I can’t stop thinking about three space probes watching American football (or, What Speculative Fiction Will Be Like In The Future)

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***SPOILERS FOR 17776 BY JON BOIS BELOW***

Earlier this week I finished work a little early and, on returning home, decided to make something of my evening and dabble with something new. Apart from consuming each incoming season of Queer Eye like a freshly collapsing star, I have a habit of simply rewatching or rereading old, tried-and-tested favourites rather than venture out into the vast and uncharted territory of new material, or new authors, or new media. It was with this reason in mind that I finally got around to opening a long bookmarked page, a twenty-five chapter story which was published only a few years ago; 17776 (or, What Football Will Look Like In The Future).

17776 is a multi-media story – told through still images, .gifs, and embedded YouTube videos which demand you gently navigate the page to continue – which tells of a year in the distant future where humanity has reached a sort of utopia, and three long-forgotten space probes streaming through the vastness of the galaxy have reached a sort of sentience. They look back to Earth and observe what we’re getting up to, offering the reader vignettes through which consider the nature of existence, purpose, and hope.

They do this by watching weird, weird games of American football.

17776 was created by sports and fiction writer Jon Bois and hosted by SB Nation who, according to my friend who actually watches American football, genuinely do some of the best sports journalism on the internet. Bois talks on the website, when discussing the creative process behind 17776, of the pervasive feeling of misery that surrounded his world following the November 2016 Presidential Election. Indeed he felt it married with the general sense of a saddening, hopeless vision of the future and of humanity that pervades most of our recent popular media; Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, and so on. These shows can be great, he attests, but they are dread-porn, where everything goes wrong and everyone dies all the time in disastrous fashion.

That’s not what 17776 is about – in it, by 17776 (the year, not the fiction), humanity has long since stopped dying. We have also stopped ageing, so everyone lives long and healthy lives. We have perfected technologies to keep us safe and impervious to harm but which, arguably, do not inherently grant us happiness. The world this creates is one of technically of utopia but which is undeniably tinted with sadness. There has evidently been, as one knows we are now committed to, vast environmental change. As a species, we will have already shot for the stars with extensive space exploration, and found ourselves unable to move on. We have tried on all the flying cars, and robot butlers, and Jetsonsesque retro-futurism only to find it did not fit. Perfection intrudes on humanity. We remain in a permanent version of the not-too-different present where there is, essentially, no future.

At one particularly moving part of the text, 17776 (the fiction, not the year) asks why people never rearrange their furniture. They put it down in one spot, when they first move in to a new place, and it will probably stay right there until they move out again years down the line. Okay, they might replace it with new versions of the furniture in a different style or colour. Okay, they might put it down when they move in and shift it two-feet the right a week later, when they really figure out quite how they’re going to use the space.  Rarely, however, do they ever up and decide to up and change it all.

Why? Well, they got it right the first time. And they like it like that.

(This occurs in Intermission 2, which is laid out quite a bit differently to the other chapters, and is perhaps the oddest chapter, with the exception of that which it precedes. It is image-heavy and, much like the text as a whole, you don’t quite get the significance of it all until the end. I never expected to almost start crying at the sight of a newspaper advert for an old, 15-seat people carrier, but there we go.)

Perhaps the central argument posed by 17776 is that when people have infinite time, time would no longer be a resource. You could waste time, then, without really wasting anything. Why, then, make things more efficient – efficiency seeks to save time which, in this universe, we have aplenty. We are left wanting for want. For the temporary, and transient, and imperfect, and inconvenient. You know how when you were younger and someone would point at the TV screen and ask, “Hey, what has that actress been in before?”, and you had a horrible, precious half an hour before the answer would finally come to you? And how, nowadays, it’s solved inside of 10 seconds with an IMDB search?

In that context, you could occupy yourself with ludicrous, complex, never-ending things. The human condition is to create, and to play, and that is what 17776 speculates. It thinks that America will transform its football game to the point of abstraction, playing games that stretch coast to coast across thousands of miles, involve bizarre rules, or entail teams with hundreds of players. I, like the character Juice (Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer, which the European Space Agency will launch in June 2022, and one of our sentient space probes), and am particularly fond of Game 27. Starting as a normal game of football on a regulation pitch, Game 27 involved players realising that they could take possession of parts of the pitch and so forming discrete territories, some which have grown to include vast structures and/or holiday lets. Of course, we don’t get to see quite how this has really happened; we only know the start, and the absurd endpoint. (In 17776, like in a lot of my favourite media, I think there is some kind of wonder captured in what we the reader are not told, rather than what we are).

There are a lot of themes floating around in this messy, beautiful work, and I won’t spoil them all. But I leave that central ethos; that when there is nothing to do, humans will always create things to do. When we are put in a situation to be limitless we will construct arbitrary rules and only play within them. Speculative fiction is a creative space, one which I believe is of increasing interest to new generations of artists, and which asks us to consider what is coming.

17776 answers like this; the future is not dark, and it will not be miserable, and there are tiny metal souvenirs of our species, further away than we will ever hope to reach, that are still alive.

17776 (or, What Football Will Look Like In The Future) is written by Jon Bois and available for free at SBNation.

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Features Editor 2015/16. PhD student. Sorry I give everything five stars, I just have a lot of love in my heart.

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