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The first hypertext novel: 253

Geoff Ryman is a Canadian born science fiction and fantasy writer. He is a man of many talents and was responsible for the first British monarchy websites and number 10 websites. If you haven’t heard of him, worry not. Amazing Stuff is here dig up all the world’s buried treasures, like Ryman’s novel 253.

In 1996, Ryman built a website to exhibit his “interactive novel” in which he portrays the lives of all 253 passengers on a London Underground train. Each portrait is 253 words long, and there are 253 linkable pages. (253 is the total number of people that can fit into a London tube if all the seats are taken and no-one is standing up.) Each chapter starts with a map of who is sitting where. It is then your decision whose life you wish to examine, and thoughts you wish to read.

Ryman draws on our voyeuristic natures to construct a mosaic of lives, and manages to weave connections between characters, when even they themselves are unaware of it. Ryman’s portraits take three points of view – outward appearance, inside information and what the characters are doing or thinking.

Ryman suggests the following: “Do you sometimes wonder who the strangers around you are? This novel will give you the illusion that you can know. Indeed, it can make you feel omniscient, Godlike. This is a pleasurable sensation. But please remember that once you leave 253 , you are no longer Godlike. The author, of course, is.”

253 has recently celebrated its 15th birthday, and although some of the characters and descriptions are definitely mid-90s, this is more than a “child-of-its-time” creation. Throw in a few Blackberrys and iPods and see how many of Ryman’s characters are on your daily commute.

Refreshingly, despite the development of the internet over the past decade and a half, Ryman refuses to update the interface so readers can still enjoy 253 in all its 1996 graphical glory at http://www.ryman-novel.com/

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