On 17776, A Not-Book by Jon Bois
Books, especially novels, are magic rectangles, tidy story boxes we can open and fall safely into at any time. Ain’t it cozy here? Either in hardcopy or as mobile downloads, the relatively firm structure(s) of the novel remind us of a story’s separateness from daily life, and thus of its power. Self-contained, predictable, yet containing multitudes. One volume, or one file, of adventure. Regardless of how strange or experimental they can sometimes be, novels are reliable and trustworthy, even the ones that don’t employ traditional elements. A book is an infinite box, but still a box; even if it hits us hard in the feels, or even if it’s disorganized or poorly written, it’s not going to fuck with us too much.
Exceptions prove rules, however, and every now and then a unique book breaks this cozy reading relationship. On these rare occasions, a novel can fuck with you very much indeed. In my experiences such books are hard to find, and sometimes they are not books, but a true and total surprise that breaks my brain and challenges me to reexamine my relationship with the very concept of storytelling.
My favorite not-book is Jon Bois’s online speculative novella 17776, otherwise known as “What Football Will Look Like in the Future,” hosted on the website SBNation. (Just Google “football in the future” and it’s always the first hit.) Describing this piece is genuinely difficult: 17776 is absolutely not a novel, and yet somehow it is. It does not have a plot, or traditional characters, nor is it composed, at least not entirely, of text. There are also no panels or other graphic novel components. 17776 does not, if I really think about it, even technically exist. You cannot buy it—access is free. You can’t hold it as you would a book, or give it a form in your mind. The best identifier for this work is, I suppose, to call it an “experience.”
What happens with 17776 is this: Someone—let’s say an acquaintance, perhaps a small, odd-looking woman whom you sometimes see at the bakery, for this was my experience—sends you a link. Her email says simply, “You should read this; very cool!” You click the link, and it takes you to a seemingly standard-issue online news article about football. Football? You think, my small, odd friend knows I hate sports; what on earth am I looking at?
Just as you are about to shrug and click away, your laptop melts.
By which I mean the screen. . .sort of. . .dissolves, in a way you’ve never seen before. Everything goes black. You’re certain it’s malware, or maybe a brain aneurysm.
And then you meet Nine.
Nine is a satellite. A robot of sorts, but not a very good one, because Nine has a lot of feelings and can’t do anything robotic. Nine lives in deep space and has been floating alone out there for thousands of years. You sit with Nine for a very long time, and nothing happens. Truly, sincerely, nothing happens.
Until Nine meets another abandoned satellite. Then another. Soon the satellites, all these little floating space machines who are very funny and sad and full of some remarkable force other than life, begin to talk about life, about love, and about the strange question of how humans in the year 17776 keep themselves occupied way down there on Earth.
The answer is football. In the distant future, when author Jon Bois says we humans will become immortal, invincible, and extremely bored, we will play football.
That’s it. That’s the book. Or, rather, not the book. Through a series of “chapters” that employ embedded YouTube videos, fake Google Earth maps, amateurish illustrations, and also fart jokes, color-coded space squabbles, and mass-delusion love affairs with a twelve-thousand-year-old lightbulb, Jon Bois reimagines the very idea of the novel, and of life itself. The magic box is busted wide open, and this destruction makes you laugh, then weep, with wonder. Bois also recently released a sequel, 20020, which takes the non-story of his non-novel even further.
Perhaps I’ve told you too much, ruined the surprise. But, no; that’s not possible. The premise of 17776 is nothing special, really, and knowing its format ahead of time doesn’t make it any easier for you to anticipate or comprehend. It’s dumb and simple and wildly brilliant, and it doesn’t have a beginning or end, so there are no spoilers. It’s a wasted afternoon, with no grand design or fancy literary ambitions. Bois himself claims he created 17776 merely “for fun.”
But I promise, it changes you, this experience. Remember, I hate football, and I’m not a huge sci-fi buff, either. Yet here I am, recommending a sci-fi football non-boxed non-book thing, as if my own life, my own love of story, depended on it. However hip or old-school you may be in your reading choices, whatever your fiction wheelhouse is, 17776 takes you out of it in a way you never knew you needed. If you’re a writer, it will help you see new possibilities for genre- and form-busting in your own work. I’ve recommended this not-book to many people, and their reactions have ranged from annoyance to childlike rapture. No matter how the experience strikes them, everyone admits they have never “read” anything like 17776 before, which to my mind can only be a good thing. They also say it rejiggers their understanding of what novels can do and be.
And of course everybody falls in love with the lightbulb. Because no matter who you are, if you look closely enough at it, a weird, delicate thing will always break your heart.
Leah Hampton is the author of F*ckface and Other Stories (Henry Holt). Her work has appeared in Guernica, McSweeneys Quarterly Concern, Electric Literature, Ecotone, and elsewhere. She currently serves as creative writing fellow in residence at the University of Idaho.