previously: asteroids, shy girl, info breath process map, nr3, manual input sessions, Do Ho Suh, be my last blog, kerazy motherbumper, pixel-torn pear, BATTLE FINGER,

253, a novel for the Internet about London Underground in seven cars and a crash
In cyberspace, people become places.

As the train rumbled and screeched from dark tunnel to dark tunnel, I had ample time to get lost in my own thoughts on the subway to school every day of my adolescent life. Occasionally, I would look up from my internal world to notice the other passengers in the train with me, all of us rocking in time to the car's movement. Only very rarely would the same, very specific and incredibly dizzying realisation come upon me: that every single passenger in this subway car was just as lost in thought as I; that their plans, their lives, their subway stops were just as important to every single passenger as mine were to me.

And just as complex.

Then I would multiply my own little complex life by the number of people in my subway car, and multiply that by the number of cars on my train, times the number of trains running every five minutes on my line, times the number of lines in New York, and I would soon swoon with the vertiginous question "how can this world possibly hold so many stories?"

All this and I didn't even realise that London had its own underground train system as well.

This is the context for Geoff Ryman's hypertext story 253, in which the reader becomes a lurking "mind" reader who can peer into the thoughts of all 253 passengers on a specific London Underground train.

It is the first piece of hypertext literature I have explored which has not driven me to mind-flanging frustration. Usually, I try to construct a narrative out of the scattered fragments, wondering vaguely if the author had chosen hypertext to hide the fact that he or she couldn't tell a cohesive story in the first place.

And this is one reason why I find 253: Tube Theatre so enjoyable: there is no plot, just a myriad of curious character studies that intersect mildly.

Very British.

Experiencing this story involves trundling from car to car, noticing the passengers' appearance, reading their minds, discovering associations between the characters, and watching minor sub-plots to the greater non-plot emerge and intermingle.

"many passengers are doing or thinking interesting things. Many are not. Nothing much happens in this novel... Those seeking sensation are advised to select the End of the Line option."
-Geoff Ryman, Why 253?

As the story is presented as a space rather than as a narrative, and as the interface is relatively simple within the hypertext genre, the experience of navigating this story shares much with that of a simple hypertext game. Return visits do not require repetition, as branches are incredibly numerous and obvious, so it is a pleasant place to revisit and explore.

Additionally, this story gives a greater sense of control than many other hypertext stories, as the reader comes quickly to know what to expect when clicking a person's name, a car number, company, country or other link between characters and events. More ambiguous hypertexts leave the novice reader with a much vaguer conception of their control over the piece, at times devolving into apparently random cause and effect between link and linked.

Of course, its ease of use does not mean that this story is necessarily better than other hypertexts, nor does it mean that it is an inferior work because it is not pushing the experimental boundaries of hypertext.

And there are certainly surprises. An object in the very first car hurtles the reader straight to The End of The Line, and the story is suddenly switched from increasing tension toward a known disaster to a more Pulp-fiction or Memento-like approach in which the reader traces back from a disaster in order to piece together the stories and the characters who made it happen.

As a piece of literature, it is engaging and amusing, accomplishing much with simple and well-placed words. For instance, this passage captures quite simply yet deeply the confusing and frightening experience of run-ins with authority figures in foreign cultures

"Miss Halet Ozgen... She cannot go back to Turkey... she was in a taxi that was stopped by police. Using the polite plural form of you she asked what the taxi driver had done wrong. 'You are on the side of the guilty!' the policeman said, using the singular. 'Are you my father or a relative?' she replied, insulted. He grabbed her wrist, flung her to the ground. She woke up sobbing in the back of another driver's cab. The driver said, 'You cannot be Turkish, to help a taxi driver.'"

As we shuttle from car to car, we are moving from character to character, so we change not only time and place but also personality and perspective. As in all hypertext novels, there is a high degree of unpredictability and randomness, yet the straightforward language and the reader's sense of control make the disorientation intriguing rather than off-putting

"Miss Ann Frank... An old crazy lady is singing 'Is that all there is'? Halet likes the song; there is something Turkish about its mournfulness. A black lady starts to sing it too."

Occasionally, Ryman's terse style tweaks the balance from novel to outline, presenting something that feels more like a planned sketch for a character rather than a fully-formed character itself

"Mr Tahsin Cilekbileckli: like Antonio Banderas in Interview with the Vampire, down to the long black hair. Neatly pressed London Underground uniform, except for the jacket, which is slung over the back of his chair. Unshaven, baggy-eyed. His Hush Puppy shoes are worn along one edge."

In this case, the cultural reference is clearly aimed at the reader or writer, rather than emerging from the character, so it comes off as a pneumonic for the author rather than providing insight into Tahsin. While I felt quite comfortable leaping from mind to mind, experiencing the train through the eyes of so many different personalities, I chafed when my role as reader was so clearly thrust back onto me. Lapses like these tended to break me out of my own omni- yet non-present role in the story, making me feel like an unintended passenger on the train myself, engaged in conversation with the author about the characters of the story. I preferred to snoop on the passengers of the train.

In summary, Geoff Ryman's 253 is a wonderful entry-level book for hypertext neophytes like myself. The simple language and clear navigation allow the reader to shift time, space and perspective without the frustrating disorientation of many othr hypertext novels. As a work of fiction, it contains vivid characters and interesting sub-plots, and generally gave me an insight into many other kinds of people and perspectives on the world I saw every day on the subway on my way to school in New York.

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previously: asteroids, shy girl, info breath process map, nr3, manual input sessions, Do Ho Suh, be my last blog, kerazy motherbumper, pixel-torn pear, BATTLE FINGER,

Saturday, October 15, 2005 many people prefer to use my rss feed or my podcast