The trials and tribulations of a tube journey or an interview with Geoff Ryman about his Hypertext Novel 253
by L J Winson

If you've ever traveled on the tube you are in for a treat. Here is your chance to find out what the passengers are hiding behind those polite faces. 253 is a hypertext novel based on one train running on the London Underground

You can explore the train using the journey planner or by choosing one particular carriage. There are seven carriages in all and you can 'walk down' the aisles and click on any passenger that interests you.

One of the reasons this novel works is its mix of logical structure and sometimes surprising links. Geoff Ryman preserves "the illusion of an orderly universe" by making all the text in the novel less headings, number 253 words. It is this illusion that makes the novel negotiable. Throughout the novel we are given the illusion of order against the often illogical and strange thoughts and behavior of passengers aboard the train. Just as in real life the relationships between passengers can often be surprising and through these relationships the reader can jump from carriage to carriage.

Each passenger is described in three ways:

Outward appearance: does this seem to be someone you would like to read about?

Inside information: sadly, people are not always what they seem.

What they are doing or thinking: many passengers are doing or thinking interesting things. Many are not.

As an experienced published author, Geoff clearly knows how to write a story. He is a Canadian now living in London, but firmly believes that it is possible to live abroad and still be a Canadian. He now works at the Central Office of Information as New Media Manager, helping the Government's publicity department to respond to changes in the media. His published novels include, The Warrior who Carried Life (1986), Unconquered Country (1985), The Child Garden (1989) Was (1991) and the print remix of 253 (sometime in 1998).

So what's behind this excursion into hypertext fiction? I recently embarked on a short email interview to find out.

LJ: What first attracted you to writing hypertext fiction?

GR: It was there and a challenge. I'd tried in some other media, hypercard stuff, but it never really clicked. Either the story lines were too ambitious... everything happening in Manhattan, Kansas on a day in 1854, and again in 1877 and again in 1903... it was just too big. I also tried a series of poems about turtles. Each poem ended in a choice which lead to one of two other poems. The number of files and links soon got unmanageable... and then there was the question of the content. I tried to make poems about turtles funny. They weren't.

LJ: 253 does not have a story line in the traditional sense. Do you think hypertext fiction has to break away from traditional concepts to be effective in this new form?

GR: Sure do.

I'm not sure the word is effective, though. Justified is more like it. Why waste time and energy if the same thing could be done in print?

Basically, the most effective format for interactive fiction is games. In fact, I'd say a good game is more involving than a novel. The motivation level is so high and so potent: are you going to survive, are you going to get a high score. About the only reader motivation that 253 shares with a good game is curiosity: where do we go next?

LJ: What was the main concept behind basing the story in a tube station?

Train... it's in a train...

…LJ: oops sorry Geoff… <looks suitably chastised>

Well, that was just the concept. I always had an idea for a tube novel, but for a long while I thought it would be a kind of disaster movie thing. You know, the train has no driver and can't stop and they have 45 minutes before the end of the line to solve the problem... pretty low grade idea, except that what interested me about it from the beginning was the difference and variety of all those people on the tube train. Who were they? What were they doing there? Where were they going? That basic core is from years ago.

What I think happened is simple; I lived long enough and lived in London long enough to begin to have enough information to write about everyone in a tube train.

It still helps if whoever is reading it has felt the same kind of curiosity. It's hardly Star Wars in terms of universal appeal, but I hope that it has a little bit of everything.. love.. death... some funny moments... some hidden pain... to keep interest going.

LJ: What are the main advantages and disadvantages of writing in hypertext?

It's twice the work. You write it, then you encode it, then you test it, then you upload it and then the image map doesn't work and nobody can tell you why. It's like writing the book, typesetting it, printing it and delivering it to a few tiny book shops in your own van.

LJ: What advice would you give to someone thinking about writing a hypertext story?

That it's far more work than writing an ordinary story. A traditional story works through how much it leaves out. You focus on one character, and how things look from their point of view. You describe only the things you absolutely have to, to keep the story moving while giving the readers enough information to begin to see and feel it.

What you don't do is create all the stuff all the other characters see, or all the stuff you could see if left to walk around the story. You don't have to create interesting material that may never be read by anybody, ever. You have to accept that, provide the material, and make all of it good. That feels enormously wasteful and enormously taxing, but you've got to do it.

You keep starting all over again. In telling a good story, the characters take over, the situation takes over, there is a sense for the writer by the end that he or she is just surfing the wave of narrative. It carries you.

This doesn't happen with a hypertext novel. You start all over with each new discrete section. Whether you offer the reader a choice at the end of each Web page to go on to two different choices and their consequences, or like 253, you're exploring everything in a closed space, the result is the same. Each section starts over, and that is exhausting.

I used to say that writing a story was only half the work. Then came the selling of it to a publisher, the proof-reading and the publicity work on it. Well the proof-reading is 4 times as long: there's spelling to be checked and revisions to make sure are followed through. There's links and tables and image maps to check on your own machine and from the server and then... you've got to print invites, send out your own press release, register with search engines, etc.

LJ: Do you think the relationship between reader and writer is different on an internet based project?

GR: Not really. The reader calls the shots in both print and online.

The reader has to find the publication, the reader has to want to read it, and it has to hit the reader at the right time of their life. At any point the reader can put the book down, or go elsewhere. It's the writers job to keep delivering the goods so that a certain number of sympathetic readers continue to read and enjoy.

253 invites people to write the sequel, which means that there can be a difference there if the site allows it. And the provision of mailto links mean that I've had so much more mail about 253 than any other novel.

So I guess it's easier for readers and writers to chat online but off-site. But it's very little different in substance from going to an SF convention and having someone who's read your books start to talk about them.

Oh, there is one other big difference. The reader pays money for both Internet fiction and printed fiction, only if it's a book, the writer gets some of it.

LJ. What sort of responses have you got from readers?

A good number of accesses, which show most people are reading a substantial number of characters, say about 10. About an email a day, all positive as far as I can remember, but with some very helpful bug reports thrown in.

LJ: Why make the sequel to 253 collaborative?

First, I was tired! Also, it just seemed to me that it was the Web, and it should be collaborative. It seemed to me that asking for mailto feedback was more or less the barest minimum and that something further was required. But also, since the characters have to be very different and varied, it seemed to me that a variety of different authors would come up with a variety of different characters.

LJ: What will writers get out of being involved with the sequel? (or) Why should they contribute?

The same thing I got in putting up the novel originally: you're part of something new, different, fun that couldn't really have happened before, or rather, could not have happened with anything like the same ease and grace. This is something the Web audience does for itself for fun.

Thanks Geoff.

Well if that has whetted your appetite 253 can be found at http://www.ryman-novel.com/. Let me warn you, before you get engrossed, it's a strangely addictive experience, but it is also a confirmation that hypertext fiction is alive and well and living on the Web. Anyway that's me signing off. I've got a train to catch….

L J Winson con be contacted at leo@innotts.co.uk
She is also the webmistress of Dark Lethe http://www.innotts.co.uk/~leo/
and Broadwords http://www.broadwords.org .uk/broadwords