In the past few years, media pundits and tech experts have been abuzz with variations on the question: “what is the future of the book?” Luckily, science fiction has been around a whole lot longer than Amazon, Apple, and Google, and as such, might be able to teach us a thing or two about the future of the printed word.
Books tend to be depicted in a few different ways in science fiction. Sometimes the medium by which people “read” is altered by technology. Other times, books are preserved in their exact form as today, either as antiques or for another reason. Sometimes, books don’t exist at all or are in the process of being destroyed. And other times, books barely even resemble themselves.
While hottest fad in terms of sales of SFF books is probably dystopian fiction, dystopias themselves seem to hold little hope for the future of books. Stories in which books are banned, information is lost, and/or humanity has to rediscover itself through the miracle of the printed word are awesome standards of the genre for very good reasons. We all know the book burning of Fahrenheit 451, and the Ray Bradbury story “The Exiles” in which authors like Poe, Dickens, Bierce and Shakespeare are all living on Mars and being kept alive by the simple fact that a few un-burnt copies of their books might still exist. But countless stories like this (Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz chief among them) tend to focus on books as a moralistic symbols. These are brilliant novels and stories, but as magic crystal balls for what books and publishing might actually look like in tomorrow land, they don’t help us. At least not optimistically.
In the Foundation novels, Asimov gives us the ultimate government-funded publishing project: The Encyclopedia Galactica. While I’m not confident that this venture produced a great amount of new poetry or a space-age James Joyce, it is still a hopeful appraisal of the need for a society to have books in some form or another. Interestingly, throughout much of Asimov, books appear as their regular paper selves, alongside “futuristic” mediums. Along with Heinlein, Asimov employed all sorts of “data-spools” or “record tapes” that seemed to display information through some kind of viewing screen or other apparatus. But like Asimov’s robots, these data-spools or record tapes lacked any sort of apparent software. Asimov may have had the Encyclopedia Galactica, but the ability (or desire) to have one device containing thousands of books in its memory, or to stream from a database of countless volumes seems to be relatively absent. Characters in these kinds of golden era SF novels have regular books too, frequently without explanation.
Another example of a mixed-universe with in which paper books exist along with electronic counterparts occurs in the Doctor Who episode “Silence in the Library.” It’s the 51st century, and there’s an entire planet of books, known only as The Library. At the planet’s core is a large index, which serves as a global card catalogue. In the opening scenes, The Doctor explains that all the books in the library are “new editions” and printed for the specific purpose of existing in the library, despite the fact there are high-tech alternatives. In this setting, the explanation for a future in which printed books survive is clear: nostalgia. Unlike the archive planetoid Memory Alpha from Star Trek, The Library doesn’t really have a practical purpose; it simply exists because as The Doctor says, “people never really stopped loving books.”
In Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Spock famously gives Kirk A Tale of Two Cities as a birthday gift. “I know of your fondness for antiques,” Spock says, heavily implying printed books are like big collector’s items in the 23rd century. Prior to this, the 60s Trek crew primarily accessed literature on multi-colored Heinlein-esque record tapes. It is from one of these, that Gary Mitchell quotes “Nightingale Woman,” a poem written by an alien, implying poetry is being read and “published” in some form or another in the future and on various planets. This idea of a highly literate future is bolstered by the fact that everyone from Kirk to Doctor Crusher seems to know their Shakespeare.
In the 24th century versions of Star Trek, the iPad was invented! In numerous episodes of The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager, we see our heroes reading novels or plays or poems (though usually non-fiction plot-relevant data) from their PADDs (Personal Access Display Device). Unlike the iPad, PADDs seem to contain a limited amount of information, sometimes just one book, script, or technical manual. Characters are occasionally in possession of numerous PADDs, all seemingly containing different sets of information. Like in Doctor Who, we know they have the technology to integrate all the information to stream through a single portable device, and yet they don’t. I interpret this is not simple nostalgia but rather, the Starfleet people’s homage to books and a subtle rejection of the do-everything gizmo.
Speaking of an highly useful book/gizmo, we arrive at the most famous fictionally depicted book in all of science fiction; the actual Hitchhiker’s Guide to The Galaxy, from the Douglas Adams novel of the same name. Published by Megadodo Publications, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is not of human origin. Resembling a thin “flexible lap computer” the guide is not limitless, but actually another one of these specific-purpose gizmos. And yet the guide is instructive for its emphasis on collectivism. The authorship is unclear, and the book is constantly being updated. While the first novel depicts the guide as a cheeky resource manual, it does develop its own A.I. by the fifth book, Mostly Harmless. When this happens, the guide turns out to be both devious and helpful throughout the story. And while I don’t think a bird-robot is going to pop out of my laptop screen, e-readers getting too smart might spell trouble.
And for those us who think the Kindle is the sign of the apocalypse, then contemporary Battlestar Galactica agrees. Admiral Adama, President Roslin and company all read from printed books, because their technology literally wiped out the majority of the human race. In BSG, owning books and having limited amounts of data on non-networked, not streaming computers isn’t a result of nostalgia, but instead a real way of staying alive. The message here is clear: if we stick to printed books, then our Nooks and Kindles will never be given the opportunity to eat us up!
BSG drew heavily on cyberpunk literature for its concepts, and cyberpunk itself offers some of the most iconic science fiction imagery of data exchange. While not as chic as my facial cream, the name of the game in cyberpunk is instantaneous data transfer. These aren’t e-books per se, but if poetry, literature, or cooking memoirs exist in William Gibson’s Neuromancer, this is how they are being read: a wire going directly into the brain. However, Vonda N. McIntyre’s novel Starfarers does make assertions of art being created in a kind of shared cyberpunk conciseness. Here, characters have the ability to store entire real-life experiences in a sort of community mental harddrive, which allows them to access and modify these experiences. This creates a fluid kind of real-life “art.” While this might have more to do with reality TV than it does with novels as we know them, it does question the limits not only of what apparatus houses a novel, but what art of the future might actually be like.
Sometimes Star Trek forgets about how much it loves real books and has nothing to do with them. When that happens, the future of publishing is the “holo-novel.” Other than Data playing as Sherlock Holmes, or Picard as the fictional-fictional hard boiled Dixon Hill, these can hardly be called novels; they’re basically interactive TV shows. It’s as if the word “novel” has lost its meaning for these people, in the same way we say “dial” or ‘hang-up” though we do literally neither anymore.
The only time the holo-novel feel like a future iteration of publishing or literary expression is in the Voyager episode “Author, Author.” In this one, the holographic Doctor writes what is essentially a Million Little Pieces version of his autobiography, which puts the “reader” of the holo-novel into the plot as the main character. The episode also raises all sorts of questions about an artificial life-form’s rights as an author, and what the 24th century considers—legally—to be the definition of an artist. To me, the holographic Doctor’s holo-memoir actually is the future of a creative non-fiction, and the only time the holo-novel concept is elevated beyond that of a complicated video game.
So if we ignore all the big dystopias, then according to science fiction, it seems the future of books is looking pretty good. But there may be some real world, modern day science that explains this rosy outlook. In John Freeman’s The Tyranny of E-mail, he quotes from another book called The Future of the Past, by Andrew Stille. Stille describes the interesting phenomenon of modern archival methods having extremely limited shelf lives. Essentially, papers from the Renaissance or Revolutionary War may be seriously faded, but we can still read them. Conversely, the estimated life of a digital storage tape or a hard drive is probably around ten years. Naturally, if cyberspace continues to function, we could keep all of our books stored there forever. But there will always need to be some physical, real world place that the information exists. And if all of those devices fail, and we do fall into some sort of dystopia, then books will still be the most effective way of preserving information.
Speaking to the American Booksellers Association in 1989, Isaac Asimov asked his audience to imagine a device that "Can go anywhere, and is totally portable. Something that can be started and stopped at will along its data stream, allowing the user to access the information in an effective, easy manner.” And if you’re thinking about record tapes, or holo-novels, or wires directly to the brain, then think again. Asimov reminded the audience that this ideal data storage device already exists.
“We have this device”, he said, “It’s called the book.”
Good call, Mr. Asimov, but I’m still heading back to my lab to work on my face cream books. Though, I do wonder how non-organic life-forms will read them? Maybe I’ll figure that out next time...
This article originally appeared in a different form in August of 2010 on Tor.com.
Ryan Britt is the staff writer for Tor.com. Like Neil Gaiman in the most recent episode of The Simpsons, he shockingly doesn’t know how to read.