JULIAN DIBBELL: A Marketable Wonder
Spelunking the American Imagination

You are standing at the end of a road before a small brick building. Around you is a forest. A small stream flows out of the building and down a gully.

You move south, following the stream as it tumbles along a rocky bed through a valley in the forest. At your feet, suddenly, all the water of the stream splashes into a two-inch slit in the rock. Ahead of you, the streambed is bare rock. You follow it down into a twenty-foot depression floored with bare dirt. Set into the dirt is a strong steel grate mounted in concrete. You open the grate and descend into a small rocky chamber. A low crawl over cobbles leads inward to the west. You crawl, dim light coming in through the grate behind you. There is a small wicker cage discarded nearby. You turn on your lamp. You enter a room filled with debris washed in from the surface. A note on the wall says "MAGIC WORD XYZZY," and a three-foot black rod with a rusty star on an end lies nearby. An awkward canyon leads upward and west. You enter it. You come, after a while, to a splendid chamber thirty feet high. The walls are frozen rivers of orange stone.

You pause a moment to take it in.

You are in a splendid chamber thirty feet high. The walls are frozen rivers of orange stone.

A cheerful little bird is sitting here singing.

To speak of fantasy in contemporary American culture is, as any contemporary American adolescent can tell you, to speak of dungeons and dragons.

More precisely, it is to speak of underground labyrinths and the adventures to be had in them. And more precisely still, perhaps, it is to speak of one such labyrinth in particular: Kentucky's Mammoth Cave system, the longest in the world, 350 miles of passageways snaking intricately beneath some 20 square miles of wooded hill country and surfacing at over a dozen widely scattered holes in the ground, one of which, known as the Bedquilt Entrance, happens to bear a strong resemblance to the small chamber beneath the strong steel grate set in the dirt at the bottom of the depression that rises to the streambed that leads to the small brick building at the end of the road described above.

That description, it turns out, holds a central place in the history of modern fantasy. It comprises the opening moves, quoted more or less verbatim, of the classic mid-'70s computer game Adventure, the world's first computerized role-playing game and the primal ancestor of all those that followed. Today at least a million people live parallel lives in the richly social worlds of multiplayer online role-playing games like Everquest and Ultima Online. Millions more have lost themselves for weeks on end in the lucidly rendered dream worlds of single-player games like Myst and Morrowind. But not many are aware of the debt these vivid, graphics-intensive realms owe to the crude but engrossing text-based world of Adventure -- and fewer still know how much that world owes to the sand- and limestone reality of Mammoth.

What it owes is nothing less than its structure: take away the magic wands, fearsome dragons, axe-wielding dwarves, and other enchantments that populate Adventure's caverns, and what remains is a simulated Bedquilt so topographically correct that experienced Adventure players have been known, on their first visits to the real Bedquilt, to navigate its complex passages more knowledgeably than their guides.

Stephen Bishop was seventeen years old when he first stood amid the poplars outside Mammoth's yawning entrance and felt the chill air of the cavern on his face. The year was 1838, and Bishop was a slave.

His owner was Franklin Gorin, a Glasgow, Kentucky, lawyer who had recently bought the Mammoth Cave tract and planned to build it up as a tourist attraction. He wasn't the first to try. From its discovery by white men in the late 1700s through the end of the War of 1812, Mammoth Cave was exploited primarily for its reserves of calcium nitrate, or niter, a byproduct of bat guano that was easily converted into the saltpeter needed to make gunpowder. During the war, saltpeter prices skyrocketed, and the cave became a subterranean factory for the mining and processing of niter, manned by as many as seventy slaves at a time. But when the war ended, prices collapsed, and the cave's owners shifted into a less labor-intensive business: charging people to come in and take a look.

It wasn't a bad idea. The heavy digging around the niter works had uncovered prehistoric human remains, including a number of "mummies" -- dried-out aboriginal corpses, well-preserved in the cave's mild air, some still dressed in elaborate ceremonial gear. Word of the discoveries spread fast, fascinating a young, culturally insecure nation eager for any signs of ancient civilization in its midst, and the cave owners readied themselves for a flourishing tourist trade. The apex of the mummies' fame, however, was followed swiftly by the financial depression of 1819, and visitor traffic never amounted to much. When Gorin bought the cave two decades later, it had become a steady but hardly impressive moneymaker, and he got it for less than a quarter of what it would have sold for at the height of the saltpeter boom, thirty-five years before.

But Gorin meant business. He started renovating and enlarging the cave site's dilapidated inn. He added stables. And in what turned out to be his smartest move, he brought Bishop to the cave to work as a guide.

Small, lithe, and passionately curious, Bishop proved a quick study and an unprecedented caver. Permitted to explore Mammoth's recesses in his off hours, he squeezed through crevices and traversed chasms no man or woman had braved before, pushing on to discover unsuspected marvels: vertical shafts over a hundred feet high, dripping with flowstone; underground lakes and rivers, populated by eyeless albino fish; a chamber thickly blanketed with snowy-looking encrustations and delicate white gypsum "flowers." All through the winter of his first year at Mammoth, Bishop explored, doubling the size of the known cave by spring and securing once and for all its reputation as a natural wonder.

But Bishop did more than that as well: he made the cave a cultural phenomenon. By his second season, visitors arrived asking for him by name, drawn by the fame of his erudite, entertaining tours. "He had a fine genius, a great fund of wit and humor, some little knowledge of Latin and Greek, and much knowledge of geology," Gorin wrote several years later, "but his great talent was his knowledge of man. . . . He knew a gentleman or a lady as if by instinct."

Bishop made the most of this ability to size people up, making sure all comers got the spectacle they felt they'd paid for. Most were easily satisfied; others came hungry to explore uncharted cave. Bishop catered to them all, at times bringing the more adventurous along with him on his discoveries -- at others, apparently, letting them think they were discovering territory he had in fact already surveyed. As expert as he was in exploring, in other words, he was expert, too, in delivering what was then a novel sort of product but is now known familiarly (to students of latemodern marketing culture, anyway) as the commodified experience.

In both areas of expertise, however, his great advantage seems to have been a single insight: that Mammoth wasn't one cave but two, the one embedded in rock and the other in the imagination. Indeed, in at least one sense Bishop dwelled more in the second than the first, since aboveground or below he carried always in his head a nearly perfect image of the cave system. When Gorin sold his property, slaves and all, to Dr. John Croghan in 1839, the new owner asked Bishop to sketch a map of his discoveries and was astonished by the level of detail. Croghan commissioned a more thorough map, and Bishop, holed up at Croghan's Louisville estate, spent two weeks perfecting it, walking through every room and tunnel of the caverns in his mind and ending up with a chart that remained unsurpassed in its accuracy for the next sixty years.

The map documented more than Bishop's keen spatial memory, though. It also recorded the colorful names he'd given his discoveries: Fairy Grotto, Little Bat Room, Snowball Room, Gothic Avenue, Cleaveland's Cabinet, Serena's Arbour, Purgatory, Haunted Chamber, Indian Graves, Giant's Coffin, Dismal Hollow. For Bishop, clearly, it wasn't enough just to map the material structure of the cave's passages and chambers. Its shape, after all, wasn't only topographical. It was fanciful as well, a network of mythic resonances and poetic leaps that had occurred to Bishop and his occasional companions as they'd explored -- and that the names helped keep alive in his mind. They made his memory of the cave more vivid, and they fixed in words and images his delight in the spaces he had found.

Also, of course, they weren't bad for business. Bishop plainly understood that part of his job, maybe even the main part, was to help his guests see more in the cave than what was merely there. The suggestive place names did some of that work. Other bits of underground theater did the rest. The poet and travel writer Nathaniel Parker Willis, who visited Mammoth Cave in 1852, described how Bishop deftly set the mood for fantasy when Willis's tour group came to an empty spot ("not a very attractive-looking place in itself") where once the handsomely attired mummy of an Indian woman had reposed: "Stephen set down his lamp, after showing us the hollow niche in the rock against which the fair one was found sitting, as if, with his sixteen years' experience as guide, he had found this to be a spot where the traveler usually takes time for reverie. It cost me no coaxing to have mine. With the silence of the spot, and all the world shut out, it is impossible that the imagination should not do pretty fair justice to the single idea presented."

For all that his charges sought out such moments of reverie, however, Bishop couldn't have missed the ambivalence that settled around those moments like a fog. What Willis and his like were after was a power Western culture had long imputed to caves -- the power of phantasmatic vision, of oracles and apparitions. But the flipside of this power was an even greater powerlessness -- that of problematic vision, of blindness and delusion -- and Bishop surely knew it. Perhaps his "little knowledge of Latin and Greek" had brought him in contact with Plato's famous "Simile of the Cave." Perhaps he knew therefore that the founding fable of Western philosophy envisioned the cave as a kind of epistemological torture chamber, peopled with prisoners allowed to see nothing of the outside world except its shadows and obliged, in the end, to mistake the shadows for reality. But even if he'd never read the basic texts, Bishop had the basic idea: the first two bodies of water he discovered in Mammoth's depths he named in honor of the ancient mythic links between ghosts, unknowingness, and the underground. He called them the River Styx and Lake Lethe.

Also, there were younger myths afoot in Bishop's day that would have driven the older meanings home in any case. The American mythology of wide open spaces was coming into its own. Outside the cave lay Kentucky, scarcely a generation removed from its frontier days, and further west a continental blanket of unsettled territory rolled on to the Pacific. The ample, welcoming Cartesian plane of the prairie was becoming more and more a symbol of the promised freedom and opportunity at the heart of America's self-image. How un-American, then, the close, crooked, fractal shape of Bishop's cave must have seemed to visitors. How redolent of bondage and limitation, and how fitting to find installed as "chief ruler" and "presiding genius of this territory" a bondsman, his only subjects a handful of dead Indians. For if the open plain had become the defining topology of America's central myth, of prosperous liberty, the cave was necessarily its countermyth, and what better demographics to people it with than those that gave the lie to the official story?

The irony, of course, was that for Bishop the cave was anything but a place of bondage. The guide work was a kind of servitude, certainly, but he didn't seem to mind it. And when he ditched the tourists and went exploring, as he continued to do throughout his life, he could hardly have felt more free. To picture Bishop on his own in the cave's far depths -- striding in awe down some new avenue so vast his lantern barely illuminated the walls, or leading his young wife through the tunnels to admire some piece of subterranean beauty only he had ever seen before -- is to contemplate an image of near-perfect autonomy.

And yet, besotted though he was with this "grand, gloomy, and peculiar place" (as he called it), Bishop recognized that the freedom he enjoyed there was, like so much else about the cave, only partly real. One day in 1852, as he and Willis paused to rest on their way down to see the blindfish in the River Styx, the author asked him what he thought of slavery. As it happened, Dr. Croghan had died two years before, and the doctor's will stipulated that Bishop and a number of other slaves were to be set free seven years after his death. As Bishop now confided to Willis, though, that wasn't soon enough for him. He told Willis he meant to buy his freedom -- and his wife and son's -- as soon as possible. He said he was saving the wages he'd been getting since his master's death, and that he planned to take his family to a place far away from Kentucky. They were going to resettle in Liberia, the new African colony for freed American slaves.

Neither Willis nor Bishop could know, of course, that none of this would come to pass. Bishop never would get the money together to buy his way out of slavery; freedom would come to him in 1856, not through his own efforts but in accordance with his master's will; and one year after that, Bishop would die of unrecorded causes, aged thirty-six, his family still in slavery.

For now, though, he had the fantasy, and as sweet as life in Mammoth Cave had been, the fantasy was sweeter. Bishop talked, Willis listened, and then it was time to move on. When they came at last to the River Styx, Bishop dipped a net into the water and brought up a small, wriggling fish, ghostwhite and eyeless. The two men sat by the river a while longer, then headed back to daylight. They took the dying blindfish with them, up, out, and back to the Mammoth Cave Hotel, where it was gutted and placed on public display.

Will Crowther was thirty-eight years old when he first gazed into his future as a middle-aged North American white male and felt the chill air of desolation on his face. The year was 1976, and Crowther was going through a rough divorce.

He'd seen better days for sure; much better. Four years earlier, he'd had a wife he loved, two young daughters he adored, a job that pushed his considerable talents to their limit, and an odd but thrilling hobby that both consumed and fulfilled him. Now all he had was the job.

Not that that was anything to sneeze at. To say that Crowther was a computer programmer is, by all accounts, something like saying that Michelangelo was a ceiling painter. By the time Crowther reached his professional stride, sometime in his early thirties, a poll of his peers probably would have ranked him in the top of the top percentile of the world's programmers. His coworkers at the Cambridge, Massachussetts, consulting firm of Bolt Beranek and Newman needed no such confirmation of his brilliance, however. Years later they would still recall his remarkable ability to picture in his head, at every level of detail, the entirety of whatever complex program he was working on -- the equivalent, one said, of "designing a whole city while keeping track of the wiring to each lamp and the plumbing to every toilet."

In 1969, BBN had won the contract to build a new, decentralized kind of computer network for the Defense Department. Called arpanet, the network was the beginning of what would eventually be called the Internet, and while it would be a gross exaggeration to say Crowther invented the thing, it doesn't seem too far off the mark to say he wrote it. Not single-handedly, of course, but if there was one coder on BBN's small programming team who was truly indispensable, Crowther was it. "Most of the rest of us," one teammate later recalled, "made our livings handling the details resulting from Will's use of his brain."

But if coding was Crowther's gift, his passion lay elsewhere: underground. During the happier years of their marriage, he and his wife, Pat, had spent every vacation they could exploring the network of caves beneath Kentucky's Flint Ridge, adjacent to the Mammoth cave system. They befriended world-class cavers and ultimately joined their ranks, becoming key participants in a concerted quest to conquer "the Everest of world speleology": the discovery of a connection between Flint Ridge and Mammoth, which would confirm the Mammoth system as the longest in the world. When they weren't slogging through the muck and murk on survey trips, Will and Pat contributed to the effort by helping maintain the project's maps. Crucially, Will wangled some room on one of BBN's computers to load in the cartographic data, and for the first time in caving history the shape of the subterranean labyrinth was reduced to the precision of pure numbers. The Crowthers set up a Teletype terminal in a corner of their living room and started keying in cave data, which in turn became cave maps, sharp-lined and schematic, printed out on a plotter at BBN's offices and brought home nightly by Will to clutter up the house.

Somewhere in those pages lay the passage they were seeking. Poring over the maps together in late evenings, after they'd kissed their daughters, Sandy and Laura, good night, Will and Pat must have laid eyes on it a hundred times, never knowing what it was and where it led. In the end it was Pat who found out: the survey party that finally discovered the connection between Flint Ridge and Mammoth, on August 30, 1972, was made up of her and three other veteran cavers, none of them Will. He was thrilled, of course, both for his wife and for the collective effort they had taken part in. But he hadn't been there, and he couldn't feel what Pat felt. She wrote later that when she woke up on the Thursday morning after the discovery, she felt the same way she had after she'd given birth to her children: the whole world seemed new. She put on a Gordon Lightfoot record, she said, and cried.

Was it then that the seed of Will and Pat's eventual breakup was planted? Did Will's absence from the historic trip signal the onset of greater and greater distances between them? Who can say? It's enough to note that by late 1975 their marriage was falling apart, and that by early 1976 it was over.

And here was where Will's own historic moment began. As he later explained to an interviewer, he had lately taken to playing a new kind of game called Dungeons and Dragons, getting together with some of the guys from BBN whenever enough of them had the time. The particular D & D scenario they were playing involved a lot of imaginary traipsing through the woods and caverns of J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth, and in it, Crowther role-played a thief character, called simply Willie the Thief. The game was intensely absorbing, and though he didn't exactly play it to escape from reality, the distraction couldn't have hurt: Will and Pat's divorce was on its way and soon enough arrived.

"And that left me a bit pulled apart in various ways," said Crowther. "In particular I was missing my kids. Also the caving had stopped, because that had become awkward." Between wife, kids, and cave, the divorce had taken from him most of what had given his life its shape, if not its meaning. Faced with such a loss, many men Crowther's age would have turned to desperate consolations -- drinking too much, having affairs with twenty-year-olds, blowing paychecks on high-end audio equipment. Others would have simply despaired. But Crowther, being Crowther, had a different idea: "I decided I would fool around and write a program that was a re-creation in fantasy of my caving, and also would be a game for the kids, and perhaps [include] some aspects of the Dungeons and Dragons that I had been playing."

The game, of course, was Adventure. What Crowther wrote then was a simple thing compared to what most Adventure players came to know -- a sketch dashed off in three or four bursts of weekend coding. Still, almost everything that mattered was already in place. The lean but vivid cave descriptions, based on Crowther's fondly, fiercely remembered Bedquilt, were mostly all there. The rudimentary puzzles of the opening game -- a few hidden treasures, some difficult beasts, the mysterious magic word XYZZY -- had been installed. Crowther's daughters, then aged seven and five, "thought it was a lot of fun," he determined, and that was enough for him. After a while, having drawn whatever solace he could from the game, Crowther left it on a BBN computer and didn't give it much more thought.

And there it might have remained, had BBN's computers not been attached to the network Crowther helped create. Word of the game began to circulate from network node to network node, as did the game itself. A few months after Crowther wrote it, Don Woods, a grad student at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, found a copy of Adventure on a local computer and was smitten. Frustrated by bugs in the program, though, and by the game's relative simplicity, Woods emailed Crowther asking for a copy of the source code so he could take a shot at improving it. Crowther obliged, and after several months' work, Woods released what has become the game's canonical version. He had added a point system and done a considerable amount of landscaping, putting in an active underground volcano, further complicating the existing mazes, and generally making the game enough of a challenge to suck the average unsuspecting player into a black hole of addiction.

The rest is technological history. As computer culture spread, so spread Adventure, the two so closely intertwining that each became a kind of image of the other. One veteran coder profiled in The Soul of a New Machine, Tracy Kidder's classic inside look at the computer industry circa 1980, could think of no better way to convey the obsessive thrill of programming than to sit the author down and have him lose himself in Adventure's labyrinth of puzzles. "Each 'room' of the adventure was like a computer subroutine, presenting a logical problem you'd have to solve," Steven Levy later explained in Hackers, his epic history of coder culture. "In a sense, Adventure was a metaphor for computer programming itself -- the deep recesses you explored in the Adventure world were akin to the basic, most obscure levels of the machine that you'd be traveling in when you hacked assembly code. You could get dizzy trying to remember where you were in both activities."

By the millennium's end, Adventure had become such an elemental fixture of the computing landscape -- available on every platform from Windows to Linux to Palm and still a common point of reference for computer geeks -- that it seemed always to have been there. Literary critic Espen Aarseth has called it "a mythological urtext, located everywhere and nowhere." For Aarseth, Adventure's mythic dimension derived not only from its sword-and-sorcery ambience but from its privileged place in the technocultural imagination, where it looms as the legendary origin of digital narrative itself. Branching, multilinear, not so much read as explored, the literary mode that theorists have variously called hypertext, cybertext, interactive fiction, ergodic literature, and other, less felicitous names, has as much in common with the structure of caves as with the structure of computing -- and in Adventure, which elegantly conflates the two, it finds not only one of its earliest instances but its most lucid definition.

No wonder so many more people have heard of Adventure than have heard of Will Crowther. The game seems so organic an extension of the logic of the digital into the realm of the imaginary that it's easy to forget someone had to invent it. And yes, no doubt it's true that if Crowther hadn't invented Adventure, the nature of computers and of make-believe would sooner or later have compelled someone else to dream up something very much like it.

But the fact remains that Will Crowther did invent Adventure. And if you play it with your mind awake to more than just the challenge of its puzzles, you'll know it wasn't just the nature of computers and of make-believe that compelled him to.

Follow again that path from the small brick building to the steel grate in the ground; go down into the rocky chamber just below it; crawl west, over cobbles. Note the odd, precise details along the way: the debris washed in from the surface, the stream disappearing into a two-inch slit. Note the hint of melancholy in the spare, attentive prose that renders these details, the way it amplifies the loneliness inherent in this solitary quest. Go west again, and then once more. Imagine a man sick with yearning for a place he'll never see again, and for the life he lost when he lost this place. Imagine the care with which he might try to re-create this place in fantasy: how hard he would try not to lose its beauty by remaking it more beautiful than it really was, or on the other hand to sour its memory by reinventing it as anything, finally, but a place of delight. Then look around you:

You are in a splendid chamber thirty feet high. The walls are frozen rivers of orange stone.

A cheerful little bird is sitting here singing.

In his 1995 essay "The Craft of Adventure," game designer Graham Nelson sets out to define an aesthetic of what is generally known as interactive fiction but which he prefers to call adventure games. Addressed to the small but passionate community of amateurs who continue to produce computer games in Adventure's text-only, role-play style (the brief commercial heyday of Infocom's Zork and other shrink-wrapped Adventure knock-offs came and went over two decades ago), Nelson's argument starts with a single principle: "In the beginning of any game is its 'world', physical and imaginary, geography and myth."

It's for this reason, perhaps, that Nelson locates the historical origin of the form not in the creation of Adventure but in the moment Mammoth Cave stopped functioning as a source of well-composted bat shit and started succeeding as a source of marketable wonder. Adventure works as well as it does, Nelson argues, largely because its world is grounded in Crowther's experiences of an actual place -- and that place is Mammoth. Long before Crowther adapted the cave to his purposes, after all, another man had prepared it for him, refashioning the cave as both physical and imaginary, geography and myth. "Perhaps the first adventurer," Nelson suggests, "was a mulatto slave named Stephen Bishop."

It makes more than passing sense. Even at a casual glance the parallels between Bishop and Crowther stand out like signposts. One cave, two men: each man drawn to the cave as a site of both mythic fantasy and arduous exploration; each possessed of an astonishing memory for complex structure and a fascination with the job of mapping the cave's; each, curiously enough, turning finally to the cave in hopes of finding there a kind of domestic redemption -- Crowther grappling in imaginary shadows with the emotions of his divorce, Bishop applying the fruits of his explorations toward the goal of buying his wife and son out of slavery.

Ultimately, though, what interests most about the comparison between Bishop and Crowther isn't the similarities but the differences, and the way they illuminate the shifting cultural contexts the two men inhabited. When Bishop discovered his cave, the American mythos of open space was in ascent, buoyed not only by the expansion of the national frontier but by the burgeoning imperialism of Western civilization generally. By Crowther's day, however, the frontiers had closed (even the "final frontier" explored by the Apollo missions was shutting down), and America was in the market for a new sort of mythic space. And just as Bishop's status as a slave reflected the place of the cave in the cultural imagination of the time, so Crowther's role as an Internet pioneer suggested the cave's new meaning and new centrality: it had become iconic of life in the fast-approaching information age, an epoch in which the occupation of open territory (and the exploitation of its resources) matters less than the knowledge of complex, hidden passageways and what they lead to.

Forking, twisted, and tangled, a topological profusion in which no two points are connected by fewer than two paths -- the shape of caves is, in many ways, the shape we're in these days. It's the shape of the networks we explore now everyday, wanting to or not: communication networks, networks of commerce, of image, of fact. Networks of power, threaded around the world and centered nowhere in particular.

This is not the world Stephen Bishop was born into. For that matter it's not even the world Will Crowther came of age in. But it's a world both showed us how to navigate. Mammoth Cave may not be Plato's, but it's just as dark, and in it Bishop and Crowther learned a new way to seek life's meaning: not by moving toward the light but by descending further into shadow, toward the heart of darkness where the blindfish swim.

Back to Top | About the Author | Subscribe to TOPIC