“S” Remains a Singular Interactive Novel

The story goes that mega-producer J.J. Abrams was walking through LAX airport when he found a book sitting on a bench. When he opened it, he found an inscription reading: “To whomever finds this book please read it and take it somewhere and leave it for someone else to read.”

From that simple message, an idea began to form in his mind of a story unfolding as handwritten text in the margins of an old novel– itself shrouded in mystery, perhaps written by an equally mysterious figure. Years later, that novel became the fictitious “Ship of Theseus”, the author the fictitious V.M. Straka, and the ambitious interactive project revolving around it was called, simply, “S“.

In order to bring his wild idea to life, Abrams hired author Doug Dorst who had recently received praise for his 2009 novel, “Alive in Necropolis“. Dorst was tasked with figuring out how to realize Abrams’ idea, and how all the various story layers of the book would come together.

While Abrams had always imagined that the story in the margins would be something of a romance mixed with a mystery, it was Dorst who came up with the idea that the identity of the “Ship of Theseus” author himself — V.M. Straka — would be a central question in the overall narrative.

Regardless of your own reaction to the book (certainly readers were mixed upon it’s release in 2013), there’s no question that “S” remains one of the most idiosyncratic, unique, and lovingly assembled literary experiments of all time. It takes the interactive novel into totally new territory which is simply rare.

SHIP OF THESEUS

How should we even consider “Ship of Theseus”? Is it a piece of writing as much as a piece of design? Is it simply the McGuffin of the ‘actual’ story of “S”, which plays out between Eric and Jen in its margins? It’s almost impossible to separate the book out of the whole thing, though Dorst insists it was designed to be read on its own.

Personally, I don’t believe “Ship of Theseus” makes much sense without Eric and Jen’s interaction with it or our own and so let’s consider it as a piece of design first.

Right away it’s a marvel, and a love letter to physical books past and present. In an interview with The New Yorker, Abrams states that, “It’s intended to be a celebration of the analog, of the physical object… The fun of ‘S.’ is having the book itself… To physically hold it is kind of the point.”

So committed are the creators to the authenticity of the physical book and the era it would have been published that the first thing you may notice is that neither J.J. Abrams’ or Dorst’s names appear anywhere. The publisher, the library it was found, even its Dewey Decimal are all invented and live outside of our time.

In fact, instead of listing all of the book’s many intricate details, we’ll let a gallery of photos tell the story of how this incredible artifact comes to vivid life:

The “plot” of “Ship of Theseus” is very esoteric and Kafka-esque. It’s riddled with symbolism and metaphor as well as early Cold War era political overtones with imagery of fascism and corporate power. As with every other aspect of the package, it feels very authentic, like a relic from another time.

The plot is loosely about a man with no memory or identity who is kidnapped and taken aboard a mysterious ship.

Eric and Jen

Eric is a disgraced grad student and expert in V.M. Straka while Jen is an undergraduate student. They have never met face to face, but trade notes and begin to unravel the mystery together as they each take “Ship of Theseus” out of the library.

At first, it’s hard to follow the notes they leave each other. It’s particularly difficult to read the notes while simultaneously trying to read the novel so many people have recommended reading the novel through first and then going back and experiencing it again through the eyes of Eric and Jen.

Not the worst idea.

HINT: The writing in the margins is OUT OF ORDER and color coded:

  1. Pencil. Eric wrote in pencil while taking notes during his early reading(s) of Ship of Theseus before he met Jen.
  2. Blue (Jen) and black (Eric). This is the first pass of notes between Eric and Jen after they “meet” in the margins.
  3. Green (Eric) and orange (Jen). This is the second pass of comments between Eric and Jen after their relationship has deepened.
  4. Purple (Jen) and red (Eric). This is the third set of comments between the two, after they have met in person.
  5. Black (both Jen and Eric). These are the final set of notes and include their comments after they move to Prague. (Via. Who is Straka)

As the Eric and Jen become more and more entangled in the mystery of V.M. Straka, they begin to stuff clues into the book, so there are all kinds of artifacts to find as you go including napkins with writing on them, postcards, letters, newspaper clippings and even a coded wheel at the back.

As you make your way through the book, some of these pieces may fall out. DON’T PANIC! The website SFiles22 contains a rundown of all the inserts and which pages they should fit into.

If you’ve found yourself here looking for a deep-dive into the intricate details of the “S” story and, well, for answers you may be disappointed. Never fear however as we can recommend visiting the site WhoIsStraka which has exhaustively broken down all the pieces, angles and sides to the mysteries of “S”. Get ready to go down a rabbit hole!


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StoryFix Media produces interactive fiction games and novels. Our sci-fi text adventure The Pulse releases in 2019. Our novel New Horizons is available now.

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