Underground fiction

Geoff Ryman's Web novel, “253,” peers into the heads of a Tube train-ful of characters as they hurtle toward an uncertain fate.


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Wendy Grossman
April 20, 1997 7:00pm (UTC)

LONDON -- Geoff Ryman is a tall, ravaged, nervous-looking middle-aged man in tourist dress. He reaches Embankment station on the Bakerloo line of the London Underground, better known as the Tube, and sits down on another passenger.

Oops. Geoff Ryman is actually a very tall Canadian with a slightly nervous disposition who lives in London and writes award-winning novels that can loosely be described as science fiction. He went to work in the British government's Central Office of Information, discovered the Web and wrote a novel for it called "253" -- a journey on a Tube train that crashes at the end of the Bakerloo line, a station named Elephant and Castle. In it, an amateur actor named Geoff Ryman draws the attention of the police after he sits down on top of another passenger as part of a scheduled performance of "Mind the Gap."

Non-Londoners may not get the joke. "Mind the Gap" is sung out sonorously over the PA system at several stations on the Bakerloo line where sharper than usual curves in the platform leave wide openings that passengers must cross to board the trains.

It could be that only the arrest is fantasy. Ryman, who is finishing the last three cars of the novel's seven-car train, says that he's trying to work in a gem just handed to him by a friend: the news that a publisher ran a particularly subtle marketing campaign by hiring young, attractive actors to sit on the Tube and read newly published titles to each other in great excitement.

Ryman isn't just tall, he's basketball-player tall -- a person of average height looks up to his shoulder. Born outside of Toronto, he moved with his family to Los Angeles when he was 11 and spent his teenage years on the Santa Monica beach (where he says the basic rule was "doing absolutely nothing"). By the mid-1970s he was settled in London, where he eventually wound up at the Central Office of Information, serving there as project manager for the recently launched Official British Monarchy Web Site. He also became a well-known and gregarious fixture on the British science-fiction scene. Says fellow science-fiction writer Colin Greenland, "He fits far better here than he does with the Americano-centric map of science fiction."

Not that his work is in any way typical. Ryman specializes in weird, uncomfortable novels Greenland admiringly characterizes as "fantasy with real politics and real pain." In "The Child Garden" (1989), which won the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 1990, Ryman examines a world in which viruses are the primary force not just in medicine but in social engineering and education as well. Deliberate infection is carried out by the Consensus, a mass government formed from models of citizens' personalities, "read" when they reach the age of 10. In sub-tropical London, his lead character, part immune, fights the viruses chattering and whispering in her head to direct her behavior. You may forget details, but you hear the whispering viruses long afterwards.

By comparison, "253" is, as Ryman himself says, cool and abstract: "There are some painful moments, but it's more amusing than any other book I've written as well."

Part of this is due to its rigid structure, which in turn is partly invented by Ryman but partly demanded by the physical structure of Tube trains. A Bakerloo line train has seven carriages, each with 36 seats, for a total of 252. Add the driver: 253.

Ryman then imposed a rule that each character had to be described in exactly 253 words. "It's difficult to be tragic," he says, "in a universe where you only have 253 words to describe everybody." Besides, in a Tube-train full of people, "you're not going to be describing the most significant day in all the characters' lives" -- except for the ones that stay on the train past Embankment to die in the crash. They may seem to be trapped in an interactive version of Thornton Wilder's "The Bridge of San Luis Rey," which explored the lives of five people caught on a bridge when it collapses.

But where Wilder had the freedom to roam through his characters' lives to explain their presence on that bridge at that specific moment, Ryman's self-imposed constraints limit his reach. But he says he found it fun to "bounce off that corset." Besides, "It has a certain fairness that I like." It also has a certain resonance: If it's difficult to make a character stand out in 253 words, it's equally difficult to make an individual life have impact in the 80 or so years most people get to do it in.

"253" is set on Jan. 11, 1995, the day Ryman's best friend announced he was dying of AIDS. "That changed the novel so that it was also about death. You sit on the train, trundling along, and either you get off before the end of the line or you don't ... that day."

In possibly the first-ever Web-site-to-book deal, HarperCollins has signed to release the site as a printed book (Ryman calls it a "print remix") in February 1998 -- perhaps with the original electronic version bundled on disk. Reconsidering the material for print publication has led Ryman to a startling discovery about the power of the links and hypertext on which the Web is based: They change the meaning of the work.

"'253' with links is about what makes people the same, because you can follow through -- the grandparent theme, the people thinking about Thatcher. It's about the subliminal ways we're linked and alike. You just read it passenger by passenger, and it's about how different we all are. The links change the meaning of the novel. I think I'm going to like the print version more because it emphasizes more just how multi-various the cars are, but the linked version is fun."

For one thing, the need to follow themes and create links unexpectedly generated ideas for characters. "For example, somebody works in a dry-cleaning shop and has decided she can't do that so she's learning how to be a taxi driver, so you say, how can I have a link with taxis? How can you have anything link with taxis on the tube?" He found a way: a character who's come up with an automated system to install in cabs that would replace The Knowledge -- the encyclopedic mental database rookie drivers of London's black cabs spend years mastering in order to get a license.

"The other thing I found about the links," Ryman says, "is that you have to be careful that they're not a little bit unsubtle. You don't want to deprive the reader of the fun of putting two and two together." This has become more of a problem as he encodes the second batch of characters -- the ones for cars five, six and seven. "The links make irony very, very easy. It's almost too powerful a tool." Two characters two cars apart, Gary Collier and Amanda Stinton, are having an affair; Collier, married, has told his wife he's leaving just as Amanda, single, has decided to end the relationship. They meet on the platform and exchange news, then stop, stunned. As Ryman says, you don't need links to put that mini-drama together: "With a link, it's really in your face."

But the ease of displaying the two points of view happening at the same time underlines the difference between the Web and print: "Usually the primary metaphor for fiction is temporal, the flow of time, although there is a spatial element. Here you're exploring the simultaneity of something, mainly spatial, so the irony of contrasting events is very easy."

On the face of it, there's little action in a novel set on a train where everyone is seated and nearly motionless. But, Ryman says, "The action in the stories is there, often in the form of small decisions people come to while they sit and think. It may be only the decision to warn your son about something you've just learned about life, or to tell your best friend at work that no, her dumb cluck of a brother can't have a job there. They are important decisions for the people concerned."

And so onward to the next train and the next interactive novel: "Another One Along Any Minute" is the story of the 300 passengers cramped and sweating in the following train, trapped in the tunnel because ahead of them there's been a crash. This new project is interactive in real Net terms; Readers are already contributing their own 300-word characters -- something Ryman invites and that's almost irresistible once you've read a chunk of the original site.

I feel sure that one of these trapped characters is Wendy Grossman -- a frustrated, complaining female expatriate New Yorker who suddenly goes berserk and starts hitting the people around her with a copy of a Geoff Ryman novel.


Wendy Grossman

Wendy Grossman is a writer living in London.

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