Over the last two weeks, I had the privilege of following along as one of my favorite writers unveiled, piece by piece, an extraordinary, ambitious experiment in fiction. Jon Bois’ 17776 is quite something: depicting a distant future crushingly similar to our present; conveyed in writing almost exclusively through conversations between characters, but these conversations supplemented by still images, GIFs, and video; and—here’s the clincher—published via, of all places, the popular sports site SB Nation. I will not offer any sort of synopsis for the piece here. You should read 17776 in its entirety anyway, and you should definitely do so before reading this essay. You won’t regret it: it’s a fantastic, absorbing, and remarkably poignant read.
What it isn’t, however, is all that weird—at least if you’re familiar with Jon Bois’ previous work. 17776 treads very similar thematic ground to several of Bois’ previous projects—which is a strange enough statement, considering that the man is technically a sportswriter, an employee of many years of a major sports website—and in his previous work, we can see the genesis of ideas and themes that eventually manifested themselves more fully in 17776.
(I’m not going to spoil the fun prematurely with a thesis statement or anything, but quick housekeeping: I have divided this piece into three loosely-defined sections, each one concerning itself with a different part of Bois’ older work at SB Nation, using it as a lens through which we can interpret 17776.)
In 17776, humans are, thanks to the flicking of some unseen switch, immortal. Any remaining risk of injury or illness is mitigated by an all-encompassing network of nanobots. Humanity has shed any and all biological barriers that might have kept it from greater knowledge and greater accomplishment.
Unfortunately, there are more fundamental barriers at play here. As this exchange between Nine and Ten (you’ve gone ahead and actually read 17776 by now, right? Well, just in case you haven’t, here’s the link again) regarding the journey to the Andromeda Galaxy shows, the stars are, for all intents and purposes, off limits to humanity:
Fundamental, immovable restraints of physics keep the people of Earth from seeing what lies beyond for themselves, and because of the finite resources available to them on Earth and the sheer emptiness of the rest of the galaxy, whatever robotic scouts they send have little chance of discovering something new:
Like the Overlords of Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End, humanity has reached a dead end, an evolutionary cul-de-sac. It cannot evolve or advance further. There is no hope of reaching a higher, transcendent state of existence—and the humans of 17776 have no reason to believe such a state is possible for any life form, much less their own. If there is any greater meaning, truth, or potential lurking, hidden, somewhere in the galaxy, it is beyond the reach and comprehension of those on Earth.
This—and, again, this is a weird thing to say about ostensible sportswriting—is not the first time this idea has come up in Jon Bois’ writing about football.
The Tim Tebow CFL Chronicles is Bois’ previous attempt at serializing a work of 17776‘s scale. It is, for much of its length, a far goofier story: Tim Tebow, unable to find a job in the NFL, joins the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League. Canada, Tebow finds, is a very weird place, full of elevators controlled by steering wheels, mass communication through a network of rearrangeable pipes, and branded apparel for decade-old movies. Its football is even weirder, as he discovers when he runs for the first touchdown the league has seen in twenty-five years. This prompts one end of the stadium to open and the game to go “bound for street”, a scoreless exercise in which the attacking team tries to extend the line of scrimmage as far out of the stadium as possible. The result is a thirteen-year odyssey across eastern Canada, culminating in a sea battle off the coast of Greenland (really).
It’s easy to see how this inspired the continent-spanning games we see in 17776, but in the final chapter of the Chronicles, a more poignant thematic tie surfaces. Tebow and the Argonauts, having advanced the line of scrimmage into Greenland, learn that in the country’s snowy and unexplored center is the sprawling Greenland City, a haven for the finest intellects on the planet. Technologically, it is thousands of years more advanced than the rest of the world—but it cannot advance further. Per City resident Leland Melvin, former NASA astronaut and Detroit Lion:
Around the year 1500, we hit a wall. We precisely mapped every star that has ever sent light in our direction. And then we start to realize that virtually all of it is a place we can never reach.
Humankind can’t travel much further than our solar system. Astral physics won’t allow it. Our human bodies won’t allow it. Faster-than-light travel is impossible. All the teleportation business that we keep dreaming up in movies is absolutely impossible.
We know that quantum mechanics are in motion everywhere, but around that time, we also discover that we will never be able to comprehend or explore this, either. We stubbornly fought against this truth. God, how we fought. But it was like telling yourself that if you stare at a glass of water hard enough, it’ll turn into wine. We were used to running into barriers a handful of times before we figured ways around them. But at this point, we just kept on circling around and hitting our heads on the same, impenetrable wall, thousands of times, forever.
There are things we cannot do. Humankind can travel to a handful of planets so barren that we’d never want to visit them anyway. Apart from that, we are stuck here. Forever, and ever, and nothing can be done about it.
As in 17776, Bois posits a fundamental, immutable upper bound to human knowledge and accomplishment. There are things humanity simply will never be able to answer, or even comprehend, ever.
And when you have reached the upper limit of what you can comprehend, what do you do? The residents of Greenland City, much like the immortal humans of 17776, turn to sports—it turns out they have watched the Argonauts’ thirteen-year journey obsessively.
You know, when I was younger, a lot of academics back home used to turn up their noses at sports. They were lowbrow wastes of time, they said. People were too obsessed with them. The unmissable insinuation being, of course, that they themselves were up to something more important.
We are small. We are nothing. We are such nothing that the universe does not acknowledge that we are even here, and it never will. Accept that. And now, stand on this line, and look at that quarterback, and drill the fuck out of him. Nothing you do will be more important, because nothing you do will be important.
It is quite well that we love sports. Because one day, sports will be the only adventures we have left. There will be nothing else to do, and for eternity.
Humans cannot endure in a future without problems. It’s not in us. Sports invent problems as nothing else can.
In both stories, humanity has reached its apex and still finds itself anonymous, inconsequential to the galaxy at large. With time to kill, they turn inward. Lacking anything more profound to do, they obsess over and catalogue sports. To shoehorn in one more Arthur C. Clarke reference, they have no hope of discovering the nine billion names of God. Might as well play nine billion games of football instead.
Humanity is consigned to an eternity of stagnation—at the end of 17776, we learn that scientific advancements will keep the sun stable forever and that the universe will stick around forever, the notion of heat-death having been disproven—with nothing more significant than sticks, balls, and increasingly nonrectangular fields. To us, spending an eternity without any deeper purpose seems innately horrifying. It’s a notion that comes up frequently in 17776, too: the satellites, in particular, discuss it on several occasions.
Two of Jon Bois’ short pieces in particular stand out to me here. The first is titled “What the heck is a catch in the NFL, anyway?” It quickly devolves into this:
It quickly zooms out to a cosmic scale, arguing that it is perverse to quibble over such petty and arbitrary definitions as “what does it mean to catch a ball”, meaningless to demand precision and uncertainty of a universe enormously and extraordinarily beyond our comprehension. We try to quantify and know everything, but we would be far happier if we just appreciated and admired the very incomprehensibility of our existence. If we embraced the occasional blindness of the referees, rather than cursed their folly.
In “‘Last I checked, he had a country to run’“, then-President Obama appears on TV to fill out his NCAA bracket. However, he quickly realizes that he’s filling out a 4-team college football bracket, rather than a 68-team basketball bracket. The hour he has allocated to this task is far too much, so he uses the spare time to write a raft of legislation that ultimately transforms the country into a utopia, free from want.
In other words, the distraction of sports has singlehandedly kept humanity from realizing its potential. One hour of free time is all Obama needs to turn America into paradise. Yet in the final scene, the people realize that to be rid of the conflicts and obsessions that define humanity is its own kind of horror.
And all that kept a lid on that horror was sports—an hour at a time of sports.
In both of these pieces, humanity perceives that the universe extends terrifyingly far beyond its ability to comprehend it. One suggests we embrace it, embrace a universe precisely for being beyond our means of definition. The other suggests we look away, that we distract ourselves from that horror, and that sports are the avenue, however indirect, through which we do this.
In 17776, humanity uses both in equal measure.
Chapter 10 of 17776 introduces “Game 27”, gone to hell because the NFL sought increasingly precise definitions of what it meant to “control the ball”. This futile pursuit of certainty has only led to chaos and gridlock. Yet to us observers, Game 27 is fascinating. Despite being the oldest football game described in 17776—so old that it originated in and still exists entirely within an NFL stadium—it’s the one that least resembles football:
Game 27 is an incomprehensible, fascinating entity of infinite complexity. It has, in a way, become its own universe, so far removed from its own origin as to be a mystery. It’s Juice’s favorite game, but they admit they do not know every sordid detail and technicality that led to this abomination—and I do not think they would want to, if they had the chance. It would be a futile task. It is better to admire the game for what we can make of it than to try and parse something more knowable out of it.
It’s also worth noting that, despite its unknowability, Game 27 is not a font of horror or dread. Obviously, it is entirely human in creation, not a reminder of the infinity and unknowability of the cosmos. Even so, it does present a horror of its own—but a horror safely contained, restricted to the confines of this bizarrely divided field. Juice explains it as capitalism allowed to run its natural course:
this is what it’s supposed to be, this is how it ends. if it isn’t there its only because it isnt there yet. its like youre staring at a cake in the oven and wondering if its gonna be a cake.
things went the other direction in america and thank god for that. but capitalism deserves a zoo like this one. it’s a beast of the wild, as wild as any grizzly bear with fawn’s blood in its mouth. i think you see deeds and contracts and bureaucratic bloat and see that something went wrong. something was ALWAYS wrong y’all.
i love it. i love to watch it. in a zoo, where it can’t hurt me.
Complexity and terror are not inseparable. Just because something is, at some level, unknowable (and perhaps infinite) does not necessarily make it terrifying. Thus Game 27 offers something for both the “What the heck is a catch” and “Last I checked, he had a country to run” camps. Its fascinating, feral, fractal stupidity is a marvel—one that, by virtue of its absurd convolution, makes it a fine way to forget, at least for a little while, the terrors of an endless existence.
It’s easy, as a frail and mortal human, to read 17776 and believe it portrays a miserable future: unable to seek any greater meaning and unable to move beyond the confines of their planet, humanity looks for ways to while away their senseless and never-ending existence. They elevate the mundane. They adore an ever-burning lightbulb. They play football, but as a way to occupy their time, to take their minds off their terrifyingly infinite future.
That’s a pretty dour interpretation of the work, and after two full sections of treading this sort of ground, an overplayed one. Instead, let’s look at Jon Bois’ personal history, which raises the possibility that this entire line of thinking is misguided.
Bois has earned himself the sort of job we all wish we could have. As best I can tell, SB Nation pays him write or create pretty much whatever he wants, as long as it’s sports-related, and even that requirement often falls by the wayside:
He has the creative license to do stuff like spend weeks and weeks analyzing every character ever killed off on 24 and whip up a half-hour-long video about it. Once, he just up and posted a recipe for Eggs Benedict. Another time, he wrote a (thoroughly wonderful) look at people across America streaming their lives on Periscope.
That said, it’s not like his sports-related writing has ever been subject to much creative constraint. Before 17776, he was best known for Breaking Madden, in which he used the Madden NFL video games to answer absurd questions like “could a player break the all-time record for sacks in a single game?” and “can an indestructible, 5’0″, 400-pound quarterback save the worst team in the NFL?“
Bois, you could say, has beaten the system. He is paid by a sizable corporation to write pretty much whatever he damn well pleases. He wasn’t always this lucky. He once described his early adulthood “working jobs I hated, without a college education or career path or any real indication that I would have a better job.”
Well, he found that better job. He left the drains and stresses of being a thankless, replaceable, minimum-wage worker he described in this account of his years working for RadioShack. And what does he do now? He fucks about with video games. He spends weeks at a time poring over forgotten Olympic marathons and college basketball games. To paraphrase Calvin and Hobbes, he spends his days building a command of thoroughly useless information. He could disappear from the face of the earth right now without disrupting the clockwork operation of society.
And we would all love to have his job.
Jon Bois has transcended, as well as one can in our society, his base needs and worries. He has, for the foreseeable future, secured himself a means of providing for himself by exploring and having fun with whatever dumb inconsequential stuff he finds interesting. His job is the end, not the means—he provides for himself by doing exactly what he has always wanted to do.
Why not interpret 17776 as this existence made universal? The future Bois depicts there is one free of the constraints and limitations we take for granted. Ill health and death are no concern. There is always time enough for whatever you wish to do. People still have jobs, if they want, but money does not appear to be a problem. They have moved past their basest worries. They spend their days as they see fit. Freed from the tyranny of needs, they do not need to disguise or set aside their silly passions for the sake of expediency; they can place them upon a pedestal, as they have always wished they could.
Humanity is not playing football as a distraction. They play football because, deep down, that’s what they’ve always wanted to do. We readers may find such pursuits silly, but our perspective is warped by needs and anxieties that have long vanished from the world of 17776. They have done away with the need for survival and subsistence. They can spend their days enjoying whatever they want.
As Ten puts it:
All images are screenshots of the articles linked in this piece—all by our pal Jon Bois.