In 1996, Jeff Ryman, a Canadian author based in London, began publishing chapters of 253: An Internet Novel in Seven Cars and Crashes on the Internet. It is about 253 people on a train on the Bakerloo line in London, pushing towards death. His subjects are a fascinating variety of receptionists, musicians, immigrants, businessmen, homeless people, lawyers, artists, failures, successes, crime victims, perpetrators, historical figures and the occasional ghost. “253 takes place on January 11, 1995,” Riemann writes, “which is the day I learned my best friend had died of AIDS.”
The innovation of 253 was that readers could look at each car of 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 could then be read one after the other or the reader could jump, via hyperlinks, to other passengers where the subject of the chapter stares or has a connection to another place on the train. These were the first years of the network. “It can take forever to load a single page,” Reiman says. “There was no broadband. There was no wifi.”
Rayman was already an award-winning author. His interest in “hypertext fiction” was sparked in part by Katherine Kramer’s writing in the New York Review of Science Fiction. “Catherine has done a very good job of working through theory and aesthetics for hypertext fiction [where] The reader is actually in control, the reader can really choose, the world is big enough to explore.”
On a ferry from France to Britain, he got the idea that his hypertext novel should be partly an exploration of a fictional physical space, but he reasoned that the London Underground would be a better location than a boat. “There’s nothing outside the window and they all exist in a kind 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 diversity of life, the strangeness of life, the wonderful diversity of London and how much fun London is,” says Ryman. “But it’s also about how, in the end, the train always crashes and people die.”
The entire site was “hand-coded” by Rayman himself, who learned HTML. When he switched from Microsoft to an Apple computer, he realized that each counted words differently, and he had to readjust his 253 word count. He became obsessed with watching people on the tube. “Some also Obsessed… 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 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 did. They pointed to a well-dressed woman conversing with a sloppily dressed man. “I said, ‘She needs to be presented flawlessly, so she’s not standing in the back office. I guess she’s a receptionist. And I think she’s very good at her job and that she has to deal with a lot of people all the time. And she’ll be kind of the secret heart of how this office works. “. And to her horror, the camera crew approached her and said, ‘We’re terribly sorry, we’re making a documentary. We just want 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, although as Ryman points out, it is primarily science fiction in the sense that it used 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 printed version in a more linear way. Online, people jumped from one linked character to another in ways that changed their understanding of the mood of the novel. “The online version was about hidden similarities. Similarities you couldn’t spot on the surface.”
Shortly after 253 was published, Ryman planned a collaborative sequel called Another One Along in A Minute, about 300 people on a train stuck behind the train in 253. He sought 300-word character studies from the public, but few stuck to the word count. And many submitted offensive material. “The Internet has lifted the lid on all kinds of really, really nasty things,” he says sadly.
Then in the years of politeness, like many notable Internet objects, 253 disappeared. The web is very bad at preserving its own history. The events that led to the deletion of 253 are unclear. At some point after giving some well-intentioned convention organizers access to the site, he realized the novel was gone. “So what happened is, I got cancer… and while I was sick I didn’t update the URL.” The web address was sold at . He brings up 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 took it apart to build a classic and shocking pink villa.”
If I had done my job properly, in the future the subject matter of the book would probably be mainly historical. No mobile phones. Anyone using Filofax? Not one person works on the Internet. It’s another world
It was too painful 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 Messiah and will be published later this year. He is also Honorary Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Manchester.
He recently began the work of restoring 253 to the network. 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 bad as I thought it would be.” Since January 11th this year, it has been recently available at www.253novel.com.
Rayman is not convinced that in a world of sophisticated computer games and epic superhero movies, hypertext novels will steal a march on culture. He sees 253 in part as a record of how people dressed and thought in the 90s and likens himself to 253 Harold Potlock, whose job it is to record his fellow travelers.
“I was aware when I wrote it that if I do my job properly, in the future his interest will probably be mainly historical… There are no mobile phones. Someone uses a Filofax. Not one person works on the Internet… It’s a different world. And that’s what mostly hurts you. Also, before the Internet, how apolitical most people are. They really don’t think about politics.”
I tell him I found it a strange book about life-affirming death. He loves this take. “I think that’s about right,” he says. “It is not [saying] ‘Life is a bitch and then you die’; It’s ‘life is very fun… and Then you’re dead.”