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The surprising poignancy of futuristic football: Jon Bois’ ‘17776’ and ‘20020’

<p>Sentient satellites? Futuristic football? Jon Bois’s longform speculative fictions “17776” and “20020” push the boundaries of imagination while reflecting on familiar questions.</p>
<h6>Sydney Peng / The Daily Princetonian</h6>

Sentient satellites? Futuristic football? Jon Bois’s longform speculative fictions “17776” and “20020” push the boundaries of imagination while reflecting on familiar questions.

Sydney Peng / The Daily Princetonian

What will football look like in the future? Follow this apparently innocuous question asked in the headline of an article on sports news site SB Nation, and you’re probably expecting a write-up of draft prospects, league policies, statistical predictions, and maybe some musings on the evolution of sports fandom. What you get, however, is Jon Bois’s “17776,” a long-form multimedia speculative fiction narrative longlisted for two Hugo Awards.

Bois and several other SB Nation writers, video producers, and other creatives established a subsection of the site called Secret Base in August. Their mission is “to enjoy fascinating, funny, and weird stories that just happen to be about sports. Many of the stories we tell are true. Some are strange, irreverent experiments that break the fundamental rules.” Secret Base houses, among other things, “17776” and its recent sequel, “20020,” released over the course of this October; a third part, “20021,” will be published in the coming year.

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“17776,” set mostly in the titular year, is an exploration of the far future, the nature of humanity and immortality, the role of games and leisure in our cultural and personal experiences, and the vast weirdness of the American landscape. It opens with a chapter titled “Please Answer Me.” As we scroll through monthly calendars, we watch a series of messages pop up between two confused beings over the course of many years as they try again and again to maintain contact with one another. Finally, after passing through animations, technical diagrams, and newspaper clippings, one of the beings fully awakens.

The two communicants are revealed to be now-sentient satellites Pioneer Ten and her newly conscious and very disoriented sibling, Pioneer Nine. They are joined by the irreverent jokester Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer, or Juice, who introduces Nine and Ten to a series of ridiculous forms of football being played on Earth, where humans stopped being born, aging, or dying after the year 2026 and now have infinite free time. One man, for example, roams the country hunting down balls signed by an obscure 1990s backup player. Another game between the Steelers and the Broncos has devolved into a life-sized version of Monopoly. Through a series of vignettes, all observed by Ten, Nine, and Juice, as Nine struggles to acclimate to consciousness and what it means to be alive, “17776” reaches a moving, hopeful conclusion.

“17776” is more of an anthology, and the types of football being played vary widely and are largely decentralized. But by the time 20020 rolls around, Juice has become the commissioner of one massive nationwide football game with a unified rulebook, and the narrative is focused more on one particularly dramatic series of events in this game.

In this style of play, every college football stadium remaining in the United States (which has been partially eroded by sea level rise) has had its field extended in length, but not width, until it reaches the country’s borders. The result is a crisscross of narrow stripes, on which huge teams of players have roamed for centuries, hunting down footballs in a game approximating capture the flag. At straight-laced Ten’s insistence that this is a pointless and frustrating sport, Juice selects a promising underdog story for the three satellites to follow in order to prove the design’s chaotic beauty.

What follows is a melding of two stories: the satellites as they further explore some of the themes from “17776,” and Nick and Manny, a married couple and the only two active players for San Diego State University, who make a bold, long-shot dash to rise in the rankings after hundreds of years of waiting.

Bois once again does a truly compelling job, melting a variety of forms of media to create a vivid reading experience. “20020” includes newspaper articles, embedded videos and music, archival footage, graphic design and animation, and inventive usage of text, but maps and Google Earth imagery play a particularly important role. All the geographic data is drawn entirely from the real world, and it is frequently analyzed in great and surprising detail.

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The tiny narratives that can be extracted from little anomalies and quirks in forgotten flyover towns fuel much of the story, and a common theme is the repetition of similar wildly improbable events that occur throughout history at the same locations. It almost seems too good to be true, but Bois’s minute analysis, largely transmitted through the persona of Juice, is captivating and rigorous.

I spent much of my time reading “20020” stunned at the amount of research and technical work that must have gone into retrieving and compiling such detailed information. But it never bored me or felt too dense to understand. Of course, there was a great deal of insider football talk — when Juice wants to discuss a play, he really wants to discuss the play — and I came to this work not knowing what a running back is.

That never felt important, though. I was still able to appreciate the obsessive appeal of the statistical fanaticism that Juice exudes and to understand what makes a game of this scale and complexity so appealing, because of and not in spite of its immense array of potential complications.

More than that, “20020” is a story about football in the cultural context of humanity more than it is a story where not understanding what a first down is will leave you completely disoriented. It evolves the story of “17776” to a new height, and its new narrative focus gives Bois the opportunity to offer reflections on love, relationships, colonialism, and celebrity, all while being funny, emotionally resonant, and stunningly suspenseful — the last chapter in particular. It’s especially joyful to watch the characters further develop their distinct, punchy personalities.

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The other day, shortly after finishing my reread of “20020,” I was watching videos of joyous Philadelphians doing extremely Philadelphian things from my temporary self-exile in New Jersey. I’ve lived in and around Philadelphia my entire life, and in watching these raucous celebrations, I was struck with a sudden and surprising pang — I wanted to be in Citizens Bank Park, the home of the Phillies, so badly. I wanted to be going up that huge escalator to the stands, standing in the middle of a huge mass of fans going absolutely nuts over a last-minute play. I craved a set of sense memories I hadn’t cared about in years.

This nostalgia was, at first, a baffling impulse to me. I haven’t followed sports actively since I was probably nine or 10 years old, a few years after the Phillies won the World Series. In my childhood, I could rattle off the Phils’ roster easily, cried when Jim Thome got traded to Chicago, and looked forward to the final scores my dad would print out and leave outside my room when I had to go to bed before a game ended.

But now, I’m not sure I could even tell you the name of a single current player on any professional team. In fact, I’ve frequently expressed my distaste for sports culture, as well as what are (in my view) the sociopolitically harmful policies of the NFL in particular. But I think my sports nostalgia makes a lot of sense for a lot of reasons, many of which are the same as to why I’m so compelled by “17776,” “20020,” and other sports fiction — like “Blaseball,” a text-based horror game that describes itself as an “absurdist simulation of baseball,” which gathered an instant cult following upon its debut this year.

Sports can represent a region’s cultural identity — they might not always unify those with otherwise vast differences between them, but they do stand in for a community and a home and a shared story, things many of us are probably missing today. This connection between sports, physical location, and narrative is explored throughout Bois’s works — one star quarterback in “17776” who has traveled across the country over the course of a yearslong game remarks, “I wonder if there’s a single place in the whole world that’s never had a story. I bet not.”

And in “20020,” Juice, Ten, and Nine discuss the importance of local mythology to humanity’s sense of purpose when they discover that several residents of a small town in Illinois wholeheartedly believe that Alexander the Great is buried nearby.

More than that, sports and leisure reflect an escape from our productivity-obsessed culture. In the world of “17776” and “20020,” subsistence living is no longer an issue. Humanity is freed from the confines of laboring to survive — now, “We perpetually hang out,” as Nine puts it, when comparing their status as a decommissioned space probe to the humans on Earth who no longer have to worry about an expiration date.

This is a scary feeling: to be completely exempt from any demands on your time, to have the label of your profession removed from your self-description and identity, and to build a new world and a new self not defined around the value of what you produce. And there’s an anxiety to be debunked here, which Ten explains when she catches Nine using the phrase “wasting time.” No, Ten says — you can only waste something you’ll never get back. But these humans have infinite time, and they’re enjoying using it to play a 13,000-year-long game of football at the bottom of a canyon.

To them, it’s not a waste. It brings them happiness and it gives them something to do every day, and just because it’s not a task that outputs a digestible product doesn’t invalidate it as a pursuit.

“17776” and “20020” show us that leisure is important, even if it doesn’t produce concrete value, and that we can derive value instead from within ourselves and our relationships. It’s a somewhat radical notion in that it contradicts what we’re meant to believe about our lives being tools for increasing capital. But it’s a cogent reminder of the importance of building community with others and building a happy relationship with ourselves and that wherever we find joy is a good place to find joy.

This joy in community is what I yearned for when I recalled the sports memories of my childhood, and it’s the same desire Bois’s stories tap into. Reaching this conclusion from digital novellas about football may be unexpected, but Bois is a lucid and creative writer. The specifics of the game become far less important when we understand the subject to represent what it means to live when you don’t know where you’re headed next.

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