There are two ways to read Geoff Ryman’s 253. The first is how he originally published it in 1996: as a hyperlink novel. If that link is dead, don’t worry – it goes in and out. (One of the risks of a work of fiction living on the internet.) The second is the paperback version – called ‘The Print Remix’ – published in 1998, which won the Philip K. Dick Award but has since gone out of print. (One of the risks of a work of fiction living on the page.)
A train in the London Underground is about to crash after the driver falls asleep. The train is full of passengers – 253 of them – all of whom we will meet in the repeating seven-and-a-half minute window before the crash that makes up the majority of the novel. Some of these people will get off at Waterloo or Lambeth North, and live. Others will die when the train barrels into Elephant and Castle station without slowing down.
Each page is a 253-word description of a passenger – what they look like, details about their private selves, and what they’re doing or thinking about on the train. Some of them are solitary in their purpose. Others have relationships with other individuals of the train – occasionally even without realizing it. All of them are tiny universes of past and present. Only some of them will have a future.
At first, 253 seems like little more than a game; merely an expansion of every urban dweller’s daily exercise of silently wondering about and giving backstory to the commuters who crowd around them on public transit. But the impartial eye of the novel – or as impartial as it can be, given Ryman’s narrator version of himself giving commentary in the footnotes – is relentless, exposing the interior of every passenger without mercy, and using a symphonic structure to build a web between all of them. Every passenger has his or her secrets, from the ordinary to the charming to the unexpected to the terrifying. There are pigeons and children and ne’er-do-wells and subway performers. There is time travel. There are surprises too strange to even hint at. And the process of seeing who gets up and leaves the train – and who stays, and why – becomes an almost physically distressing experience. And then, after we’ve met them all, Ryman stops the time loops and lets everything collide.
At the end of 253, we learn that the date of its fictional crash – 11 January, 1995 – is the day Ryman learned his best friend had AIDS and would soon die. Rather than being a bit of trivia, this revelation reinforces 253’s emotional project: the demonstration of the desire to slow down the movement toward grief, to replay the moments before the end over and over again to hold off the heartbreak. ‘The action of this novel lasts seven and a half minutes,’ he writes in the introduction. ‘This means it probably takes longer to read it than it would to live it.’ And so the reader gets to experience what Ryman did on that same day: the devastating, open-eyed slide toward inevitable loss.
Photograph © Johan A