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17776: Questions and answers

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17776 is a strange, sometimes confusing universe, and people have asked a lot of questions about it. Here, Jon bumbles his way through some answers.

Hi, y’all! Thanks to you, 17776 has achieved more than 100 page views. That’s not a typo: one hundred. It is officially the most-viewed story on the Internet, and in recognition of my achievement, the government has mailed me a ceremonial sword. I am going to sell this sword at the pawn shop, but before I do, I thought I’d take some time to answer some of your questions about the story.

Thank you so for all the questions you sent in. Unfortunately, I could only get to a few of them, but I tried to answer them as well as I could. They have to do with a) the idea, b) the process, c) the format, d) the rules of the world, e) the world itself, f) the games, g) the probes, and h) the future.

And before I go any further, I just want to thank all of you for being on this ride with me over the past couple weeks. Every time I sat down to write 17776, I thought about the person on the other end. I wanted to make something that meant as much to you as it did to me. I hoped you were out there, and you were.

It just might be the most fulfilling project I’ve ever worked on, and y’all lend purpose to it. You’re the reason it means something. Thank you.

The idea

What encouraged you to dabble into longform again? I know you said after The Tim Tebow Chronicles that you wouldn't attempt something as massive as that, but what changed your mind?

- Ryan Kolsch

I didn’t expect to, because I had moved on to other projects that I found really fun and interesting, but I kept thinking about the absurdity of a distant future where nothing much was different. I loved the concept, but I loved the concept of the Tebow Chronicles, too, and I think in that case I prioritized that concept over the actual quality of the story. So I made a deal with myself: whenever I thought of an idea for this untitled story, I’d write it down. And if I ever got the point at which the world was built well enough to make it into a story, I’d go for it.

Over the next two years, I slowly piled up a collection of documents.

On November 8th, 2016, the world’s dumbest famous person was elected President. On November 9th, 2016, I stepped on a subway train and it felt like a morgue. Nobody was talking. At least a couple people were crying. It was the same story at the bank, at the coffee shop, in the corner stores. I had never experienced an entire city full of people whose hearts were ripped out.

The near future was destined to be terrible, so I thought about the future beyond that, the one I’d spent the last couple years thinking about. I thought about some of the most popular long-winding stories our culture had produced in recent years — 24, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, etc. — and how miserable their worlds tended to be. Everything was going disastrously wrong, everyone was dying in horrible fashion. It was death worship. I really like some of those shows! But they are dread-porn.

I wanted a world to escape to once in a while, and it couldn’t be one of those. I didn’t want a utopia, by any means, but I wanted a world where I could dwell on things that were bizarre, fascinating, and maybe even funny. If I wanted that world, I thought, maybe some other folks out there want that too, and maybe it would make them happier by a fraction of a percent.

So I started to move it to the front burner. Once I got other projects out of the way in mid-April, I got to work.

What was your inspiration for this?

- anonymous

I’m not sure whether this was the intent of the question, but I’ll use this to talk about a few creative inspirations that helped to spur me along. The first, as usual, is Calvin & Hobbes, which brazenly ignored every expectation anyone ever set upon it. Established conventions and rules were nothing more than passing curiosities to giggle at for a moment before kicking down the hill.

To me, Calvin & Hobbes was not really a happy story nor, exactly, a sad one. It was about the struggle to find happiness and hold on to it within a world that is often cold, and dominated by rules and expectations, and arbitrarily populated with cruelty. That definitely rings a few bells within me these days.

I also read Atlas Obscura a lot. This site is a seemingly endless catalog of the little oddities that are scattered across our planet. I didn’t actually use anything I read here in the story, but it did serve as a reminder that there are far more wonders in America than anyone could ever get around to taking in.

About a month into writing 17776 full-time, in an effort to stop myself from working on it 90 hours a week, I picked up The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. It’s at least as great as everyone else says it is. It might be the best video game I’ve ever played. It was compelling in the same ways I wanted 17776 to be compelling: you see some weird structure or mountain far off in the distance, you wonder what the Hell it is, and you spend the next 20 minutes trying to find out. I liked that feeling, and I’m not sure whether it gave me the idea, but I sort of did the same thing in 17776 — I’d incidentally mention some dramatic human event, like the oceans rising, and not even mention it for another 10,000 words.

Breath of the Wild is also about exploration for its own sake. You could get lost in that game forever without even bothering to achieve the main goal. (You might notice that nobody in 17776 ever scores a touchdown.)

How'd you get from "Okay, cool, we're gonna talk about football after 15,000 years, where no one dies anymore, and it's just all about living life without limits," to "Oh yeah, and the main characters are three space probes, two of which were launched before I was born, and one that hasn't been built yet."

- @tbridge

About a year and a half ago, I made my first attempt at really sitting down and writing this (A few thousand words in, I threw it in the trash because it was bad.) It took me way more time than it should have to realize that the story needed to be centered somehow. There needed to some way to help the reader along, and some sort of character to ask some of the questions the reader wanted to ask.

So I wrote one central character: a guy hosting a small-town, AM-radio talk show in the middle of the night. He took calls from listeners around town, and he would tune in to various games across the country whenever something interesting was happening, a la NFL RedZone. I found it to be really compelling -- if you’ve ever driven through the country in the middle of the night and listened to whatever AM radio picked up, you might get it. There’s a sort of quiet, beautiful eeriness to it.

But even then, I decided it wasn’t quite enough. In March, our baseball editor Grant Brisbee asked me if I wanted to write a short piece on the future of baseball. Coincidentally, I had been reading about deep-space probes, and I found them fascinating. I mean, humankind’s most distant ambassadors are technological cousins of Pong. That’s ridiculous. Pioneer 10 is out there right now, whizzing through space at more than 26,000 miles per hour. That’s amazing.

In a sense, I think change is a necessary component of any future. Pioneer 10 hasn’t changed, and won’t for the foreseeable future, so does it really have a future at all, or is it just confined to an eternal present? I decided that it shared that fate with baseball, and wrote “There Is No Future of Baseball.”

Once I wrote it, I sat back, looked at my baseball column, then looked back at my story drafts. And then I was like, “ah, shit. Yep. Let’s kill the future.”

Why football? This is the second project where you've taken the sport and turned it into something recognizable but completely different; do you think it's more receptive to messing around than other sports? Or do you just like it the most?

- @henrydruschel

I see a really clear parallel between America and football: both are beautiful, and both destroy people. This is a recent development in neither case: they are designed to create misery. They are both institutions that I want to love unconditionally, but can’t possibly.

I can only appreciate either if I retreat into fantasy, filter out what I hate about them, and present a distillation of what i love about them. If you distill American into the land itself, and if you distill football into the game itself, and you populate them with the people who make them both beautiful, you end up with a world I find pretty amazing.

A lot of people compare your work to Homestuck. How do you feel about that?

- Tori

I’ll admit that I’ve never actually experienced Homestuck. There’s no particular reason why I haven’t, aside from the fact that diving into a seven-year labor of love seems like it would require a lot of time to appreciate.

If I have the right idea about Homestuck, it shares some things in common with 17776: it’s a sprawling mixed-media project that creates entire new worlds from ostensibly very ordinary beginnings. (One key difference is that I think Homestuck is way, way bigger.)

While I respect the art, Homestuck wasn’t an inspiration for 17776 in any manner. A lot of people interpreted Juice as really similar to Dave Strider, a Homestuck character. Juice actually hearkens back to some characters I helped write in The Dugout, a made-up chatroom in which baseball players make fun of each other, between 2004 and 2009. The serialized long-term story format is something I’ve tried several times, most recently with the Tim Tebow CFL Chronicles in 2014.

The process

What was the process like behind the scenes? Did you write it all and hand it off to a coder? Did SB Nation just say yes to the concept up front or did you have to pitch it with a sample (and what was the reaction)? I'm so curious how it all went down.

- @hemantmehta

I coded it all myself, which worked out fine because most of the code is really simple. I’d originally just uploaded raw HTML files to our server, but that wasn’t going to work, because I would have had no way to link the pages to one another. That was kind of a fascinating problem. Fifteen years ago, when I first started taking Internet writing and site-building seriously, you could go to the back end of your site, look up a page, edit it, and put it back without changing the page’s URL. On our back end you can’t do that anymore (which is understandable, because modern outlets have way more sophisticated means of putting things online).

That’s where Graham MacAree came in. He’s our editorial engineer, and you would not have read 17776 without him. Graham designed an app entirely from scratch that would allow me to dump in raw HTML code and hit a little green button that said “build,” and when I did, the app would automatically construct my code into the proper format. It made my job a million times easier.

Sometime in early April, I sat down with our editor-in-chief, Elena Bergeron. I probably did a terrible job of explaining the idea I had. I at least managed to describe some of the themes I wanted to explore. She got it, and told me to go for it despite the fact that there were some questions about it I just couldn’t answer. I think it’s pretty unusual in this line of work for an editor to grant someone that much room to work. But she did, and you wouldn’t have read 17776 without her, either.

If, hypothetically, Google Earth did not exist, how would you have told this story differently?

- Tom Patterson

This is a reeeally good question. Google Earth was more than just a visualization tool, it was an essential reference source. So much of 17776 is anchored to the map. If I couldn’t do that, I’d probably rely more on making fictional documents — newsletters, flyers, pages of imaginary books, etc. I think it’d be a fundamentally different story.

The format

How did you get started as a writer for SB Nation? It's weird to think that your absurdly existential writing experiments are being exhibited on the same website that people go to check news for NBA and NFL and MLB and every other sports acronym, but it's also the perfect place to be exhibited because of how much more weird it makes your writing. Related question, how much overlap do you think there is between your readers and SB Nation's usual readers?

- @tcipdawq

I started at SB Nation in 2009 as the lead weekend editor. SBNation.com was brand new, and we had to assemble the nuts and bolts before we could move on to other things. I live-blogged a lot of games from just about any sport you can think of. I posted recaps, I wrote little 150-word posts about funny things that were going on. It’s the kind of stuff you see on the site now, except the people who do it now are far better at it. After a couple years passed, I got to the point at which I could attempt the sorts of things I’d been doing online in my pre-SB Nation days.

I really love that this is the place I got to do this. I love to genuinely surprise people. My hope was that I could keep people curious for long enough that they’d get invested in the world and the people in it.

Audience-wise, we’ve seen a lot of overlap with everyday SB Nation readers, but 17776 has also found its way to totally new audiences. That makes me really, really happy.

Why is there a Teddy Bridgewater clip?

- @hoopdata

For those unfamiliar, this the black-and-white animation shown in the final New York chapter. This took place during a game against Cincinnati. Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater’s pocket collapsed, and defenders were all over him. He was out of room, it was like the ground around him had just disappeared. And he responded by throwing one of the most beautifully-thrown footballs I have ever seen. It fit perfectly with the narrative I was trying to get across.

Teddy Bridgewater is a good quarterback. He’s by no means the best quarterback, but he is far and away my favorite quarterback at any level of football. Watching him is an absolute delight, and football is beautiful because of players like him.

Do you think weird experimental stories like this have a future in sports writing or was this a singular event?

- @Crazyeyesdave

I hope so. Maybe not distant-future sports sci-fi, but that’s only one of a thousand lanes.

I could go really, really long on this answer. I’ll keep it short: There are countless different ways to write, and things and ideas to write about. And the Internet offers a kaleidoscope of different formats, media, tools, sights, and sounds to tell your stories. And most of us are not even trying to scrape the surface of any of it. We’ve got to start thinking of the Internet as something more than a glow-in-the-dark newspaper.

(When Graham read this, he thought I stole his line. It turns out that both of us have independently said the exact same thing before.)

The rules of the world

There is a time gap between 2026 and when nanos were perfected. Given how much they state nanos changed everything was there a significant difference in life in those early pre-perfected nano years?

- Lilly

I’d imagine so. That’s a huge chunk of history that I intentionally left unexplored, because I didn’t really have much I wanted to say about it. There are a lot of elements like this. Such as:

What happened to dogs? (And other living things, but especially dogs.)

- @beccaworby

I just couldn’t decide, because any decision would inevitably carry giant implications that I’d have to spend lots and lots of time figuring out. After a while, I realized it was hopeless for me to try to answer every important question, and I allowed myself to focus only on the details that I needed to tell the story.

The world

Why did you choose Livermore? The lightbulb?

- None of [our] dang business

I first read about that light bulb years ago, and I’ve been fascinated by it ever since. I’m fascinated by really, really old things that still work -- centuries-old bridges are another example. It’s like they’ve stopped being artificial creations, and evolved into natural features of the planet.

Is the computer parts story true?

- @dren_braves

So this was kind of wild. It was an adaptation of a story a friend told me at least a decade ago, which he said a friend had told him. It was so specific and weird that it seemed like it would be true.

Just the other day, someone tweeted to tell me that he had heard a very similar story from a friend. I did some digging, and as it turns out, it’s an anecdote that’s been passed around for years and years. Who knows if it’s true or not? It probably isn’t, but now I’m even happier I put it in there.

Why did Burger King GIVE Nancy money?

- @redheadzeb

Post-capitalist systems are weird, y’all.

What are the duties of the president in 17776, now that war, famine, poverty and death have been eradicated? Also, do now president rules still apply? 2 terms, 4 years, all that?

- @woodmasterfresh

Yeah, term limits pretty much still apply. The office of the President is largely ceremonial. There’s actually an anecdote sitting in my drafts about one President who just woke up every morning and mowed the South Lawn every single day. That’s all he did, and that’s all he cared about doing. He was re-elected.

The games

what has happened to other sports, such as baseball or soccer? have they raised in popularity, gotten more big picture or have they stayed the same? have they gotten weirder as well?

- @k0korin

They’re still around. Some of y’all might have noticed that baseball diamonds can be spotted in various animations and videos. Someone even tried to build a baseball diamond inside of the Broncos-Steelers game. I think traditional baseball is still played, and a thousand variants of bizarro baseball are also played. None of that’s been decided, but I might explore it someday.

If they played football in that gorge for 12,000 years, couldn't they eventually wear the cliff away? Like how water makes a canyon drip by drip, except with football players.

- @monty_ashley

Well dang! Yeah, they probably could. I think we might have to give them a longer timeline than 12,000 years, but that’s a good thought. It’s also unbelievably dark and funny as hell.

Why Seward, NE? That's my home town which really weirded me out!

- Alex

I picked it absolutely at random. Honestly I just spun around the globe and landed on it. In so doing, I was trying to test the hypothesis that would later become Nancy’s: that you can’t go far in this world without running into a story.

To test this hypothesis, I had the tornado throw her in a direction that was also completely arbitrary, found the town of Bee a couple miles north, and read all about the story of Vlad Sobotka, the WPA chief who feverishly stayed up all night drawing blueprints for an eccentric building built entirely out of sidewalk parts. It doesn’t look like anything else within 500 miles of it, and it’s still standing as a monument to Sobotka’s determination to give his builders some work.

Over and over again, over the course of writing this story, I kept being proven right: There’s Weird Shit Everywhere.

do ya think there's any more detmer balls out there?

- Amelia

I really don’t know. I want to think there are a few that have been sitting forgotten in peoples’ attics and whatnot. If there are, it further exhibits what I found to be the funniest thing about people in this world: even with all the time in the world, a lot of them don’t bother to re-organize things in their own homes, let alone anything else.

What was your favorite chapter to write?

- Reesa

This is a tough one. I think the one I’m most satisfied with is the Livermore chapter, with Lacrecia and the light bulb. Even though I wasn’t concerned with suspense throughout the course of 17776, I did enjoy writing suspenseful elements with this one, and kind of juxtaposing it with the most normal, ordinary, everyday shit you can imagine.

The most fun to write was probably Game 27 in Denver. This was the chapter in which I first really came to understand Juice. From the outset, I’d imagined him as a deeply thoughtful, stupendously bored eccentric weirdo who delighted in some of the dumbest bullshit imaginable. Once he had his own chapter, he really let loose.

The game itself was really fun to build. I uploaded a hideous assortment of various polygons into Google Earth, and while doing so, I was satisfied with none of it making any sense. It wasn’t supposed to make any sense. We only really understand two points: the start point of the game, reflected by the normal confines of Mile High Stadium, and the absurd end point. What happened in between? God only knows. God probably doesn’t even know.

I have to bring up Calvin & Hobbes again. In one strip, Calvin begs his dad to read him Hamster Huey and the Gooey Kablooie for the thousandth time. His dad says no, because he’s so tired of it. Calvin keeps begging. His dad finally relents.

Hamster Huey has been beheaded. None of us will ever understand how.

The probes

Why did you pick those three space probes?

- @sailracer

Juice was honestly just chosen because I liked the name, but the real-life origins of the Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer ended up coincidentally being really useful. Juice is currently being designed and built in France, so he has a little bit of a different perspective on things than Ten, who comes from California and Florida.

Pioneer 10 was the one I happened to read the most about, and I just couldn’t stop thinking about the final, faint signal it sent in 2003. It’s further out in the cosmos than any human might ever go, and some thirty-plus years after it was supposed to stop working, it let out a message that may as well been, “oh, hi y’all! I’m still here.” And we never heard from it again.

Pioneer 10 looks more or less what you’d expect a space probe to look like. Pioneer 9 absolutely doesn’t. It looks like a beer keg with a bunch of golf clubs sticking out of it. On one hand, it’s easy to see it as Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree, you just can’t help but love it. On the other hand, though, Pioneer 9’s design exhibits a deep understanding of the space it’s in. In space, it doesn’t need to be aerodynamic at all. It defies our aesthetic ideas, because it’s flying through a different plane entirely. It’s too sophisticated for us.

I was also haunted by this sentence from this Wikipedia entry, which has since been edited to a different phrase: “Only Pioneer 9 is definitely dead.”

Seriously though, Nine is dead at the end right?

- anonymous

Nope. I guarantee Nine is not dead. Nobody’s dead.

does nine have any set pronouns?

- Remi

Nope, not really. Some of y’all noticed that Ten once referred to Nine as “she,” which was an accident on my part that I edited out once I realized it. Nine is presently non-binary. That could change someday, as Nine is still pretty new at being a person.

To be honest, I wanted to be able to establish at least one human character as non-binary, but I felt it important to do so completely matter-of-factly. I wanted to normalize that. For example, I didn’t ever bother spending a second explaining why half the best football players are women. Like, of course, why wouldn’t they be?

I wish I could have done the same for a transgender character, or someone who identifies as neither a man nor a woman. I just never figured out a way to do so effortlessly, and I didn’t want to screw it up. I guess I know what I need to work on next.

The future

Will you expand upon the story in the future, or is this it?

- @flowerscreech

I’d really like to! I already have some ideas.

Would you consider 17776 a work of fiction or a prophecy?

- Reesa

I think 17776 might get one thing right about the future: we’re never gonna leave the solar system. Humanity’s technological advancement over the last 150 years has been almost frightening, but that’s a very small speck of time. I think we’ll eventually hit a wall, and that wall will be, “we can’t travel into deep space ourselves.” Too much distance, too much radiation, and too little incentive.

If that ends up being the case, we’ll have nothing to do but solve our problems on Earth. I’m being really optimistic when I guess that we might someday. After we do that, we’re gonna want our games, our art, and each other. One day, we might see those as the only reasons we’re here.