Saturday, 16 July 2011

In a hundred years time, will real books have disappeared altogether?

I was in London yesterday and dropped into a science fiction literature exhibition at the British Library, next to St Pancras Station. It runs till September, and contains many first editions including, amongst countless others,  Jules Verne's Voyage to the Moon (in French), HG Wells' The Time Machine, Frank Herbert's Dune, and Heinlein's 'By his own bootstraps' short story (about time travel) which was published under a pseudonym. There were categories including time travel, post-apocalyptic fiction, space travel and space opera, and, because it is the UK, a section on Daleks (from the television Doctor Who series). It's not as big, say, as Seattle's Science Fiction museum, but as a science fiction author, it felt great to see all these first editions, this history of science fiction literature. And that got me wondering: with a gradual shift to ebooks, will exhibitions like this exist in a hundred years time?

Of course exhibitions exactly like this could still exist, since these and current first editions can be preserved. But if in the future everyone is reading electronic format, would people have that same connection to real books anymore, other than seeing them as quaint and vaguely humorous, like the way we might today look at an old-style telephone? What would a contemporary science fiction literature exhibition look like in a hundred years' time? Maybe virtual tours, because perhaps by then cyberpunk will be more like reality, and many exhibitions will be via immersion into virtual worlds, or via a home holographic projection system so the whole family can visit an exhibition from the comfort of their lounge.

If we do give up books completely, though, we may lose something important, a part of our heritage, and also a part of us. When you read a paperback, when you touch and feel it in your hands, turning the pages over and over, there is a connection, a kind of respect (if you like the writing, and maybe even if you don't). If you lose respect for the media, you risk losing respect for the message.

I converted to e-books nearly a year ago, but I've noticed that if I'm getting a bit bored with one, I'm far quicker to put it down and start another than with an actual paperback. Perhaps aware of this, I bought my first paperback in over a year just a few days ago (Jack McDevitt's 'Deepsix'). I'm not giving up e-format, because it's so convenient and environmentally-friendly, and I travel so much, and my own novel is currently only an e-book. But e-books are yet another sign of our increasingly ephemeral, throwaway, short-memory span, digitized, 'flash memory' culture. If Newton had been a sociologist, his second law might have read differently: "Whenever you gain something, you must also lose something."

Whatever science fiction literature exhibitions might look like in the future, I hope that people will still feel that emotional connection in a hundred years' time, and think, wow, these authors were so inventive, creating new possibilities, imagining humanity's future, shaped by the best and the worst of its character.

One final thought struck me as I left the exhibition to come back to France. Most of these authors wrote about space travel and discovering new worlds and meeting new species. In the hundred and thirty odd years of science fiction, we're still not there yet. If, in a hundred, or maybe two hundred years time we start reaching other inhabited worlds and meeting new species, will there be such a demand for science fiction?

Science fiction thriller 'The Eden Paradox' available on and
Available in paperback end of October. Free SF stories available: click here

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