With a few hundred thousand other people, i’ve been mesmerized by Jon Bois’s 17776.  It’s over here.  Take an hour and go through it all.

pioneer10

Avid football fan

Now, I am one of the few American males who does not get football. Never really mastered the rules, and nothing about it makes me want to. But I love Jon Bois. He has a series called Breaking Madden that’s hilarious. He takes a football sim (that would be Madden), forces it to do insane things, and tells the results as a story. Sometimes the game cooperates, sometimes it glitches out, it’s all good.

The elevator pitch for 17776 is “What football will look like in the future.” And he gets there! But 17776 is so much bigger and weirder than that. It’s a science fiction story. It’s a multimedia experience. It’s about sentient space probes.  It’s about human beings.  It’s a utopia— a bittersweet one.  It’s about friendship and God and in a couple of places it’s really moving.

First, the football.  No, wait, that won’t make sense without the basic situation. His method is to insert one wild hypothetical, and draw out its implications with no further magic. The hypothetical is this: in 2026, for no reason ever explained, people stop aging and dying (and being born).  That’s it.  Everyone finds themselves immortal. What do they do?

For one thing, they play football. For 15,000 years.  The rulebook gets really long and strange over that time. Bois invents half a dozen or more weird versions of football. The least weird of these is the first one he gets to: the playing field is the state of Nebraska; the end zones are Iowa and Wyoming. There are thousands of players at any one time, but only one ball, and the game lasts for years.

We’re introduced to this game, by the way, because the protagonists are watching it. They’re space probes— two Pioneer units, and a Jupiter probe that in 2017 hasn’t launched yet. One of the units— Pioneer 9— is woken up at the beginning of the story, which gives us a character who has to learn about all this world just as we do.

The story is mostly text conversations, but it plays with the medium expertly.  There are pictures, found documents real and imagined, GIFs and videos. Many of these use Google Earth to bounce over the globe, zooming effortlessly from outer space down to individual houses or football stadiums. (I’m inclined to say: don’t try this at home. Bois makes it work, but I really don’t want every story to be told this way.)

Bois has an interesting take on utopias / the future.  In his scenario, the people of 17776 are the same people who were alive in 2026. And for the most part, their society is ours, only perfected: nanobots keep people from injury and want; war and capitalism are gone. His take is that people will try the fancier visions of sf writers— flying cars, robots, etc.— but ultimately get rid of them because they don’t like them. People want to have jobs and walk around and cook and hold elections and hang out with their pals, to say nothing of playing and watching football. Plus, they’re 2026ers at heart and they stick with what they know.

Granted, his approach may only make sense in the narrow scenario he’s created. But there’s a lot of wisdom in his take. Other writers have seriously considered what people would do with near-immortality— Julian Barnes and Jorge Luis Borges, for instance. Bois is by far the most optimistic of them. Barnes and Borges concluded that most people would get bored within a thousand years; Bois thinks the human sense of play is enough to keep us going indefinitely.  (My own sf future envisions more change, but also doubts that getting too far from our primate heritage is a great idea.)

17776 is full of novelty and pure fun, but what makes it unforgettable is Bois’s heart. There’s all sorts of grimness and outrage these days; we don’t always get this full blast of benignity. Bois seems to just like people. There’s no real villains here— except maybe for a few cheap moves in some of the football games. And it’s hard not to surrender to this future of Nice But Not Amazing.

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