Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

12 Sep 2023, 13:12 p.m.

On Jon Bois's Work

Years ago, I pitched a story to a publication and they didn't take it, but I think the synopsis itself might interest some of y'all, so here it is with a few added links. (I wrote this before Jon Bois had published the first half of 20020, the sequel to 17776: An American Football Story, also known under a few other subtitles such as "What football will look like in the future". That first half of 20020 ends saying that the second half is coming in 2021; still hoping we'll get it someday.)

I'd like to write a nonfiction piece for [magazine] in which I discuss Jon Bois's scifi, in particular the serial 17776: a story about the future of American football.

I'd like to highlight Bois's use of rules and games, his existentialist message, and the consistent kindness in his fiction (including his feminism).

One of the most obvious traits in Bois's digital humanities journalism and speculative fiction is his use of sports history as a lens to find and tell interesting stories and statistics. In his fiction, he explores real and fictional games, telling stories of people's reactions to rules and constraints -- like many fans, he likes to poke edge cases, and he is particularly gifted at creating what-if scenarios that feel immediately real and of-course-it-would-be-like-that. Since the games in his stories "17776" and "The Tim Tebow Chronicles" are modifications of NFL-style football, these stories get an expository jump-start similar to the kind a writer of shared-world fiction or fanfiction gets. I'm also interested in using Holly Gramazio's analysis of fictional games to think about how Bois uses games, and where he doesn't tend to look (including amateur sports and sports outside the US).

Bois uses the lens of sports to think about perseverance and loss, and uncertainty and meaning -- he is amazing at talking about the things we do to give our lives meaning. His existentialist appreciation of professional sports, and of athletic achievement in general, is especially noticeable in "What the heck is a catch in the NFL, anyway? An explainer", a lesser-known piece. As characters in "17776" and "a catch" discuss, we are but tiny specks and it's a good thing we have stuff like sports to keep us occupied so we don't go catatonic with despair at our insignificance. I'd like to take a look at his persistent fascination with the kind of drive/obsession that leads people and teams to extremes, and to tease out the thematic connection to his visual and statistical motifs (some of which he overuses): astronomical durations and distances, Google Earth-enabled travel across continents, and silent contemplation.

And he comes back over and over again to loss, and to kindness. His work is so loving and he's so consistent about making connections, stories, finding the alien in the familiar and the familiar in the alien. Feminist gestures in his nonfiction and fiction play into this, for me, along with inclusive statements like "Participation trophies are great", and the effort he made to sympathetically portray the inner religious life of a character in "Tebow" whose religion Bois doesn't share. The mixed media approach Bois takes in many of his longer-form works is pretty inaccessible to people with visual and auditory disabilities, and I would criticize Bois and his publishers for not providing accommodations.

Back in 2017, I also collected a bunch of links to Jon Bois's writing in a long MetaFilter post, "Boisebration", including quotes I found particularly striking. Please enjoy!