For weeks now, friends have been telling me to read 17776, a longform experimental sci-fi story written and designed by Jon Bois. I was resistant because the story is, in general terms, about football. That is to say that it begins as a blog post titled "What football will look like in the future." And I cannot stand sports at all.
But just a quick glance at the beginning of 17776 will tell you that it's not really about sports. The banal football article literally disappears from view as it's swamped by repeating instances of the words "something is terribly wrong."
17776 then unfurls across a calendar, tossing the reader into the future. It's a magnificent use of the internet as a storytelling tool, in a way that I've never seen before. Football does play into the story — narrow swaths of the United States are carved out into football fields that are hundreds of miles long and which host football games that last many years — but it's a backdrop. Eventually, the narrative becomes a Vonnegut-like farce, an examination of the way we think about the future. I'd need to read it again to actually review it; the first experience of 17776 is too exploratory to really collect any meaningful critical thoughts.
But I do have one issue with the storytelling methods in 17776 that hasn't really been discussed much in the public sphere. One of the many attractive things about literature, for me, is that you can read at your own pace. Using certain rhythmic tricks, a writer or a cartoonist can slow a reader down a bit, but the reader ultimately plays the role of the conductor. We set the rhythm, we pause when we want to, we turn back or flip forward, we speed ahead eagerly or linger behind and savor.
The problem with 17776, for me, is too much of the reading experience is swamped with animations, and swaths of the story are told in scrolling text via YouTube videos. To me, that changes the form into something new. When a reader can't read at their own pace — when you can't easily turn back and re-examine lost pieces of dialogue, or when you get bored because the scrolling mechanism isn't fast enough for your tastes — you're not really reading, exactly, anymore. You're experiencing. It's more passive, more like watching TV.
Listen: if you care about sci-fi or experimental internet storytelling techniques or good fiction, you should read 17776. No matter how you classify it, it's worth your time. And one of the reasons why it's worth your time is that the form opens up important questions about the limitations and strengths of reading. That's an exciting conversation to have.