Ship of Theseus by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst [Review]

Meta masterpiece.

Author:  J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst

Release Date:  October 29, 2013

Page Count: 472 plus inserts

Price: About $30

Publisher:  Mulholland Books

REA Reaction

Ship of Theseus, also known as S., is hard to categorize. Presented in book form, it’s an ambitious piece of experimental fiction with many layers of story and meaning. Ship of Theseus started with an innocuous central premise — who is the author V.M. Straka? — and infused it with unique storytelling to create an epic reading experience.

Ship of Theseus felt more like a novel than anything else, but its supplemental documents and many narrative layers made it more involving than passively reading a regular book. At times, the unusual format felt as exciting as a movie and as nonlinear and interactive as a game.

Ship of Theseus title page.

There were ciphers embedded in Ship of Theseus, and deciding how to tackle the layers of story required some strategizing. But mostly the point was to explore and gradually gain familiarity with its rich fictional world of academia and intrigue.

Due to its length and complexity, Ship of Theseus was intimidating. If you’re looking for a straightforward read or clearly delineated puzzles, the setup may feel overwhelming. Just like with certain other J.J. Abrams projects, not all the open questions got clear answers. But even without uncovering all of its secrets, Ship of Theseus had a lot to offer casual readers.

If you love the feeling of exploring someone’s communications and unlocking a grand story piece by piece, Ship of Theseus was made for you.

Who is this for?

  • Avid readers who enjoy being immersed in a story’s world
  • Cipher enthusiasts
  • Fans of experimental literature

Why Read?

  • Rich, intricate world building
  • Impressive construction of story layers
  • Mysteries at every turn

Story

V.M. Straka wrote many novels, but his true identity remains shrouded in mystery. His final book, Ship of Theseus, followed a man with amnesia journeying to distant lands to discover his true identity and motivation. Straka’s translator published the novel posthumously in 1949.

Decades later, two students at Pollard State University meet by writing notes back and forth in a copy of Ship of Theseus left at the university library. By delving into Straka’s web of associations and solving hidden messages in the book, Jen and Eric connect over a shared interest in discovering Straka’s identity. Along the way, they’re thrown into a conspiracy story of their own with life-or-death stakes.

Ship of Theseus book and slipcover.

Setup

Ship of Theseus was presented as an old hardcover book. It had copious notes written in the margins and an assortment of paper mementos interspersed throughout the pages. Besides the authors’ names on the box, the entire package appeared to be an artifact from the story’s fictional world.

The novel unfolded as a stand-alone narrative within the literary intrigue surrounding the associates and scholars of V.M. Straka. 

In the margins, Jen and Eric discussed research about Straka, goings-on in their corner of academia, and typical getting-to-know-you topics. They also shared theories about secret messages hidden in Ship of Theseus. They wrote in different colors in different time periods, so part of the reading process involved untangling the timeline of their findings and the events they described.

By perusing the novel, the translator’s footnotes, the conversations between Jen and Eric, and the documents slipped between the pages, I attempted to puzzle out the concurrent narrative threads and eventually solve the central question: Who is V.M. Straka?

Sample pages of Ship of Theseus, along with a postcard that says "Greetings from Brazil."

Gameplay

Ship of Theseus was primarily a nonlinear reading experience, but certain elements felt a bit like solving puzzles. Determining the timeline of Jen and Eric’s notes based on the color of their pens gave me logic puzzle vibes. Piecing together details from different timelines and different sources helped deepen my understanding of the story world.

Ship of Theseus included a number of ciphers within its pages. The margin notes frequently pointed out odd details about certain passages and theorized about possible hidden messages. Jen and Eric wrote out solutions to several of the book’s ciphers in the margins.

Because Ship of Theseus was presented as a found object, no other solutions were available. The creators initially published websites and social media posts dedicated to solving the mysteries of Straka, in the vein of an ARG. These are cryptic, however, and some of the links may have decayed in the ensuing years.

Reading and rereading Ship of Theseus and its supplementary documents created an increasingly clear picture of Straka’s life and legacy. I felt comfortable putting the book down when the story seemed complete enough. Hunting for puzzles to solve felt like a whole new dimension — one that, in my case, eventually became a burden.

Analysis

Ship of Theseus felt like an artifact with a rich backstory. The paper and binding were yellowed and worn like a real old book. Maybe I’d imagined it, but the pages even smelled a little musty. This authentic design set the stage for the story to come. It also meant I didn’t have to be careful with the book. If you scuff it up or accidentally splash tea on the pages, that only makes it more lifelike.

➕ Between the novel itself, the translator’s footnotes, the inserts, and the margin notes, Ship of Theseus contained at least half a dozen points of view from several different time periods, all presented at once. It blew my mind to imagine the work that must have gone into keeping all these layers straight and combining them to create an immersive, cohesive story world.

A sample footnote plus margin notes from Ship of Theseus.

➕ As a novel, Ship of Theseus stood on its own as an odd but engaging piece of fiction. The parallels between the novel and the side stories added to the intrigue.

➕/➖ The expansiveness of the mythology was impressive, even extending to seemingly official websites and social media posts. But the book came out in 2013, and certain links are no longer live (if they ever were). I found online communities dedicated to solving the book’s mysteries, but the conversation had died down since its publication. At that point, I felt like I was on my own.

➕ Because of all the simultaneous layers, the material appeared out of order and without full context, especially the margin notes. This structure may sound daunting, but in practice it felt empowering to make connections among all the story threads. After I’d spent a few months with Ship of Theseus, it felt like a major triumph to have gone from utter confusion to near fluency with the story’s literary world. But that doesn’t mean less patient readers will get lost: even without deep knowledge of what everything means, the story feels complete, and regular plot reminders help keep most things straight.

➕ Jen and Eric were strong, fleshed-out characters, right down to their distinctive handwriting. Because of Ship of Theseus’s nonlinear design, they developed over time in a unique way. The older margin notes reminded me of my own college days. The more recent ones illustrated how the characters have grown.

➕ Most of the ciphers in the book were pre-solved in the margin notes, but usually not on the same page. I appreciated being able to consider them as long as I wanted before reading on to find the code explained. Cipher aficionados might prefer to spend more time poring over the text before moving on.

❓Sometimes the notes indicated a seemingly important detail that might be part of a code, but never resolved the mystery. My internet research didn’t turn up any answers about the importance of these details. If they are secret messages, they’re extremely hard to decode. If not, they’re just red herrings.

➖ Ship of Theseus felt like it contained a multitude of hidden messages, but I didn’t find much to actually solve. Of the ciphers explained in the margins, the average puzzler couldn’t solve most of them without help. Not that they should’ve dumbed it down — but it hurt a little to solve literally nothing on my own.

➕ As a whole, Ship of Theseus presented a message of hope and perseverance. The conclusion of the various threads felt emotional and satisfying — though it never exactly felt like the end, because I can always pick up the book again and revisit Straka’s world someday.

Tips For Reading

Some of the margin notes refer to things that happen later in the novel, so reading the novel before the notes would be an efficient way to set out…in theory. However, it’s hard to ignore the eye-catching notes in the margins. See what feels right. You could read chapter by chapter, or go through the notes again after reading the whole book in order.

Even if you don’t attempt any extra sleuthing, Ship of Theseus is not a weekend read. Because it’s a longer narrative experience, it helps to keep notes, however you approach your readthrough. With all the out-of-context references, it might even be worth making an index. It all depends on how serious you want to get.

If you aren’t interested in rabbit holes, you can read casually and have most of the details doled out like a regular book. Without the extra trappings, Ship of Theseus is still a memorable, satisfying story.

Finally, don’t let the inserts fall out. But if they do, you can find guides online that describe where they all go.

Buy your copy of Ship of Theseus, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

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