’s Ryan Britt has an interesting piece comparing depictions of the future of literature from various science fiction settings—Asimov’s Foundation series, several generations of Star Trek, Doctor Who’s “Silence in the Library” (which I discussed here), The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the new Battlestar Galactica, and others. In most of these settings, for all that some form of e-books can readily be found, printed books still have their place as well.

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.

I’ve long been considering writing a little science-fiction story myself, in which a far-future computerized society facing the collapse of its information technology discovers an amazing new paper-based form of information storage, just to turn the whole “we-don’t-want-to-adopt-something-new” philosophy of e-book disdainers on its ear. Maybe I should get around to it.


  1. Although pads abound in the Star Trek universe, books hold an honored place. Recall that both Captains Kirk and Picard treasured their antique volumes. And Jonathan Archer discovered a huge print library in his trip to the 34rd century with Daniels, the Temporal Agent. Still it’s an ebook world overall.

  2. The problem with that pro-print scenario is that all it takes is one accident to destroy the one physical copy of a book that’s saved. Whereas a digital library can be duplicated and stored in multiple locations, and can check against each copy for corruption and self-repair as needed. A digital library is easier to store, easier to access, easier to search, and easier to read on multiple devices.

    Basing the longetivity of books on their appearance in SF TV and movies is crazy. SF TV shows us a lot of things that are familiar but almost certain to be unlike reality, like gravity control in spaceships, transporters, robots indistinguishable from humans and traveling backwards and forwards through time. Books show up in SF TV and movies because they are visually iconic, that’s all. There’s nothing “practical” about all that bulk paper, it just looks important.

    Taking books into the future is like my living in my modern home and cooking on a dung-fueled campfire in the back yard.

  3. SF writers are writers of the ‘paper’ world and therefore carry their pro-paper prejudice and fetishes into their writings.

    Paper will have no place in the future except as objects of history or art/craft.

  4. That analogy doesn’t quite hold water, Steven. Lots of people live in modern homes but cook food over fires in their back yard. The fires come from charcoal or natural gas, not dung—but then, even now books come from printing presses or self-contained printing-binding-cutting machines, not monks scribing in monasteries. Who’s to say that the atavistic part of us that likes to barbecue won’t also mean people will still read print books for recreation in the future?

  5. Then there’s RED DWARF where the final paper copy of THE COMPLETE WORKS OF SHAKESPEARE was used as toilet paper.

    Attending sf cons and listening to some of the major Golden Age of sf authors talk about books and technology is a lesson in irony.

    Many of them are the biggest bunch of Luddites on the planet, and some even refuse to use a computer.

    Oddly, the most tech savvy authors and early adapters I’ve ever met are the romance writers.

  6. As pointed out, seeking validation in SF for an enduring future for print books (as anything but collectibles/decoration) is pretty much meaningless. SF writers seek to build convincing millieus based on *their* experience and *their* vision of what the millieu might be/should be like. There is nothing special about their predictive abilities.
    Like “psychics”, people tend to remember their hits and forget their misses.
    Look to the SF of the past and you find futures with secretary pools and dictaphones but no word processors; you’ll find personal communicators that are more like glorified walkie talkies than feature phones, to say nothing of smartphones.
    Slide rules are more common than pocket computers, remote computing terminals more common than standalone Personal Computers, and you won’t find anything like the Internet before Arpanet and the vast majority of such instances come from last two decades.
    Most future books are print because most writers, like the traditional publishers, simply assumed the business would be eternally the same. When they dared to visualize change, they imagined future books as spools, an evolution of microfiche publishing, notinformation technology.
    Pure data books don’t start showing up until *after* ebooks are invented and most *still* failed to conceive of anything like Kindles. (Hardly a failure; even now many would-be competitors still don’t get it.) 😉
    Star Trek?
    Kirk’s books were read on computers and terminals, not personal devices.
    Picard’s PADDs are really print books in drag, one document to each PADD, more like plastic PDFs than actual computer files.
    To the STNG producers’ credit, they went to Xerox PARC for ideas on future computing tech so STNG and DS9 tech isn’t as dated as ST:OS (No CRTs in the tricorders, thankfully) but even there, their display tech is going to start looking pretty stagnant any day now.
    SF writers can be very good at building plausible futures and sometimes their plausible developments come very very close to what actually happens. That does not make them prophets or Cassandras; just very good writers. :)

  7. Chris, a barbeque grill is a far cry from a dung fire… it’s a toy, a luxury device, in fact, not that much different from an electric stove. And even so, how many people use their grill in the winter? In the rain? After dark?

    People grill for fun, not for daily survival; few people use their grills regularly. To compare that to print books in the future is to assume that some people will have a few books on display on a shelf, but that’s a far cry from future libraries or personal collections of hundreds of books.

    Print books in the future would be cute anachronisms at best, akin to my collecting a houseful of handmade Kalimbas.

  8. So? It’s still cooking with an open flame, when there’s no reason to do so other than luxury. Perhaps there will be a similar version of print books in the future, as like to the version we have now as barbecues are to dung fires. Perhaps some form of print-on-demand, or books of programmable e-paper that can be loaded wirelessly, then wiped and reloaded with something else.

    And for that matter, I’m sure there are still millions of people in the world, in developing regions like Africa, who still cook over dung fires or something not too far removed from them even today. I don’t know if I’d predict that everyone in the world will have access to e-books even a century from now.

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