I had my first experience of existential dread as a 3rd grader in a Catholic school. We had a lecture in Christian Living class about where one arrives after death – heaven or hell.
By the time you’re nine years old, the idea of death was something you’d already come around to.
Perhaps you’ve lost a pet or watched a good number of Disney films. Research has found that children grasp the concept of irreversibility by age 5 to 7, before they develop into an understanding of the human finality of death. The concept of the afterlife, however, is a different kind of philosophical experiment a young mind should probably not dwell too long on. And thus, my teacher dressed up life after death as “eternal happiness and contentment” with God.
Of all the things we discussed, this statement was what sent me into a spiral, because sure, that sounds great and all… but that sounds utterly boring. An eternity of nothing. A final, everlasting yawn.
Did heaven have a National Book Store? Did it have a Jollibee? Did it have Nickelodeon?
And even if it did… what will I do for thousands and thousands of years?
Now, third grade theology isn’t really where you could actually ask questions about the nature and fate of your soul, so I sat there mulling over the image of myself hanging out with the angels in the clouds, looking down on Earth and worrying about how I was going to be doing this for the rest of forever.
17776 is a speculative fiction story masquerading as an editorial on the SB Nation website titled “What Football Will Look Like in the Future.” One day in 2026, humanity has conquered death and is destined to live forever. There are no new children. No one can die. Everyone is 15,000+ years old. Parts of the world have already fallen into the waters – in fact, Florida is completely swallowed by the Atlantic Ocean. Anything that could be invented has been invented.
When I pieced together that 17776 was meant to be read as the year of our Lord 17776, I started to feel nauseous. 15,000 years ahead of us – 15 millennia of largely unchanged human existence. Has anyone written about the planet earth that far into the future? Just musing about what kind of existence humanity might have in that era breaks my brain, almost glad to have the option of ignorant bliss.
Much to my surprise, the world of 17776 features a curious future that doesn’t include the cyberpunk styling of Blade Runner or Akira, or the floating cars in The Jetsons or the intergalactic explorers in Star Trek. Instead, you have snippets of the mundanity of The Big Bang Theory and the melancholy of Bojack Horseman – and oddly enough, the wackiness in between both.
Pioneer 10 (or Ten) and Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (or JUICE for short) guide the newly awakened Pioneer 9 (or Nine) as they join the ranks of space probes millions of lightyears away from Earth that have developed sentience due to millennia of exposure to human broadcasts. Nine asks questions about new technologies, world politics, and God. Ten tries her best to be the voice of reason, and Juice rants about Lunchables and designs football games. These characters listen in to humans on Earth and recount their favorite matches to help us understand this perplexing yet familiar world.
17776 chronicles these space probes, equally as bored as the humans, “perpetually hanging out” and viewing life on earth through watching American football – or a version of the sport that’s blown out of proportion, alongside the transcended capabilities of its human players.
For someone who knows nothing about the sport, I was enthralled by the descriptions of the ridiculous games the humans invented to keep them from the creeping ennui of eternal life.
Some of my favorites: in one series they would shoot a football from the highest point in the US to any of its states and award points to whoever would recover it first, and in another game Washington State and New Mexico battle it out in a gorge no one can traverse so they’re stuck in a 13,000-year-old stalemate with nobody giving way.
Midway through the story Nine, whose knowledge of humanity was from the 60s, began to spiral as it woke up to a world so bizarre – and finding how society adapted without consequence even more confounding. Nine begins to have a computer version of an anxiety attack, and leads to Ten giving it “The Talk.”
And it’s here that the core of the human experience, without the struggle against time and certain end, is explained. It was death that pushed humans to struggle, to fight, to build a legacy. Without death, humans in 17776 are effectively gods. And with this new found glory, what did the humans decide to do?
They explored the reaches of space and found nothing. They invented methods of travel from one end of the globe to another, but found no use for it. As a community bound by immortality, all 8 billion humans left on Earth agreed to continue to live imperfect lives – they kept salaried jobs, they waited at bus stops, and ordered pizza on the phone. They worked hard to keep mysteries and uncertainties in their world. They would revel in inconveniences and the “precious three minutes between asking a question and knowing the answer.” And they played football – a lot of strange football with strange rules that spanned the four corners of the USA and thousands of years at a time – all because they could.
To be human is to play.
To be human is to know triumph and failure. To be human is to strategize and struggle. To be human is to have fun and enjoy the things that you love. You will play, and you will love, and you will tell people about it and hope they love it too, because you can.
Ultimately, 17776 explores a lot of themes other than immortality in a nonchalant and easy manner, without being nihilistic. It’s downright hilarious and heartbreaking, and provides a beautiful point of introspection for the next time someone tells you you wasted your time on doing something you love.
To me, 17776 is a promise that humans will never change, that we will always have each other, and that is enough to face the vast unknown. The space probes endearingly tell each other “I love you” when they are in times of stress and when they need to power down. They hang on to the multitude of meanings of these words just like people do – no longer relying on huge datasets and precise probabilities, but on the assurance that they will be there for each other, no matter what.
As a unique blend of narratives and a step forward in the world of hyperliterature, 17776 is a riveting experience from start to finish. On a lesser note, because of this I realized that maybe my priorities regarding the eternal state of my soul aren’t so mundane after all.
I mean, I’d love to go to Heaven. I hope God lets me bring my PS4.