tied into your current Internet session or a permanent cookie I can't tell. It does seem that I could uncover the same story again on another site, so, we’ll see what happens. Here’s a list of what stories are currently available for discovery:

* “Temp” by Greg van Eekhout
* “Reunion” by Stephen Gaskell
* “Birthday” by John Phillip Olsen
* “Bio-Anger” by Kiini Ibura Salaam
* “Sequins” by Mary Anne Mohanraj
* “Little M@tch Girl” by Heather Shaw
* “Martian Dispatches” by David Moles
* “MonstroCities” by David J. Schwartz
* “A Steadfast Tin Soldier” by Tim Pratt
* “Of Love and Mermaids” by Jeff Spock
* “Painting the Air” by James Patrick Kelly
* “Listen to Me” by Haddayr Copley-Woods

lanyo lanyo
1. lanyo
This seems just confusing....
Whatever, I'll bite. Maybe it will become my new favorite thing ;)
Ursula L
2. Ursula
This seems oddly disrespectful of the writing that would be interrupted by the story-snippets. I could see it being amusing if you're, say, scrolling through a wikipedia article and find a bit of story. But I also then think about things like the stories posted here, and the amount of work that the authors seem to put into them, and it then gets the feel of vandalism.

For example, in a story like Jo Walton's "Escape to Other Worlds with Science Fiction" there is a very careful buildup of tension as the horror of the story's world unfolds, and if someone had this installed and it decided to add a story-snippet halfway through, it would likely ruin that painstaking effort.

When it's hypothetical writing and an anonymous author, it seems amusing. But when I imagine the same effect with specific writing of an author that I've come to know (at least online) and respect, it becomes destructive, and seems wrong.

And I suppose thinking about things like this is part of the point of the project.
René Walling
3. cybernetic_nomad
I agree with Ursula.

On top of that, when I'm browsing and looking for info, the last thing I need is more confusion to add to the mix.

I can see this giving me frustration, but little else, so I think I'll skip.
lanyo lanyo
4. lanyo
I'm pretty much always online, and either I'm a poor detail-noticer, or I haven't had any stories yet.
As far as the vandalism notion, I can definitely see that. However, I have so many things going on while I internet, it wouldn't be any more interfering than the usual radio-twitter updates-email chimes-embedded links that already exist.

Again, haven't found any stories yet, so maybe my opinion will change. :)
Jonathan Wood
5. JWood
This makes me profoundly wish I could get FireFox onto my work machine. I love the idea of odd intrusive pieces of story, fragmentary shards slipping into the daily grind. It seems the perfect way to use fiction, especially speculative fiction--leaving pieces of it lying around to undermine expectations, to reveal the oddness of the everyday. Thanks for letting me know this exists, sir.

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