17776: Native Internet Art

An appreciation of our planet and what it means for humans to play in it.

At the beginning of this month, the U.S. sports website SBnation.com surprised its readers with an unexpected meditation on the game of (American) football. A piece titled ‘17776: What Football Will Look Like In The Future’ was posted to the site, alongside the usual results and recaps of recent baseball and basketball games. But when curious readers clicked on the headline, they were transported fifteen thousand years into the future, and billions of miles into deep space. Over the following weeks, new chapters to the story drew readers into writer Jon Bois’s appreciation of our planet and what it means for humans to play in it.

The characters in the world are very old, possibly immortal. They use their new-found longevity to play and watch long and complex games, usually based around what we 21st century denizens recognise as gridiron football. Several far-future nationwide football games are described, all with a lineage that can be traced back to those we watch today. But all the games a far more extreme and heightened, having evolved over millennia. Just as, with biological evolution, the essential components of a given animal order, family or genus are revealed as they become more pronounced, so those aspects American football that are at the core of the sport are revealed when the future-humans iterate it to a ridiculous degree.

Football's different things to different people. | see this kind of football, the open-world kind, as its end state. The old grid football, the hundred- yard kind, was basically just training wheels. The game was always all about the field, of course. The ground, the Earth. And it was kind of like,
A monologue by Ten, one of the extra-terrestrials
As well as the idea of play, Bois invites us to revel in the vastness and complexity of our planet, and the unique history of each patch of earth. In one particular sequence, I thought of the art of the Boyle Family, who pick random points on the globe and precisely reproduce the square metre of ground that they find there.
World Series
Two panels from the Boyle Family’s ‘World Series’ depicting studies of The Hague (left) and the Central Australian Desert. Installed at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, 2003
I wonder if there's a single place in the whole world that's never had a story. I bet not. I just about guarantee you there's no places like that in America. Every little square of it, every place you stomp your foot, that's where something happened. Something wild, maybe something nobody knows about, but something. You can fall out of the sky and right into some forgotten storybook.    -- recognized by
Another of Ten’s monologues
 
The format goes beyond what one might expect from a piece of online writing. It’s a collision of YouTube video animation, chat room text, and Google Earth renderings. One thought I had after reading a couple of chapters was that it should not be surprising that the format is surprising. Modern technology offers countless ways to render a narrative, and all Bois has done is to take a fairly well established format—a chat room script—and illustrate it with animations from a common online tool. It is not particularly radical, but the way we publish online (both the format of digital content, and it’s graphic design) has become so formulaic that even small and obvious departures from the norm suddenly feel innovative. In a Q&A, the author himself puts it very well:

I could go really, really long on this answer. I’ll keep it short: There are countless different ways to write, and things and ideas to write about. And the Internet offers a kaleidoscope of different formats, media, tools, sights, and sounds to tell your stories. And most of us are not even trying to scrape the surface of any of it. We’ve got to start thinking of the Internet as something more than a glow-in-the-dark newspaper.

On Facebook, a friend of mine writes:

it is such a brilliant piece of work, creative and touching and imaginative and smart, and it could only work here, in this medium. Is there anything else like that? I’m not sure.

There are precedents. First, in the Q&A, Bois cites Calvin and Hobbes as an influence on his writing. And there are moments in 17776 that feel exactly like Bill Watterson’s comic strip. In particular, the way in which the three narrators revel in the beauty of (in turn) the Earth, human endeavour and the game of American football, could easily be something Calvin comes out with on one of his meditative sledge rides.

Calvin and Hobbes, 9 November 1987. Bill Watterson

I think a better comparison than Calvin and Hobbes is with the xkcd web comic. If Jon Bois is not a fan of Randall Munroe’s twice-weekly panels, I’d be astonished. xkcd characters often manifest the same geeky wonder at creation that Ten, Juice and finally Nine profess in 17776.

But there is more: xkcd also regularly experiments with form too: 1446: ‘Landing’ and 1190: ‘Time’ are long form animation; while 1110: ‘Click and Drag’ is a 10 gigapixel image. 1416: ‘Pixels’ plays with the idea of fractals in order to sell us a book.

From the stories, I expected the world to be sad...
The first three panels from xkcd ‘Click and Drag’.

When ‘Click and Drag’ was first published, I wrote:

This is art that is native to the internet, and therefore still relatively rare. While most art we see online (photography, film, creative writing) can actually be viewed in other media (on a wall, in a book, on TV), this piece of art only works online. The clicking-and-dragging is inherent to experiencing of the art.

We can call 17776 ‘native’ internet art too, I think. The combination of text, GIFs and video only really work when read in a browser. I suppose it could be translated into a single YouTube video but that would be an act of adaptation, just as the ‘whole world’ images that xkcd fans have created of comic 1110 are an adaptation (and a spoiler) for the online version.

Projects like 17776 remind us that while the game of football may be old, the Internet is still a very new medium. It’s a delight to live in this moment of innovation, and to watch artists experiment within it.

I regret not being more experimental myself.

Crises and Conflicts from NewCon Press

My story is featured in this anthology of space opera and Military SF

I’m delighted to have a short story featured in Crises and Conflicts, a new anthology of space and military science fiction, just published by NewCon Press as part of their 10th Anniversary celebrations.

My piece, ‘Round Trip’ is a tale of loneliness, obsession, patience, and the tedious experience of waiting for a no-frills budget space shuttle to Jupiter (we’ve all be there).

The central science fiction idea in the story is that the universe is finite and curved, a theory developed by the cosmologist Professor Janna Levin. I can highly recommend her book How The Universe Got Its Spots and her beautiful Moth story ‘Life on a Mobius Strip‘. Continue reading “Crises and Conflicts from NewCon Press”

Cory Doctorow and China Mieville in Conversation in 2010

The discussion took place in a church on Exmouth Market in Clerkenwell. This accounts for my jokes at the start of the discussion, and also for the atrocious echo that no amount of post-production can remove.

I am rather shocked by the realisation that the discussion I chaired with authors Cory Doctorow and China Mieville was exactly five years ago today.

I recall that a couple of short excerpts from the event were included in a podcast at the time, but the entire discussion was never posted anywhere for people who could not attend.  Happily, yrstrly took a recording of the discussion on my phone and I post it here (and on Soundcloud) for posterity. Continue reading “Cory Doctorow and China Mieville in Conversation in 2010”

On memory, mind, death and teleportation

But the comic in question has changed my mind. The revelation experienced by the central character was a revelation for me too… that it is the patterns that matter, not the substrate.

Together in my timeline last week, two tweets on memory:

Ben Philips had all his creative work deleted by hackers. Continue reading “On memory, mind, death and teleportation”

Midnight in Karachi

In honour of the publication of The Good Shabti last month, I was invited onto the Tor.com podcast Midnight In Karachi, hosted by Mahvesh Murad.  The show is a one-on-one interview format, and the previous guests are all incredibly accomplished SF writers such as Audrey Niffenegger, Patrick Ness,

Listen to the episode on the Tor.com website, or subscribe to the podcast in iTunes. Continue reading “Midnight in Karachi”

The Good Shabti – Order your copy now

We’re selling the remaining copies on a first-come, first-served basis, with a maximum of two copies per person.

My novella The Good Shabti was launched last night.  I did a short reading and spoke to the many people who bought copies.  Incredibly, this included people to whom I am in no way related. Continue reading “The Good Shabti – Order your copy now”

Talking Free Speech and ‘The Good Shabti’ on the Bookworm Podcast

Ed Fortune, the presenter of Starburst Magazine’s wonderful Bookworm Podcast, invited me onto the show to discuss the work of English PEN and my own creative writing endeavours.

Download Season 2, Episode 28 to listen to the discussion.

My bit begins at around 16 minutes into the show, but that really shouldn’t stop you listening to Ed and his co-hosts Ninfa Hayes and A.L. Johnson chatting about tea and reviewing a whole lot of genre literature.

(0,0) featured on Pornokitsch Weekly Fiction

To tie in with the announcement about The Good Shabti, my story (0,0) has been published on the Hugo-nominated Pornokitsch website, in their weekly fiction slot.  The story, you may recall, was originally published in the Crossroads anthology.

The story begins

Hi there, friend. Is this seat taken?

Click over to the Pornokitsch website to read the entire thing.

Surveillance in Snowcrash

This is my offering for Blog Action Day. This year’s theme is Human Rights, so a post about surveillance and my ongoing notes on ‘Everday Human Rights’ seems appropriate (if obvious).

Snowcrash is Neal Stephenson’s break-out novel. It was published in 1992, when the World Wide Web was still a nascent and obscure technology. Nevertheless, it is a remarkably prescient book that predicts the ‘always on’ internet we have today, especially the Massive Multiplayer Online Games like Second Life and World of Warcraft. It also predicts the rise of cyber-attacks and the need for security in this area.

However, the passage that has stuck in my mind since I read the book a few years ago is an amusing piece of ‘world building’ that Stephenson constructs around one of his minor characters. Through the morning of ‘Y.T.’s Mom’ he describes the oppressive atmosphere of having to live and work under constant surveillance. Continue reading “Surveillance in Snowcrash”

The Kitschies and Progressive Fiction

“It is a fiction which connects the inner human future with everything it must have around it, and recognises that the two develop together.”

Nick Harkaway with his Red Tentacle. Photo by Sarah McIntyre
Nick Harkaway with his Red Tentacle. Photo by Sarah McIntyre

This week I was at The Kitschies, a set of awards for “progressive, intelligent and entertaining genre literature.”  Its creators, Jared and Anne of the Pornokitsch website and Pandaemonium Fiction (my publishers, no less) rightly eschew the word ‘best’ when giving the awards.  ‘Best’ is a devalued term in when it comes to awards, as implies an objectivity that a judging panel cannot possibly hope to achieve.

I compiled a Storify summary of the event, pulling photos and comments from social media.

The winner of the Red Tentacle award for a novel was Nick Harkaway for his book Angelmaker.  On his blog, Nick has posted a long article on what he thinks ‘progressive’ might mean in terms of fiction in general, and sci-fi/fantasy genre literature in particular. He says that such progressive fiction “It is a fiction which connects the inner human future with everything it must have around it, and recognises that the two develop together.”

Continue reading “The Kitschies and Progressive Fiction”