Tag Archives: Geoff Ryman

253, Geoff Ryman

Griffin , 1998, 384 pages, C$17.95 tpb, ISBN 0-312-18295-3

(Preferably read online at http://www.ryman-novel.com )

Now here’s an early-web curio that most may have forgotten: a “hypertext novel” in the purest sense, a story without much of a main plot but plenty of characters. 253 of them, in fact: the number of people that can fit in a London tube train. Every one of them to be described in 253-word long chapters. The train (we quickly learn) is doomed to a terrible crash, making the lives of its passengers seem even more poignant.

High concepts such as “interactive novels” are often bandied about by amateur writers convinced of their genius and self-importance. Often, they’re just rehashes of cheap “make your own adventures” YA novels. Less often, they can take on deeper themes about the way we live stories (such as Kim Newman’s exceptional Life’s Lottery). Geoff Ryman isn’t just any writer (a fact that has grown even more obvious since 253) and his hypertext novel is considerably more ambitious than a piece of stunt writing.

Inevitably, there are many ways to read 253. Paperbound readers will find a “paper remix” of the book available in bookstores. But that’s a very linear interpretation of the work: the fullest experience is freely available from the web site on which Ryman originally wrote the novel. Here you will find the introductory material, tragic conclusion and the 253 character profiles that form the backbone of the novel. Thanks to the hyperlinks, you will be able to jump from one character profile to another as they interact, building a fuller picture of what is happening aboard that doomed train. Navigating through the novel becomes your own interpretation of the book: Characters encountered in a particular context will have a different resonance later on when they’re seen from other viewpoints, perhaps irremediably affecting the experience of 253.

For instance, I started reading 253 with the firm intention of doing it linearly: I would read all of the introductions, then all of the character profiles, then the conclusion. But only a few characters into the story, I started following the links that suggested a story. A young man with a crush on an older woman? Let’s click and see what she sees! What, she’s married and her husband is following her? Let’s click and see what happens! Ryman has been clever enough to include a number of such mini-dramas in the hypertext, and it’s not uncommon, following links, to go from one of those stories to another. In some ways, the free-form nature of 253 offers a clearer look at the way storytelling is wired in our brains: I found that I simply couldn’t resist the attraction of a suggested narrative. (Clearly, I’ve been spending too much time reading John “The World can be read as Story” Clute.)

The number of characters also allows Ryman many fiction-bending possibilities, as it eventually becomes apparent (especially in the last car) that not every character is inhabiting the same world, the same genre or the same story. Some are lost in dreary domestic drama; others are stuck in a crime thriller; at least one would feel at ease in a science-fiction story (having discovered the proof of the entirely reasonable assertion that all males are slightly autistic), whereas a bunch of them eventually transform their train ride in a musical comedy. A “Tall, ravaged, nervous-looking middle aged man” named Geoff Ryman [Passenger 96] even makes an appearance as part of a roving comedy troupe. But even he isn’t the strangest character on-board: That honour could either go to another man studying his fellow passengers and writing the novel’s epitaph (Passenger 252), mysteriously blank character 70, “Pigeon-chested, pigeon-toed” character 121 (my personal favourite) or the ultimate passenger 253, who sends the entire novel into an entirely different direction altogether.

It makes a unique reading experience: So many characters in such a condensed fashion, with unexpected links and a variety of lives worth experiencing. 253 often recalls the old joke about the dictionary (“great vocabulary, lousy plot”), but here the diversity and interconnectedness (or lack thereof) of the characters is the fabric from which the narrative is made. The train crash is the epilogue than caps off the story in tragic fashion, a sad note in what is otherwise an exhilarating experience (albeit occasionally tedious, when read too quickly). I’m half-glad, half-disappointed I got to experience it at home in front of my computer: In an ideal world, I might have done better had I read it on my PDA during my own lengthy bus rides to and back from work.

Air, or Have not Have, Geoff Ryman

St. Martin’s, 2004, 390 pages, C$21.95 tpb, ISBN 0-312-26121-7

Early-21st century Science Fiction occupies a curious philosophical position. It has inherited a tradition of rational techno-optimism that has never been more relevant, at a time where the future has never been less predictable. SF knows that the world does not and will not look anything like what it has been predicting for the past fifty years. And yet it struggles to evolve, dying of a thousand weak Star Wars tie-ins and falling on its knees as the reality thunders past.

It’s in this context that Geoff Ryman’s Air arrives, like a bootleg Bruce Sterling novel, like a fusion between SF’s traditional ideals and the values it has to espouse in order to evolve. It’s a novel about then, about now and about soon, a novel that makes unlikely heroes out of people who wouldn’t have been out of place in the nineteenth century.

Most of the novel takes place in the small village of Kizuldah, somewhere in the fictional country of Karzistan (presumably set close to Khazakstan). Thirty families. Two or three cars. One stone bridge. A subsistence economy based on the culture of rice and a few odd barn animals.

The heroine of the tale is one Chung Mae, a self-styled “fashion expert” who acts as nothing more than a skilled conduct between the outside world and her faraway village. She’s doing well, but her entire life is about to change: Air is coming, and it promises nothing less than the ultimate connection to information. A test is run; things go wrong, people die and Mae is irrevocably changed. Shunned by her peers, stuck with a ghost in her head, obsoleted by technological changes, Mae nevertheless becomes an unlikely advocate for change. Illiterate and impulsive, she understands information trading better than anyone else, and wastes no time in adapting her village to the coming changes.

If you think that this is a parable about our own society and how it’s being changed by, oh, The Internet, you’re absolutely right. Air may plug your brain into an always-on T3 connection, but its impact on Mae’s village meets with the same type of change resistance seen in our world. Arguments raised for and against this technology are similar to what we’ve heard ourselves over the past decade.

But there’s more to it than just a thinly-veiled retelling of the Internet Boom. The product of a skilled storyteller, Air is first and foremost a story filled with good characters and a compelling plot-line. The scale of Mae’s village allows for a cunning personalization of issues: Access to information is initially restricted to one “TV”, then a second one, and then many more. Characters see their livelihoods threatened on a very basic level by the arrival of this opening on the rest of the world.

By setting his near-future story in the third world, Ryman also touches upon an under-exploited subject in SF, how the first world is as alien to the third-world (and vice versa) as any type of extra-terrestrial. And even how, thanks to modern communication technologies, the alien is only one address, one number away. Ryman never treats Mae and her villagers with even a hint of condescension; the result is the kind of world-literate novel that shouldn’t surprise us, but still does.

Air gnaws on the future and takes a big bite out of it. It’s almost a brilliant novel. The only things holding it back are the inclusion of a (quasi-magical) pregnancy subplot that seems too contrived even for its own good, and a general lessening of tension that runs through the entire second half of the book. Chapter 14 opens up a can of worms that is never fully satisfactorily explained, almost as if the novel has become too small for its own ideas, then abruptly brought back in familiar surrounding. The final crisis seems too conventional (and too drawn-out) for such a snappy and unconventional novel.

But those caveats aside (caveats that may be ways of saying “the book didn’t go where I wanted it to”), Air is still one of the best SF novels of 2004. It takes the best the genre has to offer and sets it in a situation that has relevance to us, right now. It may even have a thing or two to teach to other Science Fiction writers. Accessible to mainstream audiences and well-written, it’s an ambassador the genre has nothing to be ashamed about.