I’ve been notably pessimistic about the future of or need for multimedia in an ebook setting, or even of the efficacy of telling stories in multimedia. However, thanks to a new serial story from SB Nation‘s Jon Bois, I might have to eat some of those words.
The SB Nation sports blog recently finished posting 17776: What Football Will Look Like in the Future. Despite the presence of “football” in the subtitle, this serial story actually has a lot more to say about the human condition than about the present-day version of the sport—and even people who aren’t terribly interested in modern-day football might find this story interesting.
The narrative is experimental in a number of ways. It is mostly presented in the form of text discussions between its three main characters, as well as a number of ancillary characters we look in on from time to time for a chapter or two. The different characters’ dialogue is usually denoted by differing colors rather than explicit name tags, so it can be a little confusing until you understand more clearly what you’re looking at.
The text is illustrated with maps, charts, “found” clippings from old archives, and GIF animations. (Sometimes the presentation of the text is itself part of the story, as in the case of one chapter that is read down the first column, up the second, then down the third column again.) There are also YouTube videos interspersed, in which you get to see the characters’ dialogue unfold in realtime, as if they were typing it in a live chat as you were watching.
It seems a bit gimmicky, but the story told through all this is strangely compelling. To say too much about it would be to spoil it, but the first chapter introduces us to the three central characters—three old human space probes who have, over the 15,000+ years since they were launched, developed consciousnesses and human personalities. Thanks to new quantum transmission technologies, they are able to communicate with each other and people back on Earth in real-time, as well as spectate and comment on what’s happening on the home world they’re now billions of miles away from. Over the course of the story, two of the probes explain what’s going on to the third probe who has just been awakened itself, thus also serving the purpose of filling the reader in on current events.
Those current events largely resolve around forms of a game referred to as “football,” though it bears about as much resemblance to present-day football as present-day football bears to Roman gladiatorial arena combat. And things just get stranger from there, as it turns out that the people playing football in the year 17776 are largely the same ones who were around in the early 21st century. Sometime in 2026, people stopped getting pregnant, growing older, or dying—which makes the story a study of how the onset of unexpected immortality and population stagnation affects human society 15,000 years later.
Some elements of the narrative are a little hard to swallow—the way space probes can wake up with oddly human personalities and outlooks, or the way Earth of 15,000 years in the future still has the same buildings, landmarks, and mostly the same technology as Earth of the present-day (with just a few minor changes, such as the reshaping of the coastline due to global warming sinking all or parts of Florida, New York, Texas, Louisiana, and various other coastal states).
The story does try to explain some of these oddities, and indeed those explanations are part of an interesting look at how human nature is affected when people can no longer get old or die, or even physically risk themselves (thanks to a new nanotech safety system that was implemented after a few thousand years). It’s certainly the best possible way they could have explained keeping stuff close enough to the same that they could still use what appears to be modified footage from the present-day Google Earth in telling the story. These things still feel a little contrived, but the rest of the story is good enough that I find them forgiveable on the whole.
And even leaving aside those quibbles, the story is oddly compelling. Some have even suggested it may be “a glimpse into the future of reading on the Internet.” I’m not sure I’d go that far, but I do find it an intriguing story, made up of equal parts of optimism and pessimism (like much of the best post-Singularity fiction). Of course, there’s no guarantee that just adding multimedia would make any story this good; in large part its quality is due to the writing talents of Jon Bois and the other staff who collaborated with him to put it together.
At the moment, the only way to read 17776 is via a web browser, through the pages where it’s hosted on SB Nation. But I suspect that it could readily be presented in an ePub document format with embedded animation and videos—if the ePub format and reader software for it were mature enough to support displaying it the way it’s displayed on the site. I’ve always heard that sort of thing was supposed to be ePub’s goal, but I’m not sure how close that goal is to fruition yet.
One important difference between 17776 and the “Crave Multimedia” storytelling startup whose story I linked in the first paragraph is that, unlike Crave, SB Nation isn’t charging for this. You don’t have to pay to experience it; you can just go read it and see if you like it. I’m all for that. And if 17776 causes others to be awakened to just how to use multimedia content in the service of telling a story, and it leads to other such stories coming about, I’m all for that too.
The scrolling, unlabeled conversational format may be a little off-putting to new readers at first. But those who stick with it will discover an interesting and thought-provoking story which will leave them with plenty to think about well after it’s over.
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