Is 17776 really a book? It's written. It's also filmed and computer-generated. Parts have a soundtrack. Other bits are GIFs. And a lot of it is made up of still images, some newly created, others of historic events or newspaper clippings. Wikipedia describes it as a "serialized [sic] speculative fiction multimedia narrative", but that feels a bit too wordy. What it absolutely and certainly is, is a website (so if you haven't read it yet, click that link and enjoy). Mainly, though, I'd argue that the story is found within the writing, so a book it shall be.
If you hadn't realised by now, 17776 is not your average, well, anything. It's definitely science fiction and pretty solid science fiction at that. The story is definitely best discovered as you read, so I'm going to do something rare and restate the spoiler warning at this point. Seriously, if you're even a little bit curious just go and experience the narrative on the website; it's not immensely dense and, even with lots of pausing, I got through it in a few hours, but you'll enjoy it a lot more if you're utterly lost for a while. Because what 17776 probably does best is keep you on your toes.
Each chapter might contain an entirely different gimmick. New characters, new elements, a video, a bizarre layout, another revelation about the world that Bois has created. Knowing ahead of time what those are will ruin part of the fun. So, for the third time now, spoiler warning. It's good, you won't be disappointed, trust me. Okay?
Have they gone? Perfect.
What a load of rubbish. No, of course, I'm kidding, I thought 17776 was an absolute blast. As a standalone narrative, it's a great short story with some really fun concepts, even if some of the broader strokes of world-building aren't necessarily original. As a "multimedia experience" it's just a hugely enjoyable experience to browse, poke, prod, and generally explore. Combined, I think each part elevates the other really cleverly and presents something greater as a result.
I mean, let's just start with that opening two chapters. The first is told through a sequence of calendars with the occasional iMessage style piece of text. Sure, I pretty quickly realised we were dealing with communication across vast distances and likely some kind of robotic sentience long before we got any specifics that helped narrow the possibilities down, but I don't think that's a problem. I think that was the point. It's a testimony to how well the visual experience works that Bois is able to create such a large world from so few words, so quickly. Having to physically scroll the timeline is such an impactful way of feeling the passage of time and makes the payoff feel as rewarding for the characters as it is for the reader.
And then we're whisked out of the ether and down to Earth where everything is simultaneously eerily familiar and just a touch alien. It's such a fun atmosphere and the "book" does a great job of expanding upon it and – crucially, I feel – explaining a lot of it as well. That we start with a story about emergent artificial intelligence and yet somehow get an extremely zoomed-in view of the human condition is just ideal science fiction: philosophy wrapped up in fun what if theorising.
Plus, of course, an awful lot of football (to be clear, American football, so not really football at all 😉). I can't say I fully understood the central conceit about the complexity of the game expanding over time (I think you'd need to be interested in the sport, or at least vaguely know the rules, for that to land) but it didn't matter. I can honestly say I've never cared as much about American football as I did by the end of this story, despite the football it describes involving cannons, territorial disputes, men hiding in caves for 10,000 years, and tornado-propelled running backs (I don't remember if that's the right position, or if that even is a position, but that's beside the point). Through the lens of this utterly bizarre evolution of the sport, Bois is able to tell us so much about the nature of humanity in a truly post-scarcity world.
Because that's really what 17776 is about. It's like the Culture novels in many ways, except one big one: that having achieved immortality, world peace, technological superiority, and every other goal the human race has ever dreamed of achieving, the final frontier was finally defeated only to be a big let down. We're alone. Well, apart from the occasional emergence of artificial intelligence within drones we've sent to space, but in terms of life outside of human control or influence? Doesn't appear to exist. So what happens next?
Well, for Bois' future America, football is the answer. Football matches that go on forever, or which are played across the entire continent, or which involve so many bizarre rules that there really isn't anything "football" about them at all any more. But they keep people entertained. And if you're an immortal being that can never die, not even through illness or accident (thanks to nanotech), and you've run out of places to explore or questions to answer... what else is there to do but be entertained? It's enjoy life or go mad, basically. I love it. I don't think it's a logical fate for humanity, but it isn't meant to be. After all, the central premise is that a miracle just stopped people dying at some point between 2020 and 2030. The terminally ill got better. The aged felt younger. The young grew up and then, like everyone else, just stopped. No more pregnancy. No more death. No more people, but never any less either. For thousands and thousands of years. So what happens next?
It's such a simple premise and yet so wonderfully imaginative in the way it's answered. Not imaginative in a crazy way either, but a completely realistic one, despite all the genuinely ludicrous stories we get to dip into. At its heart, even though it's narrated by sentient tin cans drifting through space and the occasional geriatric football-sort-of-player, its just a perfectly human story. I thought it was great.