The re-creation of an internet novel – The Irish Times

In 1996, Jeff Ryman, a Canadian writer living in London, began publishing 253: A Novel for the Internet in seven cars and crashes on the web. It’s about 253 people on a Bakerloo line train in London rushing towards their deaths. Its subjects are a fascinatingly diverse range of administrators, musicians, immigrants, entrepreneurs, the homeless, lawyers, artists, failures, successes, crime victims, perpetrators, the occasional historical figure, and ghosts. “253 takes place on January 11, 1995,” Ryman writes, “the day I found out my best friend was dying of AIDS.”

The innovation of 253 was that readers could look at each train car and click to read exactly 253 words about the inner lives of each of the 253 passengers. Each part is a miniature story. These could then be read one after the other, or the reader could use hyperlinks to jump to other passengers that the deposit object is looking at or have a connection elsewhere on the train. Those were the early years of the web. “One page can take forever to load,” Ryman says. “There was no broadband. There was no wifi.”

Ryman was already an award-winning novelist. His interest in “hypertext fiction” was partly inspired by an article in the New York Review of Science Fiction by Kathryn Kramer. “Katrina did a very good job of developing a theory and aesthetic for hypertext fiction [where] the reader is actually in control, the reader can actually choose, the world is big enough to explore.

While taking a ferry from France to the UK, he had the idea that his hypertext novel should be partly an exploration of a fictional physical space, but he thought the London Underground would be a better place than a boat. “There’s nothing behind the window, and everyone exists somewhat in isolation, but they’re all lined up facing each other so they can look at each other.”

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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 fun London is,” Ryman says. “But it’s also about how in the end the train always crashes and people die.”

The entire site was “hand-coded” by Ryman himself, who had learned HTML. When he switched from Microsoft to an Apple machine, he realized that they each count words differently and had to adjust the 253 word count. He became obsessed with observing people in the tube. “A little bit 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 were going… This took me to little lanes around Lambeth North and Vauxhall.

Once a documentary 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 sloppily dressed man. “I said, ‘She has to be immaculately presented, so she’s not in a hurry in the back office.’ I think she is the 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 would be kind of the secret heart of how this office works. And to my horror, the camera crew came up to her and said, “We’re very sorry, we’re making a documentary. We would just like to ask you what you do. She was a medical receptionist.

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 science fiction primarily in the sense that it used new science to convey fiction. He also does not consider the web version and the print version to be the same book. People read the printed version in a more linear way. Online, people jumped from one relatable character to another, changing their understanding of the novel’s mood. “The online version was about hidden similarities. Similarities you couldn’t see on the surface.

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Shortly after the publication of issue 253, Ryman planned a sequel together – Another along in a minute, about 300 people stopped on the train 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 mean things,” he says sadly.

Then in the years of the last century, like many notable Internet artifacts, 253 disappeared. The Web is very bad at preserving its history. The events that led to the deletion of the 253 are hazy. At some point, after some well-meaning convention organizers had been granted access to the site, he realized the novel had disappeared. “Then what happened was that I got cancer … and while I was sick, I didn’t renew the URL.” The web address was resold. He conjures an analogy from his own life: “My father built the house with his hands. It was a beautiful house. And if you use Google Earth, someone has torn it down to build a hideous classic pink villa.

If I did my job right, future interest in the book would probably be largely historical. No cell phones. Someone uses a Filofax. No one works on the Internet. It’s a different world

It was too painful for him to think about it for years. He wrote many other books. He won the Arthur C Clarke and James Tiptree, Jr awards for his novel Air and the Nebula Award for What We Found in 2012. His next novel, He, 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.

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He recently began work on restoring 253 to the web. He used Internet archives, a 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.” As of January 11th of this year, it is available again at

In a world of sophisticated computer games and epic superhero movies, Ryman isn’t convinced that hypertext novels will steal the culture. He sees the 253 as partly a record of how people dressed and thought in the 1990s, and compares himself to 253 hero Harold Potluck, whose job it is to record his fellow passengers.

“When I wrote it, I realized that if I do my job right, in the future its interest will probably be mostly historical… There are no cell phones. Someone uses a Filofax. No one works on the Internet… It’s a different world. And that’s exactly what surprises you. Also before the internet how apolitical most people are. They really don’t think about politics.

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


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