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'253' - A Novel by Geoff Ryman

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Geoff Ryman is a Canadian who has lived in Britain for many years. The majority of his work is science fiction, but in the mid-1990s he wrote a novel that is, very probably, quite unlike any other novel that you are ever likely to read. This novel is set on a London Underground tube train, and is called 253.

Why is 253 so different?

Well, let's start with why the word 'novel' appears so much in the paragraph above rather than 'book'. The original version of 253 is a website which was created entirely by Geoff Ryman himself in 1996. It was followed two years later by 253: The Print Remix, which, as the subtitle suggests, is the novel in book form. If the website were being made today, then it would probably look a lot more slick, polished, and, well, more like the book, but it is still perfectly readable as it is. For example, since the novel is about a tube train, the book contains a neat double-page infographic at the start of each of the tube cars, detailing where everybody in the car is. The website has tables which contain the same information, but just don't look quite as nice. But the most notable difference between the book and the website is, kind of obviously, that the book hasn't got any hyperlinks. Instead it contains an index listing the connections between the occupants of the train.

As may already be inferred from its website origins, the structure of the novel is somewhat different. It's tempting to say that there isn't a single coherent narrative to the novel, which, while true, manages to miss the point somewhat. The novel is an examination of the lives the 253 occupants of a seven-car tube train (252 passengers and the driver) for the duration of a journey from Embankment to Elephant and Castle on the morning of 11 January, 1995 - a journey that lasts just seven and a half minutes. Each person is described in 253 words, give or take the odd footnote1. As for what those 253 words contain, well, Ryman says it best at the start of the novel:

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.

So How Does it Work?

Essentially, you can dip into the novel at any point, and read all about one of the characters. Admittedly, in book form you're more inclined to read in numerical order, but you can read them in any order you wish. Take number 96, for example. He, rather coincidentally, is called Geoff Ryman - the same name as the author3. He appears to be involved in a theatre group that performs on the Underground, but ends up getting into a bit of trouble with the police, in the form of Passenger 98 - Officer Bert Harris. On reading about Bert we discover that he used to be in the Army, and the hyperlink on that takes us to Passenger 102 - Major Edwin Grives. Major Grives, like Officer Harris, is no longer in the Army, and now works for Pall Mall Oil, as do Passengers 37 and 235. And you can just carry on like that, jumping from passenger to passenger finding out all about their lives for the duration of the brief time that the novel covers. At least, that is, until you reach the end of the line.

This isn't a spoiler, because it's stated upfront in the novel that it ends with a crash. Everyone who is still on the train as it approaches Elephant and Castle is involved in the crash. For several of the passengers this does not end well, for some it, well... that would telling. You'll have to find out for yourself who lives and who dies. And whether Who? survives, as well.

Is it worth reading?

Definitely. It's interesting, funny, heartbreaking, appalling and clever. It give you a sense of the multitude of characters, some linked, some completely separate, who move through the Underground every day. And it is, in all probability, unlike any other novel that you will ever read. But once you've read it, you'll keep coming back to it. There's always another connection to find. It is quite a novel novel.

1Actually there are 254 people in the novel, but the last one only appears in a footnote2.2Well, in a footnote of a footnote, to be honest.3This is not the only bit of blatant name copying. There is a Margaret Thatcher on the train too.

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