“Now, you’re probably wondering what I’m going to need all this speed for,” says Youtuber pannenkoek2012, explaining how to beat a level of Super Mario 64 in one half of an A press, “but to answer that, we need to talk about parallel universes.” I was actually wondering: why would anyone dedicate their time to such an absurdly specific goal? And what about it is so intriguing that it could rack up over three million views?
That question is what Jon Bois’ 17776, or What Football Will Look Like in the Future, attempts to answer. It’s a multimedia narrative hosted on SBNation, incorporating text logs, Google Earth, newspapers, calendars, and saxophone muzak. It got a glowing (if brief) mention in the New Yorker’s Rabbit Holes and was longlisted for a Hugo Award for Best Graphic Story. But, outside of a small cult following, it’s fallen off the radar.
The narrative tracks conversations between sentient probe Pioneer 9, their little sister Pioneer 10, and Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (Juice), in the year 17776. They watch the progressively inane games of football being played on Earth. Like the probes, humanity has become immortal. They don’t get sick, and hundreds of years of technological development has resulted in a net of nanobots that wrap the Earth, preventing any chance of physical harm. Global warming has destroyed the Caribbean and flooded the Eastern Seaboard, but humanity is fine; the human condition is a condition of play.
As life becomes infinite, mystery, exploration, and discovery become finite, commodities to be rationed. The least physical destruction becomes charged with grief. For example, the people of 17776 are so unused to loss that the breaking of an old lightbulb is a terrible tragedy. There is thus a certain childlike naïveté to the world Bois creates, and this quality is what makes it so easy to get hooked on the characters—and yet it is reasonable, the appropriate response to a gentler time.
There is, admittedly, a high barrier of entry into the work. To express the difficulty of 9’s month-long wait between first contact and its development of quantum communication, Bois makes you scroll through seventeen years of calendar pages. And there are other issues, further into the story: for instance, Bois avoids traditional dialogue tags and narration, relying on text colour and tone to carry the story. It’s a difficult gimmick to pull off, and it explains, perhaps, the difficulty that 17776 has had in breaking into mainstream Internet culture.
But it should have. 17776 might be pop philosophy, but it’s brilliantly written, and made for the generation raised with the Internet. Bois doesn’t shoehorn traditional narrative conventions into the story because they don’t suit the medium. As in real Internet interaction, grammar is a character trait, not a rule. It’s a new work for a new form, perfectly confident that it can tell this story better.
17776 is not-especially-speculative fiction. Having lost death, the great difficulty of existence is boredom, and to battle it, humanity (at least in America) takes to football. But games develop, naturally, and so we observe two teams slog it out on a field so long it crosses state borders, with end zones on either side of two massive cliffs. It’s all but impossible for them to win, and yet they play on. In another game, a man dedicates himself to completing a handheld Konami toy in exactly three minutes and seventeen seconds, while he spends ten thousand years in a cave with the ball to win the game on a technicality. Another game becomes a microcosm of capitalism, 500 is played country-wide with a cannon on top of a mountain, and so on. They’re extreme examples, maybe, but not so far removed from pannenkoek2012’s torturous playthrough of Super Mario.
People are apparently excellent at squeezing extra meaning out of exhausted forms of play. The rules only mean anything in the game, but life is only liveable while you’re following them. Once you’ve run out of death, play is the invention of meaning; it permits tragedy, joy, and loss.
There are other works of internet fiction which operate with the same level of skill, but 17776 is one of the few to capture the voice and the style of this mode of communication. You should read it.