Our time will come to an end. But what if it doesn’t? What would you do? Would you quit your job and travel the world? Take a nap? “17776,” a hypertext speculative fiction narrative by Jon Bois, proposes a different answer on behalf of humanity: play football. As a deeply conditional football “fan,” this piece has to be my favorite thing I’ve ever read (and truly, I believe that “17776” should be experienced with little prior knowledge).
Published online in 2017 at SB Nation, a sports-focused media outlet owned by Vox, “17776” is a deeply odd and oddly deep fictional narrative that questions how the scarcity of time affects existence. Set 15,755 years in the future, Bois creates a world where birth, death and the suffering in between ended on April 7, 2026. People live free of financial and health concerns; instead, in the United States, many focus their energy on an ongoing nationwide football game, where participants play or engage in fanfare. The story is narrated by three sentient space probes, who jokingly converse about the state of the universe while observing the game.
It’s unlike anything I’ve ever read. First, the format: a mixture of monthly calendars, group chat records, historical documents, podcast transcripts and Google Maps of a landscape different from our own. “17776” is a narrative that pushes the boundaries of fiction, especially on the internet: it’s one of the most well-known additions to the internet genre of hyperliterature, in which online fiction uses unconventional, expressive forms to convey its “function.”
While newly-awakened space probe Nine’s (Pioneer 9) group chat messages are formal, insistent and laden with question marks (most commonly “What?” followed by questions like “We don’t do anything, right?” and “This is the end, right? The end of this story?”), Ten’s (Pioneer 10) and Juice’s (Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer) texts are much more casual, with less grammar and more jokes, like this one about Lunchables: “neatly partitioned meats and cheeses appeal to me on an aesthetic level ok mfer.” Ten and Juice are deeply familiar with the state of the universe and have no sense of time or urgency — they don’t ask questions or bother with most things, really. Compared with Nine’s insistent questioning and existential dread, they seem uninterested in “serious” questions of the world around them. Juice would much rather discuss football, like many of the humans on earth.
The lack of “productivity” infuriates Nine, from the late 20th century, who begins angrily texting messages such as “I’m appalled… disgusted, I guess,” overcome with the lack of “purpose.” Ten and Juice then slowly and calmly text back, explaining to Nine that “wasting” time is simply impossible — time has ceased to be a finite resource, and life goes on forever. In “17776,” human beings are no longer under the jurisdiction of the natural world. But for creatures who’ve learned to define their existence with constraints such as time, money and physical ability, immortality is terrifying. Since, instead of uncertainty or stress, “boredom is their only enemy,” so humanity turns to sports to deal with being alive.
The sheer amount of thought put into “17776” is impressive. With plenty of newspaper clippings, historical facts and believable vignettes, the intricate worldbuilding makes the piece feel like an irreverent, entertaining study of history. Looking at historical documents such as certificates and newspaper clippings makes me feel like I’m trying to answer a Data-Based Question for my high school American history class again (in a good way, this time). The montages of documents over a course of 15,000 years have a way of making you feel incredibly inconsequential in their magnitude. Most of the “historical” vignettes narrated by the space probes’ group chat gave me genuine goosebumps, as I absorbed the stories in which people grapple with the pain of an endless existence. The tales weave in and out of the football game, making the unnatural seem profoundly mundane, and the every day seem truly otherworldly — an always-burning light bulb is sacred, and New York City has all but disappeared into an underwater ghost town.
Additionally, “17776” remains the only true “utopian” piece of literature I’ve ever read; absent of suffering, it’s impressive that the piece so thoroughly captures attention without the traditional ideas of “conflict.” Instead, it draws readers in through thorough worldbuilding, crafting a reality wholly different but strangely similar to our own. Ultimately, within the story, many Americans turn to football to pass the time, like we always have. Many, including Nine, could easily call playing football a waste of time. But, in our world and theirs, humans’ need for sports goes beyond expectations of productivity and profit; Bois shows us that to unite in this fashion and bring uncertainty and excitement to a life filled with mundanity is anything but useless. Whether existence has an end date is irrelevant — experiencing the passage of time is hard enough, so why not play football?
While a social utopia, the world of “17776” is not bereft of problems — in fact, much of the United States has sunken into the ocean. Juice reminisces on climate change deniers, who believe they won’t live with consequences, convinced destruction would only be felt by a distant, disembodied concept of “other” they don’t care about, instead of their own homes as well. “Nah,” Juice says. “All of it.” The entire world is damaged beyond repair because of those who were selfish and counted on their timely demise before environmental destruction. Only, in this fictional world, the same people who created climate change also have to deal with it. It leads to an almost sick sense of satisfaction when reading — even the people who’ve ruined our world have to live in it. However, there is no gloating in “17776” — throughout the public, there is a tangible sense of despair when mentioning submerged cities. Reading this fictional piece in the present — as we push the Earth’s climate beyond repair — makes addressing climate change feel more necessary than ever.
I can’t stop thinking about “17776.” I fall asleep at night trying to figure out how the world map has changed and how other countries grapple with existence in their post-scarcity world. Apart from being the only accurate depiction of a group chat that I’ve ever seen, “17776” is unlike anything else (in terms of medium, genre, structure and general message) in how it questions our view of time. Scrolling through the long montages of newspaper clippings or listening to accounts of many thousand-year-long football games makes the length of our life seem almost laughable. Just like the characters of the story, the reader pays less and less attention to the “trappings” of a lifetime and instead is more and more interested in the ever-present football game in order to make life bearable. Ultimately, the work offers a novel promise to football lovers and haters alike: a view of our present, mirrored and distorted into a startlingly eccentric utopia. More words would only sully its perfection.
Daily Arts Writer Meera Kumar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.