Reinventing the Internet Novel – The Irish Times


In 1996, London-based Canadian author Geoff Ryman began publishing 253: A Novel for the Internet in Seven Machines and Crash on the Internet. An estimated 253 people on the Bakerloo train in London are on their way to their deaths. His subjects are amazingly diverse, including receptionists, musicians, immigrants, business people, the homeless, lawyers, artists, failures, successes, crime victims, perpetrators, random historical figures and ghosts. “253 takes place on January 11, 1995, the day I learned my best friend had died of AIDS,” Rayman writes.

The innovation of 253 was that readers could look at each carriage of the train and click to read the exact 253 words about the inner lives of each of the 253 passengers. Each part is a miniature story. They can then be read one after the other, or the reader can hyperlink to other passengers the installment thread is viewing or interacting with elsewhere on the train. It was the early years of the Internet. “A page can take forever to load,” says Ryman. “There was no broadband. There was no Wi-Fi.”

Rayman was already an award-winning writer. His interest in “hypertext fiction” was inspired in part by Kathryn Cramer’s writings in the New York Review of Science Fiction. “Catherine was doing a great job of working on theory and aesthetics for hypertext fiction. [where] The reader is actually in control, the reader can actually choose, the world is too big to explore.”

On a ferry from France to the UK, he came up with the idea that a hypertext novel was partly an exploration of a fictional physical space, but he reasoned that the London Underground would be a better place than a boat. “There’s nothing outside the window, and everyone’s kind of isolated, but they’re all lined up, so they can look at each other.”

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

The site was “hand-coded” by Rayman himself, who learned HTML. When he switched from Microsoft to an Apple machine, he realized that each of them counted words differently and had to readjust his 253-word count. He got busy observing people on the tube. “A little too obsession… If there was someone I couldn’t figure out what they were doing or who they were, I would sometimes follow them to see where they were going… This took me out into the little streets around Lambeth North and Vauxhall.”

Once a documentary crew put him on a train and asked him to guess what people were doing. They showed a very well-dressed woman talking to a sloppily dressed man. “I said it has to be delivered flawlessly, so it doesn’t work in the back office. I think she is a receptionist. And I think he’s very good at his job and has to deal with a lot of people all the time. And he would be kind of the secret heart of how the office works. And to my horror, the film crew came up to him and said, “Sorry, we’re making a documentary. We would like to ask you what you are doing.” She was a nurse.”

In 1998, 253 was published as a book, 253: The Print Remix, and won the Philip K Dick Award for science fiction, although as Ryman points out, it is mostly science fiction in the sense that it uses new science to convey fiction. He also doesn’t think the web version and the print version are exactly the same book. People read the print version in a more linear way. On the Internet, people jumped from one related character to another in a way that changed their understanding of the mood of the novel. “The online version was about hidden similarities. Similarities you can’t see on the surface.”

Shortly after the publication of 253, Rayman planned a collaborative sequel in 253, Another One in a Minute, featuring approximately 300 people on a train standing behind a train. and many provided offensive material. “The Internet has lifted the lid on all kinds of really, really disgusting things,” he lamented.

Then the naughties, like many prominent internet artifacts, 253 disappeared. The Internet is notoriously bad at preserving its history. The events that led to the deletion of 253 are nebulous. After giving some well-intentioned convention organizers access to the site, he realized the novel had disappeared. “What happened next, I got cancer … and I didn’t update the URL while I was sick.” The web address has been sold. He gives an analogy from his life: “My father built a house. It was a beautiful house. “If you go on Google Earth, someone is knocking it down and building a horrible classic pink villa.”

If I had done my job well, the interest of the book would probably be more historical in the future. No cell phones. Someone uses a Filofax. Not a single person works on the Internet. This is another world

It was too painful for him to think about for years. He wrote many other books. He won the 2012 Arthur C Clarke and James Tiptree Jr. awards for the novel Weather and the 2012 Nebula Award for What We Find. His next novel, He’s About Jesus Christ, will be published later this year. He is also Honorary Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Manchester.

Recently, he began working to restore 253 to the internet. He used Internet archives, a printed book, and a coded version he once sent to fellow graphic designer Roland Unwin to recreate. Doing so, he says, “wasn’t as scary as I thought.” As of January 11 this year, it is newly available at www.253novel.com.

In a world of sophisticated computer games and epic superhero movies, Rayman isn’t convinced that hypertext novels will steal the march on culture. He sees 253 in part as a record of how people dressed and thought in the 1990s, and likens himself to the 253 character Harold Pottluck, whose job it is to record fellow travelers.

“When I wrote this, I knew that if I did my job right, his interest in the future would probably be history… No cell phones. Someone uses a Filofax. Not a single person works on the Internet… It’s a different world. And that’s what hits you the hardest. Also, pre-internet, how apolitical most people are. They really don’t think about politics.”

I tell him I found a strange life-affirming book about death. He likes this setup. “I think that’s true,” he says. “It’s not [saying] ‘Life is a pearl and then you die’; this ‘Life is so much fun… and after you die.”



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