The recreation of an internet novel: The Irish Times

In 1996, Geoff Ryman, a Canadian writer living in London, began publishing installments of 253: A Novel for the Internet in Seven Cars and a Crash on the web. It’s about 253 people on a Bakerloo line train in London plummeting to their deaths. His subjects are a fascinating and diverse array of receptionists, musicians, immigrants, businessmen, the homeless, lawyers, artists, failures, successes, crime victims, crime perpetrators, the occasional historical figure, and ghosts. “253 happens on January 11, 1995,” writes Ryman, “which is the day I learned my best friend was dying of AIDS.”

253’s innovation was that readers could look at each car of the train and click through to read exactly 253 words about the inner life of each of the 253 passengers. Each episode is a miniature story. They could then be read one after another, or the reader could jump, via hyperlinks, to other passengers that the subject of the episode is staring at or has a link elsewhere on the train. It was the early years of the web. “It could take forever for a single page to load,” says Ryman. “There was no broadband. There was no Wi-Fi.”

Ryman was already an award-winning novelist. His interest in “hypertext fiction” was inspired in part by the writings of Kathryn Cramer in the New York Review of Science Fiction. “Kathryn was doing a great job coming up with a theory and an aesthetic for hypertext fiction [where] the player is actually in control, the player can actually choose, the world is big enough to explore.

On a ferry from France to the UK, he had the idea that his hypertext novel should be in part an exploration of an imaginary physical space, but thought the London Underground would be a better location than a boat. “There’s nothing outside the window and everyone lives in a sort of isolation, but they’re all lined up facing each other so they can look at each other.”

The whole project was colored by the knowledge of his friend’s terminal illness. “It’s a novel about the variety of life, the eccentricity of life, the wonderful variety of London and how fun London is,” says Ryman. “But it’s also about how, in the end, the train always crashes and people die.”

The site was all “hand coded” by Ryman himself, who had learned HTML. When he switched from a Microsoft machine to an Apple one, he realized that everyone counts words differently and had to readjust the 253 word count. He has become obsessed with people watching on the subway. “A little mashed potato obsessed… If there was anyone I couldn’t figure out what they were doing or who they were, I sometimes followed them to see where they were going… He took me down little alleyways around Lambeth North and Vauxhall.

Once a documentary film crew took him on a train and asked him to guess what people were doing. They pointed to a very well dressed woman talking to a shabbily dressed man. “I said, ‘She has to be flawlessly presented, so she’s not stamping in the back office. I believe she is a receptionist. And I think she’s very good at her job and she’s always dealing with a lot of people. And she would be kind of the secret heart of how that office works.’ And, to my horror, the camera crew came up to her and said, “We’re terribly sorry, we’re making a documentary.” We’d just like to ask what you do.’ She was a medical receptionist.

In 1998, 253 was published in book form, 253: The Print Remix, and won the Philip K Dick Award for Science Fiction, although, as Ryman notes, it is science fiction primarily in the sense that it used new science to convey the fiction. Also, he doesn’t think the web version and the paper version are the same book. People read the printed version more linearly. Online, people have switched from one related character to another in ways that have changed their understanding of the atmosphere of the novel. “The online version talked about hidden similarities. Similarities you might not spot on the surface.

Shortly after 253 was released, Ryman planned a collaborative sequel called Another One Along in A Minute, about 300 people in a stationary train behind the train in 253. He sought out 300-word character studies from the public, but few stuck. to word count. and many presented offensive material. “The Internet has lifted a lid on all sorts of really, genuinely vile things,” she says sadly.

Then in the 2000s, like many notable Internet artifacts, 253 disappeared. The web is bad at preserving its history. The events leading up to 253’s cancellation are confusing. At some point, after granting access to the site to some well-meaning conference organizers, he realized that the novel was missing. “Then what happened is I got cancer…and while I was sick I didn’t renew the URL.” The web address has been sold. She evokes an analogy from his life: “My father built a house by hand. It was a beautiful house. And if you go to google earth, someone demolished it to build a scary classic pink mansion.

If I did my job well, the interest of the book in the future would probably be predominantly historical. There are no cell phones. Someone is using a Filofax. No people are working on the internet. It’s a different world

It was too painful for him to think about it for years. He has written many other books. He has won the Arthur C Clarke and James Tiptree, Jr awards for his novel Air and a Nebula award for What We Found in 2012. His upcoming novel, Him, is about Jesus Christ and will be published later this year. He is also an Honorary Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Manchester.

Recently started the work of restoring 253 on the web. He used Internet archives, the printed book, and a coded version he once sent to his graphic collaborator Roland Unwin to recreate it. Doing so, he says, “wasn’t as awful as I thought.” As of January 11 of this year, it is available again at www.253novel.com.

Ryman isn’t convinced that, in a world of sophisticated computer games and epic superhero movies, hypertext novels will steal a march in culture. He sees 253 in part as a record of how people dressed and thought in the 1990s and compares himself to 253’s character Harold Pottluk, whose job is to record his traveling companions.

“I was aware as I wrote it that, if I did my job correctly, his interest in the future would probably be mostly historical… There are no cell phones. Someone is using a Filofax. No people are working on the internet… It’s a different world. And that’s what strikes you the most. Also, before the internet, how apolitical most people are. They are not really thinking about politics.

I tell him I found a strangely life-affirming book about death. He likes this shot. “I think that’s right,” he says. “It is not [saying] “Life is a bitch and then you die”; is ‘Life is a lot of fun… and then die.”

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