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253 by Geoff Ryman

Do you sometimes wonder who the strangers around you are? 

This novel describes an epic journey from Embankment station, to the Elephant and Castle. There are seven carriages on a Bakerloo Line train, each with 36 seats. A train in which every passenger has a seat will carry 252 people. With the driver, that makes 253.

Note: 253 contains some harsh language.

A complete novel

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Listed: Jan 23, 2009


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Editorial Reviews

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7 cars, 253 characters, and a crash

By Sarah Suleski, editor, author of Sidonie

Jan 24, 2009: Let me start off by saying that 253 is most definitely not going to be for everyone. Its greatest appeal is characterization. There isn’t much of a plot, and what plot there is is decidedly non-linear. Readers looking for continuous action, a central plot, a main character, or really, anything resembling a traditional story, will probably feel a bit lost.

However, for a certain type of reader, this story is like a great big box of presents—open the top and inside are (literally) hundreds of one’s favorite thing. If your favorite thing is characterization.

There is a page on the site entitled "253? Why 253?" which will explain the concept and the rules of the story far better than my attempt, but if you’d rather stick with me, here goes:

253 is, mostly, just 253 short, succinct character outlines. Each profile consists of three basic segments. The first gives a brief description of the person’s outwards appearance. The second, some background information; glimpses into the person’s life and sometimes their history. The third tells what they are thinking about, or doing at the time of the story. Every profile is only 253 words, so each profile is like a tiny winking glimpse at who this person is. It’s a tantalizing glimpse, stirring the imagination and making you think about what’s gone unsaid.

The premise of the setting, that of train cars on the London Underground, is at first seemingly just an excuse to look at a large and diverse number of people all congregated together for no other reason than that they are all going to some of the same places. However, eventually all seven cars will crash. This event is described (sparingly, as is the style) in a section title "The End of the Line." Not all 252 passengers will be involved in this crash; some will get off at earlier stops and continue on with their lives. But the ones whose destination is Elephant and Castle are revisited in what is, for many of them, their final moments. We see into their minds and witness their final thoughts or actions with the speed it takes for a train to crash and lives to end.

Throughout the profiles there are links to other passengers (and sometimes footnotes), so that readers have several options for following the story. You can progress through the characters in order, from 1 to 253, or you can jump around to follow winding paths of connections. Some passengers know each other, or have met in passing before, or are simply from the same place, employed by the same business, or share a similar interest or experience, etc. Some interact while on the train even though they’ve never met before and never will again. It doesn’t really matter which way you navigate the site; it’s made very easy to jump around to your heart’s content or stay on a fairly straight path from seat to seat.

253 is a fascinating and intriguing story told in snapshots of character. I found myself lost for hours on the train with characters who felt real, and unique. This itself is a feat, considering the large number of people who populate the story. I found it almost impossible, at times, to stop clicking through the site and go on with my own life. I highly recommend it.

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Most Helpful Member Reviews

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Get Intimate With A Train Crash

By Robert Rodgers, author of The Last Skull

Apr 13, 2010: Though this work isn’t my cup of tea, it’s still getting four stars from me—for reasons I’ll detail in a moment. First, the basics:

253 is more of a listing than a story, providing very brief snapshots of the 252 passengers of the Bakerloo Line train—plus one driver. The author grants us a bird’s eye view of each character, succinctly describing their appearance, followed by their inner lives, followed by what they are currently doing or thinking. Sometimes, on their own, these blurbs are boring; other times, they are infinitely fascinating. All are made /much/ more fascinating by the knowledge that, in a few more seconds, a number of these characters are going to arrive at a violent and bloody end.

You have the option of reading the story forward, backward, sideways, or inside out—I understand that most stories can be read anyway you want, but this is one of the few stories which /work/ when read any which way. Start at the smoke-choked metal-crumpled end and work your way back, reading biographies as if they were engravings on tombstones; start somewhere before and weave your way through the interrelationships of the characters until the thread leads you to the inevitable conclusions—or just drive on through, reading each passenger’s biography in a straight line to the end.

As I mentioned, this isn’t my cup of tea—I prefer a cohesive, singular narrative. But it still gets four stars, because, first off, it’s interesting—a quality which always merits at least three stars from me—and the limitation the author creates (253 words per entry) creates a sense of brevity that avoids pretension and has enough structure to turn each entry into lego blocks with which you can construct your own narrative. It’s well written, well executed, and—again—interesting. Recommended for anyone who wants a break from stories about teenagers struggling to save the world from a metaphor for growing up while dealing with their own awkward sexuality.

One other aside—don’t miss out on the ‘other announcement’ section of the webpage—there’s a bit of cleverness going on there.

PS: I haven’t read all 253 entries yet, and I don’t imagine I will—something to keep in mind for the purposes of this review.

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