253, or Tube Theatre: A novel for the internet about London Underground in seven cars and a crash is an “internet novel” written by the science fiction writer Geoff Ryman in 1996. It describes the stories of 253 people (252 passengers seated in 7 compartments and one driver) in a London underground train travelling from the Embankment station to the Elephant and Castle from 8:35-8:42 am on January 11th, 1995.
The whole novel is hosted on a website where the navigation relies heavily on hyperlinks. On the homepage, the reader is presented with six links to different parts of the novel: an introduction to 253 (253 why 253?), a major navigation site (Journey Planner), a quick link for those who seek sensations (The End of the Line), an introduction to the author (About this Site), and two other links which complements the reading experience.
Clicking on the Journey Planner reveals a map as well as links to each car and other parts of the site. The map, which resembles a typical map of an underground train, displays the stops (nodes) for individual cars and keywords for major themes or incidents happening on the train. Each labelled node is clickable and will direct the reader to the target page.
Within each car, the passengers are displayed in a simulated environment of a real train, with the driver sitting at the very front. Each passenger is seated in a confined box where his/her passenger number, name, interests or concerns are displayed as hyperlinks. There are three pairs of doors on each side of the car, represented by a thinner grid (box) and dividing the passengers into three groups.
Each passenger’s story constitutes the main content of 253. No matter who the person is, he/she is described in the following three ways on a separate page: his/her outside appearance, inside information and what he/she is doing or thinking. And as set deliberately by Ryman, “all text in this novel, less headings, will number 253 words” (253 why 253?). In those descriptions, there are also links which connect the current passenger to another one. And after finishing each page, the reader can continue to the next passenger, back to the car map or the Journey Planner, or click on any available links.
Since 253 was produced during the mid-1990s and its interface and design are shaped by the status of web technology at that time, there are a limited number of images in the novel, and as stated previously, 253 experiments heavily on hyperlinks. Those clickable texts, on the one hand, show the reader how/where to go next. On the other hand, they create a network of passengers showing that people are somehow connected, with or without themselves knowing. Just as Audet (2015) writes, “connections are established between neighbours or employees of a company; when another passenger is mentioned in a given file, the link leads to that person's own file… The result is a fictional social network, and a portrayal of our individual curiosity about the people around us in a context of close proximity.”
Other scholars have also discussed the use of hyperlinks in 253. Schoene (2013), for example, discusses how hyperlinks in 253 “leave individuality intact while also ‘declining’ it in communal exposure to other individuals” (p.14). As Schoene notices, “Ryman names all his characters, thus highlighting everybody’s unique individuality as well as the transience and ultimate inconsequence of their existence” (p.11), but “hypertextuality is not simply better equipped to convey a sense of synchronicity and belonging across spatial and identitarian boundaries; equally, if not more, significant is its reliance on ‘repetition and looping as a process of healthy renewal’” (p.15).
With a linked web of 253 passengers comes a vast coverage of diverse perspectives, as Ryman captures people of different age, gender and ethnic backgrounds who assembled in London. And these fragmented narratives in 253 arouses questions regarding narration. Saint-Gelais and Audet (2003) ask questions in their article “Underground Lies: Revisiting Narrative in Hyperfiction”: “Does a combination of different points of view of the same fact produce a story? Do various narrative segments (the telling of past events, of funny occurrences, meaningless coincidences, etc.), once they have been brought together, create a narrative text in the same way as a novel does?” (p.76). For them, the answer depends on the readers as each reader has different reading paths and experiences.
Van Looy (2003) also addresses this aspect of storytelling. To him, the way of narration in 253 resembles that of theater performances, and by depicting diverse perspectives, Ryman decenters the social issue of racism. “These loose fragments form a decentered structure providing the reader with a patchwork of ideas and thoughts. It is up to the user to assemble the bits and pieces into an image of how racism is experienced by its victims as well as its offenders”. (p.118)
Currently, the original website of 253 has been archived. There is also an adapted book version available, which was first published in 1998.
This entry was composed by Zhenyan Liu as part of the assignments in DH510: Digital Fiction course, taught by Dr. Astrid Ensslin at University of Alberta in 2020 winter.
Audet, R. (2015). Inner Margins of the Literary Digital Text: From Allusion to Rewriting. Digital Studies/le Champ Numérique, 6(1). DOI: http://doi.org/10.16995/dscn.43.
Saint-Gelais, R. and Audet, R. (2003). Underground Lies: Revisiting Narrative in hyperfiction. J. Van Looy and J. Baetens (eds), Close Reading New Media: Analyzing Electronic Literature, Leuven, Leuven University Press, pp.72–86.
Schoene, B. (2013). The world on a train: global narration in Geoff Ryman’s 253. Open Arts Journal, (1):7-15. DOI: 10.5456/issn.2050-3679/2013s02bs.
Van Looy, J. (2003). ‘One must be calm and laugh: Geoff Ryman’s web novel 253 as a hypertextual contemplation on modernity’ in J. Van Looy and J. Baetens (eds), Close Reading New Media: Analyzing Electronic Literature, Leuven, Leuven University Press, pp.101–120.