Geoff Ryman has sent the Queen into cyberspace, and pioneered online fiction. In the Tube, he tells Nicholas Royle about prospects for Lit on the Net
If you happened to be a frequent traveller on London Underground's southbound Bakerloo line between Embankment and Elephant & Castle in 1995, chances are there's something of you in Geoff Ryman's new novel. 253 first appeared in 1996. It was launched like any other novel, with a party and a reading in a converted swimming pool. But instead of clutching a copy of the book to flick through on the Tube home, partygoers left with a single line of text running through their heads: http://www. For 253 had been published on the Web, by Ryman himself. It had gone online.

Out now in book form, the "print remix" (Flamingo, pounds 6.99) has remained remarkably faithful to its digital origins, and works even better on paper than it did on screen. The title refers to the number of passengers there would be on a Bakerloo line train if every seat were taken and there was no one standing up who was obliged to. Ryman allows himself 253 words per passenger to give us a description of each and also to tell us what they are thinking or doing at the time.

If you doubt whether an author can provide enough detail in 253 words to make you care even a little bit about a fictional character, and if you expect these potted biographies to be devoid of wit and epiphany, you would be wrong. 253 is funnier yet more serious than most novels I have read in the past year. In spite of much light-heartedness, it has more emotional depth than a festival of tear-jerkers.

Correspondences between passengers who may be two cars apart were flagged, in the online version, by hypertext links. So you could go straight from, say, Anita Mazzoni to Beverly Tompset (both women having taken a shine to a Big Issue vendor at Waterloo). In the print remix, you pick up on the links more slowly, the effect being to create a narrative strand. Tension mounts concerning the final crash, which we learn about early on (the driver falls asleep) without being given much information. That Ryman succeeds in building real suspense into a collection of 253 character studies (plus quirky personal footnotes and witty fake advertisements) is testament to a novelist completely in control of his material.

I meet Ryman on the southbound Bakerloo line platform at Embankment and we board a train for Elephant & Castle. Tall, with a stentorian voice, he is enviably unselfconscious about discussing subjects such as literature and the Internet on the Tube. "Do you know what has changed the most in two years?" he asks, as he looks about the carriage. "Shoes."

The journey is over before we know it (the "action" of the novel takes place in seven minutes, from 8.35am to 8.42am on 11 January 1995) and we are regurgitated at the Elephant. As we struggle with the convoluted subway system, Ryman points out 253 landmarks - the Department of Health, the lurid pink shopping centre, Alexander Fleming House: the archetypal sick building now being sold off as expensive apartments to overseas buyers who don't know any better.

The book benefits from the author's acute awareness of social change, subtly revealed in the brief glimpses of the passengers' lives and in the footnotes. "I didn't start out to make it social commentary," Ryman asserts, "but it was the last of 1994, early 1995, and there was still a lot of shops in Lambeth North that had been hanging on through the recession and finally dropped off the twig. By hazard one of the characters needed to be a merchant banker, almost magically the bank became Barings, and suddenly you have a character who will be involved in one of the events symptomatic of the death of the dream of the Eighties.

"I was experiencing a lot of heartache at the time about where the culture was going, and that would come across in the book. But I never, repeat, never set out to write anything political. Fiction and politics have completely opposite agendas. I wanted the book to be fun, with a bit of a sting in the tail. A luxury, in other words."

Settled in the relative luxury of a local Nigerian cafe, I ask Ryman if he has ever read Giles Gordon's experimental short story "Fourteen Stations on the Northern Line", published in 1969 in The New SF edited by Langdon Jones. He hasn't. Nor has he read Dos Passos's Manhattan Transfer, which shares common ground with 253.

Until Was (1992), his internationally acclaimed mainstream novel, Geoff Ryman was known principally as a science-fiction writer. Yet he works as a civil servant, managing the New Media Unit at the Central Office of Information, where he recently helped set up the Queen's Web site. A Canadian who moved to Britain in 1973 at the age of 22, he sold his first short story to the seminal New Worlds in 1975 and went on to win several SF awards. So does he consider himself an SF author who has strayed into the mainstream, or a mainstream writer who dabbled in SF?

"It's not really my decision. I may find myself writing a sequel to Dracula tomorrow, or a psychological study of an accountant. This does not allow for much career building." He believes that publishing has become vanity publishing. "The big advance is there to establish a market value for the book," he explains, "and to stamp the book with some kind of authority. You cannot prove literary value. The book going through a series of hoops in order to be published acts a kind of validation of the work, so that people will buy it and it will make money."

With this view of the state of publishing, Ryman was attracted to the idea of doing 253 online. "There is a sense in which publishers sell services to authors: distribution, review copies, editing and proofreading, repping to shops. But authors have always had the option of publishing themselves. The Internet just makes it easier and less costly. Although it's nearly impossible to make money from it for now.

"I'm very excited by the impact the new media are having on how we structure information, including narrative. I don't think that impact will always manifest itself in fiction published on the Net; I think printed fiction will be influenced as well. I call it systems fiction," he says.

"Kim Newman is about to have a decision-tree novel published in which the reader makes all the core life decisions for the main character, and that will be in print. I think people will always like stories, the old media will continue, but new flavours and indeed some new forms will develop."

So rumours of the death of the book are exaggerated? "It's the oldest cliche in the world. Books have no batteries, no plugs, they don't crash and you can read them as the plane takes off without disrupting air safety. The worst that can happen is that they fall apart and you use them for bog paper."