In 1996, Geoff Ryman, a Canadian author based in London, began publishing episodes of 253: A Novel for the Internet in Seven Cars and a Crash online. It concerns 253 people on a Bakerloo train in London rushing towards death. Its subjects are a fascinatingly diverse array of receptionists, musicians, immigrants, business people, the homeless, lawyers, artists, failures, successes, victims of crime, perpetrators of crime, the occasional historical figure and ghosts. “253 happens on January 11, 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 on the train and click to read exactly 253 words about the inner lives of each of the 253 passengers. Each episode is a miniature story. They can then be read one after the other, or the reader can via hyperlinks jump to other passengers that the subject of the installment is staring at or has a connection elsewhere on the train. Those were the first years of the web. “It can take ages 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 partly inspired by Kathryn Cramer’s writing in the New York Review of Science Fiction. “Kathryn did a very good job of working out a theory and aesthetic for hypertext fiction (where) the reader actually has control, the reader actually can choose, the world is big enough to explore.”
On a ferry from France to Britain, he got the idea for his hypertext novel to be 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 exists in a kind of isolation, but they’re all lined up facing each other so they can stare at each other.”
The whole project was colored by the knowledge of his friend’s terminal illness. “It’s a novel about the diversity of life, the strangeness of life, the wonderful variety of London and how funny 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 machine, he realized that they each counted words differently and he had to adjust his 253 word count. He became obsessed with observing people on the tube. “Slightly also obsessed … If there was someone who I couldn’t work out what they were doing or who they were, I would sometimes follow them to see where they went … It took me to little alleyways around Lambeth North and Vauxhall .”
Once a documentary crew put 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 presented impeccably, so she’s not standing in the back office. I think she’s a receptionist. And I reckon she’s really good at her job and she has to be with a lot of people all the time to do. And she would be something of the secret heart of how that office works.’ And to my horror, the camera crew approached her and said, ‘We’re very sorry, we’re making a documentary. We just want to ask you what you’re doing.’ 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 mainly science fiction in the sense that it used new science to convey fiction. Nor does he believe that the web version and the printed version are exactly the same book. People read the printed version in a more linear way. Online, people jumped from one connected 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 see on the surface.”
Shortly after the release of 253, Ryman planned a collaborative sequel called Another One Along in A Minute, about 300 people in a stopped train behind the train in 253. He sought 300-word character studies from the public, but few kept to the word count and many submitted offensive material. “The internet had lifted the lid on all sorts of really, really disgusting things,” he says sadly.
Then in the noughties, like many remarkable internet artifacts, 253 disappeared. The web is very bad at preserving its own history. The events that led to 253 being deleted are nebulous. At some point after giving some well-meaning convention organizers access to the site, he realized the novel had disappeared. “Then it happened that 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 has torn it down to build a hideous classic pink villa.”
If I did my job properly, the book’s interest in the future would probably be mostly historical. There are no mobile phones. Someone uses a Filofax. Not one person works on the Internet. It’s another 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 is also an Honorary Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Manchester.
Recently, he began work on restoring 253 to the Internet. He used Internet archives, the printed book, and a coded version he once sent to his graphic designer collaborator Roland Unwin to recreate it. Doing so, he says, “wasn’t as horrible as I thought it would be”. Since January 11 of this year, it is recently available at www.253novel.com.
Ryman is 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 in part as a record of how people dressed and thought in the 1990s, comparing himself to 253 character Harold Pottluk, whose job it is to record his fellow travelers.
“I realized when I wrote it that if I did my job properly, its interest in the future would probably be mostly historical… There are no cell phones. Someone uses a Filofax. Not one person works on the Internet … It’s a different world. And that’s what strikes you the most. Also pre-internet where most people are apolitical. They really don’t think politics.”
I tell him I thought it was a strangely life-affirming book about death. He likes this tag. “I think that’s absolutely right,” he says. “It’s not (saying) ‘Life is a bitch and then you die’; it’s ‘Life is a lot of fun… and thereafter you die.”