Alchemy and the Archon: Who Bombed the United States?

Solarium” is a choice-based work of interactive fiction written by Alan DeNiro that won sixth place at the 19th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition. The interesting navigation developed within Twine coupled with the intense themes and topics of the work made it an intriguing read that ultimately left me satisfied. The story is set in Maine in the year 1954 during the aftermath of a nuclear attack on the United States. On the first page of the story, the narrator discovers a laboratory he had been searching for and slips into the chair that is sitting in the center of the room. In this opener, the reader gathers that this laboratory belonged to someone the narrator knew—referred to as ‘you’—and that this person was an expert in alchemy. As the narrator settles into the chair and it begins to work, the story takes off through a series of links that move through the present and the past.

Throughout the story, the reader is often presented with multiple links to click that lead the story in different directions. Some of these links cannot be clicked, however, until the reader explores other links within the work. To keep the progression of the story somewhat organized for the reader, the text often returns to the page shown in the image below. As seen in the paragraph with colored words, the reader must access these components in order to fully navigate the story and discover each link. As more elements and materials are discovered, the parenthesis that say “blank needed” change to show that you have acquired that material and have accessed the pages linked to that portion of the story. I found that this made understanding the story and its progression much easier because I had a point of reference to check back with. While I thought the hyperlink format was successful to the story, one reviewer, Bainespal, believed that the story might have worked better had it functioned through a parser that would allow the reader to look for and discover the elements and materials needed to progress through the story.

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As mentioned above, the story often bounces back and forth between the past and the present in order to describe the post-nuclear world and how the attack happened. To put it simply, the narrator and the ‘you’ he refers to were part of President Eisenhower’s Task Force D that was working to “design a comprehensive strategy to fight the threat of the Soviet Union and global communism” (DeNiro). What makes the story so intriguing however, is that this real-life threat that so many were afraid of during that time period is complicated further through DeNiro’s choice to incorporate themes of alchemy, religion, and morality. Alchemy is present most notably in the chair that the narrator is strapped to in the present tense in that it was an experiment to work on changing human nature for purposes of mind control. This mind control was developed further with the inclusion of religion by an entity referred to as the ‘archon.’ In the story, this archon has the ability to take over someone’s body and this has important developments towards the occurrence of the nuclear attack. Morality is then thrown into the equation as the reader sees characters change through the narrator’s flashbacks. Many of the links the reader must choose from on pages deal with questions regarding right or wrong and the influence/existence of love in decision making. Without giving too much of the story away, morality, or right versus wrong, is crucial in the final moments of the story as the narrator leaves the chair and finds himself in an unexpected and critical location. To sum up the significance of the story, it challenges the reader to question those in power and the ways in which the powerful manipulate institutions such as religion and science in order to win whatever game they are playing.

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For an interesting look into the creative process of this text, Alan DeNiro blogged about the story and what changes he would make after looking over reviews from readers. His blog can be accessed here.

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