Ambient Literature, Voices Inside Your Head?

In the first of Patrick Ness’ truly impressive dystopian YA science fiction trilogy, The Knife of Never Letting Go (2008), published by Walker Books, we meet Todd, a second generation teenage settler on a distant planet. New World’s physical laws, landscapes, and climate largely echo that of Earth. The indigenous people are a species of humanoid aliens, referred to by settlers as the Spackle. However, it is “the Noise,” allegedly caused by a Spackle virus, that makes life on New World remarkable. Affecting male settlers and animals, the Noise makes inner thoughts audible at a range further than the spoken voice. Implications ricochet.

A constant din surrounds people living together in towns or villages. Hearing others’ thoughts means that males are “readable;” their inner life is on display, even while asleep. It doesn’t matter what is actually said, when thoughts as words and emotional tones can give you away. Inner worlds are complex, prominent ideas are at the forefront where volumes spike. Background ideas and memories fade in and out. Emotions colour words. It’s hard to keep your own or others’ secrets.

Women don’t have the Noise. Their normal, or non-Noise state, is perceived as silence, a gap in the Noise, presenting its own problems. Boys and men try to control their thoughts, hide what they don’t want others’ to “read,” making their thoughts and feelings seem “flat” and “grey.” Todd recites his name and age, in a cross between NLP and mindfulness training. A degree of self regulation is achieved by some. In the following books The Ask and The Answer, and Monsters of Men, we learn of the possibilities and horrors of mastering the Noise.

Hearing voices in your head is literally what you, as a participant of a work of ambient literature, experience when you don headphones, launch the AL smartphone app, and enter the story. Ambient literature, the genre of writing that creates encounters between the reader and the site of reading or listening, challenges authors to devise a logic for hearing voices. Of course, it can be argued that most novels that exist between covers, heard as an audio books, podcasts, or radio broadcasts put the voices of characters in your head. What makes situated narratives different is that you are often implicated within the narrative as a participant, moving within the place where characters’ voices exist. Your experience is closer to that of an inhabitant of Patrick Ness’ New World, than, for instance, the reader of a book whose surroundings are separate, not simultaneous with the world of the story.

Writing ambient literature, a brief checklist for devising the story logic of hearing voices:

  • What is the rationale within the story for “hearing voices?” How is dialogue/story delivered? (Overheard conversations, internal monologue, phone calls, voicemails, voice memos, tweets, blog entries, as if a radio programme, etc.)
  • Who is the participant? (A character, protagonist, voyeur, themselves, participant of a thought experiment, etc.)
  • What are we hearing? (Characters thinking, speaking to each other, directly addressing the participant, narrator — reliable or otherwise.)
  • Are voices speaking inside or outside of the story world, for example, as a guide or accomplice?
  • What is the mode/s of writing? (First, second, third person, etc.)
  • Where are voices located in space? (Stereo “between the ears” or using binaural recording to place voices in the environment surrounding the listener.)

Patrick Ness’ trilogy explodes the idea of what it might mean to broadcast thoughts, ripping into the territory of consciousness and identity. It also presents a challenge to writers of ambient literature — what would happen if your characters could hear each others’ inner voices as well as each others’ speech? And perhaps more testing, can ambient literature integrate participants’ own inner voices?

— Emma Whittaker



Ness, Patrick (2008) The Knife of Never Letting Go. London: Walker Books

Ness, Patrick (2009) The Ask and The Answer. London: Walker Books

Ness, Patrick (2010) Monsters of Men. London: Walker Books

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