253 A mathematical novel

Anyone who regularly reads CabbieBlog probably has realised that I like symmetry: subjects are always published on the same day of the week, posted at the same time of day, using the same typefaces and formats each relating to the matter in hand.

So a recently re-published novel, about 253 people travelling on the Bakerloo Line between Embankment and Elephant and Castle on 11th January 1995 in 7 carriages each with 36 seats, plus the driver, with each person described in exactly 253 words is my kind of book, the work, nearly 30-years-old now, by Geoff Ryman also showed incredible prescience: one of Ryman’s characters has developed an automated system for taxis that would make ‘The Knowledge’ redundant.

Editor Rob Hinchcliffe who oversees London in Bits which is published on Substack has written about the recent return of the ‘hypertext novel’ – 253, and how this early example of networked fiction not only helped him get to grips with London but also showed him the Web’s potential to bring people together.

I first encountered Geoff Ryman’s novel 253 in its hardcopy form.

The ‘print remix’ of 253 was published in 1998, shortly after I moved to London and I read it straight away because I was hungry for anything which might give me some kind of insight into the city. I wanted something – other than the A-Z – that would make me feel more connected and less adrift in this unfamiliar landscape of ‘zones’ and ‘lines’ (and it didn’t hurt that one of the characters in the book worked on the same street I did).

Another reason I sought out the book was that, even though broadsheet reviewers had been a little bit sniffy about the novel, the internet seemed to love 253. While I was busy finding my way around this new city, I was also stumbling around the nascent ‘blogosphere’ (the term “weblog” having been coined just a year earlier), and I’d become increasingly impressed and influenced by what these pioneering LiveJournal reviewers had to say.

So, imagine how embarrassed I was to discover that 253 had existed in a completely different format, two whole years before I came across it.

In 1996, Ryman had taken his story of 253 people (252 Tube passengers and their driver) making the seven-and-a-half-minute journey from Embankment to Elephant & Castle and published it as a series of linked pages, each one telling the story of a different character in exactly 253 words.

27 years ago he did this! Plus, even more amazingly, he’d managed to turn the website into a book; one that you could buy in an actual shop.

I loved the print incarnation of 253, but I soon realised that the online version was even better. What had been rendered as a boring old index in the book, became shocking blue hyperlinks online; and, to me, hyperlinks were the things that made the Web feel boundlessly connected and ripe with potential.

As well as using links as navigation (‘next passenger’) or highlighting how one person might be connected to another, Ryman also linked seemingly random words like ‘art’, ‘dyslexic’ and ‘minicab¹’ – adding a whole other layer of serendipity and multiplicity to the experience of reading his story.

To jump from the mind of an “old-fashioned East Ender” in their mid-fifties, straight into the head of a young “clandestine author of slash fiction” just by clicking on the words ‘Star Trek’ was like finding some new form of magical realism, (come to think of it, it was probably the first time I’d heard the phrase ‘slash fiction’ too). And that slightly giddy, unmoored feeling that developed after clicking through these narratives would follow me out into the real world, making me hyperaware of the inner worlds lurking behind the sea of faces around me.

As Ryman himself said in a 1997 interview, in the digital version of 253 “the links change the meaning of the novel… [it] is about what makes people the same… It’s about the subliminal ways we’re linked and alike.” While, the print version was inevitably read “passenger by passenger,” turning it into a story about “how different we all are.”

While I enjoyed the storytelling of 253, it was the HTML-facilitated sense of connection and kinship that I fell in love with. This early example of a well-executed piece of ‘networked art’ not only made my new home city feel less intimidating and labyrinthine, but it also seemed to point towards all the ways that the native language of the Web could be used to bring people together in new, exciting ways…

…Of course, it didn’t quite work out like that. But that’s a different article for another time (although I don’t think it’s a coincidence that, shortly after discovering 253, I started a communal blog that would go on to become Londonist).

At some point in the noughties, the online version of 253 vanished. According to Ryman, he gave some “well-meaning convention organisers access to the site” and then, shortly after, realised his work had been wiped from the face of the Web.

Then, earlier this month, 253 was suddenly restored to the internet, resplendent in its mid-90s tones of indigo and purple.

If you’ve never read 253 before then you could do worse than spend a few hours clicking through its cast of characters (and the pigeon). It may be primitive in its presentation, but it has aged remarkably well, and it’s easy to see why it remains the touchstone for ‘interactive fiction’, inevitably referenced every time Netflix throw millions of dollars at a new slice of ‘immersive television’.

What Ryman created with 253 is a purely human story. By stripping his narrative down to its purest, most personal elements he managed to make the whole much greater than the sum of its parts. At the same time, he subverted the cliche of the cynical, unfriendly and anonymous city, and brought London to life in a way that hadn’t been done before (and has rarely been achieved since).

And he did all that without leaving the confines of a single Tube train.

The date selected for the novel is also not a random number, on 11th January 1995 Geoff Ryman discovered a close friend was HIV positive.

The online 252 page can be found here.

You can sign up for the excellent London in Bits on Substack here.

6 thoughts on “253 A mathematical novel”

  1. Hiya. Very much enjoy your ramblings. However, any chance of using ‘bold’ please? The size of the font plus the background pink makes your messages difficult to read. Jay.

    Sent from Outlook for Androidhttps://aka.ms/AAb9ysg ________________________________


    1. Hi Jay, thanks for your comment, and kind comment. The background should be in white, as for the typeface, if I use bold font it would obviate my ability to add sub-headings. When I read on my iPhone or laptop the background is displayed in white.


  2. I read 253 in paperback in the 90s after finding it just at random in a book shop. It was one of the most unusual books I had ever come across. I always wondered if the characters were based on people the author knew and he just superimposed them in the tube train or were they entirely fictitious, I suppose a bit of both. I was about 40 at the time and remember feeling very out of touch with the younger characters, it would be interesting to read again and see how dated those young characters might appear now with so many changes in society and attitudes since. I’m sure I began reading with the thought you could dip in and out of it while doing other reading at the same time, this turned out not to be so as the “passenger by passenger” format was so magnetic I just raced through the whole thing in no time. Don’t know anything about the internet version but will probably re read the book version. Will have to look for a copy as I lent my original one to a friend and as is often the case never seen it again!


  3. It is white on my PC too.
    The novel sounds intriguing, if only for my interest in the short characterisations. I presume 253 words per character equals 64, 009 words in total? That sounds about right for a read that is not too long. It dooesn’t seem to be on Kindle, but I will investigate the used paperback offers.
    Cheers, Pete.


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