In 1996, Geoff Ryman, a Canadian writer based in London, began publishing installations 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 hurtling towards death. Its subjects are a fascinatingly diverse array of receptionists, musicians, immigrants, businesspeople, homeless people, lawyers, artists, failures, successes, victims of crime, perpetrators of crime, occasional historic figures and ghosts. “253 happens on January 11th, 1995,” Ryman writes, “which is the day I learned my best friend was dying of Aids.”
The innovation of 253 was that readers could look at each carriage of the train and click to read exactly 253 words about the inner lives of each of the 253 passengers. Each installation is a miniature story. They could then be read one after the other or the reader could jump, via hyperlinks, to other passengers at which the subject of the installation is staring or has a connection elsewhere on the train. It was the early years of the web. “It could take forever to load a single page,” says Ryman. “There was no broadband. There was no wifi.”
Ryman was already an award-winning novelist. His interest in “hypertext fiction” was partially inspired by Kathryn Cramer’s writing in the New York Review of Science Fiction. “Kathryn was doing a very good job of working through a theory and aesthetics for hypertext fiction [where] the reader is actually in control, the reader can actually choose, the world is big enough that it can be explored.”
On a ferry from France to the UK, he got the idea that his hypertext novel should partly be an exploration of a fictional physical space, but he reasoned that London’s underground would be a better location than a boat. “There’s nothing outside the window and everyone exists in a kind of isolation, but they’re all lined up facing each other, so they can gawp 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 quirkiness of life, the wondrous variety of London and how much fun London is,” says Ryman. “But it is also about how, in the end, the train always crashes and people die.”
The site was all “hand encoded” by Ryman himself, who had learned HTML. When he switched from a Microsoft to an Apple machine, he realized they each counted words differently, and he had to readjust his 253-word counts. He became obsessed with observing people on the tube. “A little bit too obsessed … If there was somebody who I couldn’t work out what they were doing or who they were, I sometimes followed them to see where they went … It got me to little alleyways all around Lambeth North and Vauxhall.”
Once a documentary crew brought him on a train and asked him to guess what people did. They pointed to a very well-dressed woman talking to a sloppily dressed man. “I said, ‘She’s got to be immaculately presented, so she’s not clocking in the back office. I reckon she’s a receptionist. And I reckon she’s very good at her job and that she has to deal with a lot of people all the time. And she’d be sort of the secret heart of how that office works.’ And, to my horror, the camera crew approached her and said, ‘We’re terribly sorry, we’re doing a documentary. We’d just like to ask you 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, even though, as Ryman observes, it’s science fiction mainly in the sense that it used new science to transmit fiction. He also doesn’t think the web version and the print version are quite the same book. People read the print version in a more linear way. Online, people jumped from one linked character to another in ways that changed their understanding of the novel’s mood. “The online version was about hidden similarities. Similarities that you couldn’t spot on the surface.”
Shortly after the publication of 253, Ryman planned a collaborative sequel called Another One Along in A Minute, about 300 people in a stalled train behind the train in 253. He sought 300-word character studies from the public, but few stuck to the wordcount and many submitted offensive material. “The internet had lifted a lid on all sorts of really, genuinely vile stuff,” he says, sadly.
Then in the noughties, like many notable internet artifacts, 253 disappeared. The web is very bad at preserving its own history. The events that led to 253 being erased are hazy. At some point after giving some well-meaning convention organizers access to the site, he realized the novel had disappeared. “Then what happened is, I got cancer … and while I was sick I didn’t renew the URL.” The web address was sold on. He conjures up an analogy from his life: “My father built a house by hand. It was a beautiful house. And if you go on Google Earth, someone’s torn it down to build a ghastly classical pink villa.”
If I did my job properly, in the future the book’s interest would probably be mostly historical. There’s no mobile phones. Somebody’s using a Filofax. Not one person is working on the internet. It’s a different world
It was too painful for him to think about for years. He wrote many other books. He 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 next novel, Him, is about Jesus Christ and will be published later this year. He’s also honorary senior lecturer in creative writing at the University of Manchester.
Recently he began the job of restoring 253 to the web. He used internet archives, the print book and an encoded version he once sent to his graphic-designer collaborator Roland Unwin to re-create it. Doing so, he says, “wasn’t as horrific as I thought it would be”. Since January 11th this year, it’s newly available at www.253novel.com.
Ryman’s not convinced that, in a world of sophisticated computer games and epic superhero movies, hypertext novels will steal a march on the culture. He sees 253 partly as a record of how people dressed and thought in the 1990s and likens himself to the 253 character Harold Pottluk, whose job is to record his fellow travellers.
“I was aware when I was writing it that, if I did my job properly, in the future its interest would probably be mostly historical … There’s no mobile phones. Somebody’s using a Filofax. Not one person is working on the internet… It’s a different world. And that’s what mostly strikes you. Also, pre-internet, how apolitical most of the people are. They really aren’t thinking politics.”
I tell him I found it to be a strangely life-affirming book about death. He likes this take. “I think that’s about right,” he says. “It’s not [saying] ‘Life is a bitch and then you die’; it’s ‘Life is a lot of fun… and then you die.”