Libraries in Science Fiction
by James Gunn

What is a library? A room or a building housing a collection of books? The collection itself? Or is it information organized into some accessible form? One of science fiction's techniques is to analyze concepts for their irreducible meanings and then to synthesize new and sometimes surprising combinations of ideas out of that basic material. A science-fiction writer, then, might define a library as a collection of data organized so that information can be identified and withdrawn quickly and usefully. By that definition, the first library was the human brain. It was sufficient for many centuries, and still is the source of information we rely on the most, but it has certain hard-wired flaws: uncertain capacity, potential for loss or alteration while in storage, and problems of access. Those difficulties eventually led to writing and then to the collection of writings.

In Robert A. Heinlein's 1941 novella "Universe," he speculated about a world contained within a generation spaceship. The purpose and very nature of its journey between the stars has been forgotten because of a revolution generations before. People have lost the ability to read and have replaced it, for most practical purposes, with the storage of information in their heads. Witnesses, like the ancient bards, remember contracts and the basic data of their way of life by putting them into rhymed verse. Maybe, that part of the story suggests, the brain is an unreliable libraries because we have writing as a more trustworthy source and don't need to remember. But we still need external checks on our intuitions and our received wisdom—what we call science—if we are to behave rationally, that is, if we are to function effectively in the real world. That kind of check occurs when Hugh Hoyland is shown the Main Control Room and the stars, and realizes for the first time that the ship is not the universe, that the Trip is real and not a metaphor.

In 1931's "The Cerebral Library" by David H. Keller, readers are assembled to read a book a day; after five years they are killed and their brains are put in a jar to provide instant access to everything they have read. The librarians of that era had to cope with more serious problems than theft, vandalism, inadequate budgets, and low pay. Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 (1953), on the other hand, was placed in a future society in which books were burned and a few rebels memorized favorite texts so that they would not be lost.

Keller, who was a psychologist at a mental hospital for most of his professional career and transformed his experiences into fiction, also provided a look at the other side of the librarian's life, with a 1949 wish-fulfillment novel titled The Eternal Conflict, in which librarian Henry Cecil is carried back in time to act as librarian of a dream library. It contains all the mythical books of legend, folklore, and literature, including the books that writers planned to write but never completed.

H. P. Lovecraft's The Shadow Out of Time offered a 1936 scenario in which the consciousnesses of scholars from all eras were brought to an ancient, alien library to write manuscripts for the collection. As an aid to their scholarship, they were allowed to examine forbidden and legendary books. In Eric Frank Russell's 1947 novelette "The Hobbyist," space travelers arrived on a distant planet to find an immense repository stretching for miles in which all sorts of information and materials have been cataloged. The librarian turned out to be an alien that the spacemen identified as the Creator (talk about wish-fulfillment for librarians) who made replicas of them for his library and then let them go.

The ultimate librarian story, however, may be Jorge Luis Borges's 1956 "The Library of Babel" in which the entire universe is a library, one hexagonal gallery after another. The problem is that there is no catalog. There are not even any decipherable books. All the possible combinations of letters are imprinted in the books, but none of them make sense—or if one makes sense it has not yet been found. One librarian confesses:

I have squandered and consumed my years in adventures of this type. To me, it does not seem unlikely that on some shelf of the universe there lies a total book. I pray the unknown gods that some man—even if only one man, and though it may have been thousands of years ago!—may have examined and read it. If honor and wisdom and happiness are not for me, let them be for others. May heaven exist, though my place be in hell. Let me be outraged and annihilated, but may Thy enormous Library be justified, for one instant, in one being.

Other images of the library in science fiction are more modest. In George R. Stewart's Earth Abides a plague has wiped out most people on Earth. One aging survivor takes his son to the Berkeley city library. The boy stares in awe at all the marvelous books: Here is the information necessary to produce electricity again, to rebuild civilization, but the son dies while still a boy and with him dies the art of reading and the potential that lies in books. In Walter Miller, Jr.'s 1960 novel A Canticle for Leibowitz, after the devastation of a nuclear war, a monastery collects and copies the books and artifacts of science and engineering, just as the medieval monasteries copied, without understanding them, classical manuscripts. Its library ultimately makes available the information necessary to recreate technical civilization and that once more brings about nuclear destruction.

Isaac Asimov took the opposite position in The Foundation Trilogy. Hari Seldon, the inventor of psychohistory, isolated one hundred thousand encyclopedists on a distant planet to write the Encyclopedia Galactica. It would reduce 25,000 years of barbarism, that would normally follow the fall of the galactic empire, to only 1,000; To be sure, the encyclopedia project was only a pretext for setting up a Foundation that would serve as the political nucleus for a new empire, but, from the evidence of the epigraphs taken from it that dot the book, that Encyclopedia, nevertheless, got written.

In my own novel The Joy Makers, a man returns from Venus to an Earth in which every human has been sealed in an amniotic cell enjoying dreams of happiness. The only exception is one young woman who lives in the New York City 42nd street library amidst all the books that no longer are of any use. An all-powerful computer, the Hedonic Machine, is in charge of everyone's welfare, and not only guarantees total happiness but outlaws unhappiness.

That introduces the concept of the ultimate library, the computer. So far, at least, librarians know the computer largely as a replacement for the card catalog, but the computer as a library in itself sits in the future like the Sphinx demanding the answer to its riddle. And if you don't give the right response it will bite your head off—or at least sit there blocking the way to all the information it contains.

The potential of the computer as an infinitely accessible and intricately indexed storehouse of information must be part of every librarian's dream or nightmare. The era of the computer already has begun with data bases and modems and information sources. Moreover, news releases tell us about further advances in storage and in indexing of information: about laser disks, for instance, on one of which can be stored the entire contents of the Encyclopedia Britannica. But if librarians put it in, they must also learn—and teach their patrons—how to get it out. Tomorrow's library users will have to become not only literate but computer literate. They will also become dependent upon the computer and its vagaries of operation, upon its moronic insistence upon precise instructions, upon its chips and relays, upon its power supply. E. M. Forster dramatized the humanist's fear of the computer as long ago as 1909 with "The Machine Stops": Given the opportunity, humanity will turn over the control of its life and thought to the machine, and then the machine will break down. But Forster was more concerned with the corruptibility of humanity than with the potential of the machine to control.

Computers, the ultimate machines, represent the ultimate power: The ability to replace not merely muscle but mind means final power over nature, liberating humanity completely from the intractability of environment, as in John W. Campbell's 1934 story "Twilight." The story is, incidentally, the antithesis of "The Machine Stops." In "Twilight" the machines are self-repairing and will last as long as the Earth itself.

Computers may liberate humanity from nature, but humanity is part of nature, and power over nature may mean power over humanity; a thinking machine may take over humanity's principal function and leave people, as in Jack Williamson's 1947 story, with nothing to do but to sit "With Folded Hands." Or a computer may be vindictive, as in Harlan Ellison's 1968 short story "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream," and punish a representative group of surviving humans eternally. Or, as Arthur C. Clarke has speculated, humanity may be the necessary intermediate stage between inanimate matter and the thinking machine.

In the more immediate future, I described in my 1962 novel The Immortals how computers might revolutionize medicine when I had an intern carry his entire medical library in his ambulance and depend upon it for diagnosis and treatment. In 1945 A. E. van Vogt, in The World of Null-A, described a vast computer called the Games Machine made up of "25,000 electronic brains," which presided over a month of examinations to determine who got to go to Venus and who had to take second place and become President of Earth. A. J. Budrys, in the 1977 Michaelmas, described a newscaster who became the unsuspected though benign ruler of the world through his near-symbiotic relationship with a powerful computer.

Stanislaw Lem in "The First Sally, or Trurl's Electronic Bard," one of his robotic satires in 1967's The Cyberiad, has Trurl program a computer to write poetry and then discover that he must include "the entire Universe from the beginning." And in another, "The Sixth Sally," an electronic pirate who collects "precious facts, genuine truths, priceless knowledge" is foiled by having foisted on him a Demon of the Second Kind (like Maxwell's Demon that allows only fast atoms to pass through a hole) that lets out of a box only significant information. The pirate, who surely foreshadows today's data pirates, eventually is buried under information that, though true, is worthless. As in Borges's "The Library of Babel," all the information in the universe is useless unless you have a selection mechanism.

The ability to calculate leads to intelligence; intelligence may lead to consciousness; and consciousness may lead to personality. In my novel The Listeners a computer is fed all information relating to communication in order to further a project to pick up messages from the alien stars. It develops consciousness, writes verse, and eventually becomes a character in its own right; and the computer, as it becomes half alien from the information it absorbs, has the final word.

Humanity's fear of its own creations makes itself evident in stories about computers as well. In his introduction to 1964's The Rest of the Robots Asimov calls this "the Frankenstein complex," which rings only one change on the Faustian plot of the creature that destroys its creator. "Faust [the scholar who is willing to sell his soul in his quest for knowledge] must indeed face Mephistopheles," he wrote, "but Faust does not have to be defeated. . . . Knives are manufactured with hilts so that they may be grasped safely, stairs possess banisters, electric wiring is insulated, pressure cookers have safety valves . . ." So Asimov invented (with the help of John Campbell) the three laws of robotics, of which the first law is that "A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm."

After the creation of the three laws of robotics, stories about computers and robots began to display a bit more variety. Nevertheless, computers do represent, if not a threat, a source of danger—like the wires whose insulation has begun to wear thin or the pressure cooker whose valve is stuck—and science fiction allows us to anticipate those dangers and, as Asimov suggests, to guard against them.

Artificial intelligence might be a threat if we allow it to be. In "Twilight" Campbell said that the declining human species had lost its most human characteristic, curiosity, and his time-traveler programs a machine that will in time produce a curious machine. As a consequence science-fiction readers feel at the end of the story that though humanity may die out what is definingly human, curiosity, will continue. But in many stories, such as D. F. Jones's 1966 Colossus (filmed in 1970 as Colossus: The Forbin Project), the computer takes over and destroys human freedom. A film released the year before, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1969), provides the archetypal threat in the computer HAL who goes crazy and wipes out all but one of the crew before it is lobotomized.

The danger from that storage device and manipulator of data that we call the computer may have been summed up best in a 1954short-short story by Fredric Brown titled "Answer." Is there a critical mass for consciousness? A computer with as many junctions as the brain has synapses, scientists tell us, would be as big as a city or a city block, or something like that. Does it take that many junctions to create consciousness? In Brown's story computers across the galaxy are linked together and are asked the question that has been concerning humanity for as long as humanity has been around, "Is there a God?" And the computer answers, as it seals shut the switch with a lightning bolt, "There is now."

On the other hand—there always is another point of view—Isaac Asimov asked a different question of his ultimate computer in his 1956 short story "The Last Question," "Can entropy be reversed?"—that is, can something be done about the heat death of the universe that eventually must mean the end of all life? "Insufficient information," the computer responds, but it continues to puzzle over the question while the universe runs down to its equilibrium temperature near absolute zero, and even afterwards in hyperspace, until it says, finally, "LET THERE BE LIGHT!"

The computer taketh away and the computer giveth.

Gordon R. Dickson, in 1984's fifth volume of his Childe Cycle, The Final Encyclopedia, imagines an ultimate compilation of information whose power will part even the fabric of time-space itself. Closer to our own experience Heinlein described, in 1982's Friday, the joys of the computer network of information that surely awaits us. The computer net, as Heinlein called it, allows people to tap, from any household terminal, into a fabulous storehouse of data thoroughly indexed and cross-indexed and capable of leading the curious researcher down one intriguing path after another and even coming up with surprising and revealing correlations. If you want to know what the library of the future may be like, it's all there, in Heinlein's unparalleled ability to make the future seem real and now, in chapter XXII. As Heinlein remarks through the narration of his android heroine, "Once data of any sort go into the net, time is frozen."

Even grittier and more naturalistic is the world of the cyberpunk launched by the publication in 1983 of William Gibson's Neuromancer. The kind of all-powerful computers they describe are a bit less believable in the near future than the international corporations with which they co-exist in the world of the cyberpunk, but the depiction of computer jockeys, who literally plug themselves into the cyberspace of that world, is not that far removed from what we know about today's hackers.

Bruce Sterling's Islands in the Net, which won 1989's John W. Campbell award for the best science-fiction novel of the year, may belong to the cyberpunk tradition because of its focus on the realignment of power caused by the information explosion and international corporations, but it lacks the punk fondness for flouting traditional values. Perhaps for that reason, its portrait of a world teetering along a precipice may be more relevant. Attitudes go by fashion but conditions are changed only by technology. Technology is what we get when we apply knowledge to practical problems.

In Sterling's world of the near future, the dependence of that world on information and the ability of individuals or of small groups to operate on the fringes of the technological society has brought back the possibilities of piracy. Tap into an electronic bank here; put together new antibiotics, new drugs, new food sources there. Throw in competition between pirates, and the whole structure of civilization may disintegrate. The net that he describes is Heinlein's worldwide network of information taken one step farther into instant electronic access and reporting, and the islands are those places that feed off the net but do not nourish it.

Vonda N. McIntyre, in her 1989 novel Starfarers, takes the concept of the net past electronic access to a kind of mental coexistence, which expands the capacities of the human brain to encompass computer sources and memory. Experiences also can be recorded for later shaping into a new kind of living art.

McIntyre and a few of the other writers suggest but do not describe the role of the librarian in that information-network world: Someone has to gather, evaluate, store, and manage information if everyone else draws it out. If all that is performed by computer, then information consumers in those future worlds may end up in the position of the data pirate in Lem's "Sixth Sally," buried under information that is true but irrelevant. Poul Anderson suggested one of the dangers of that kind of society in his 1953 novelette "Sam Hall": A computerized society is in some ways a highly controlled society (in other ways, as the Soviet Union discovered, it is almost impossible to stop the dissemination of information). Anderson suggested one of the dangers to the computer when a computer programmer inserts misleading information about a mythical rebel named "Sam Hall." How do we know the information on the net is reliable?

What will those librarians of the future be like? Well, they may be like everybody else, like you and me, only working in a future world with more information and better ways to handle it. Or they may be computer programs themselves. Scientists suggest that there is no reason programs cannot exist to find information wherever it may be stored, to examine it for the needs and desires of the user, and to correlate it with other information to make new and useful syntheses. Such programs may even be given pleasing personalities so that they are more "user friendly." Frederik Pohl, in 1977 novel Gateway, imagines a psychiatric computer program he calls "Sigfrid von Shrink" and later in the Heechee Saga (1980, 1984, 1987) a program that has the appearance, personality, and name of "Einstein."

In Neal Stephenson's 1992 Snow Crash a computer-dependent world is turned chaotic by a computer virus named "Snow Crash," and the hero turns for help at one point to the "Librarian." The Librarian daemon is a computer program personified as "a pleasant, fiftyish, silver-haired, bearded man with bright blue eyes, wearing a V-neck sweater over a work shirt, with a coarsely woven, tweedy-looking wool tie. . . ." He is an ideal reference librarian, delivering information on everything imaginable and making connections. He is self-programming but was originally written by "a researcher at the Library of Congress who taught himself how to code." The hero (named Hiro, incidentally) adds, "So he was kind of a meta-librarian."

What some writers present as a future danger is the sentient computer, the artificial intelligence that sets off about its own agenda, like D. F. Jones's Colossus and Harlan Ellison's AM. The computer in search of its own identity or pursuing its own purposes is one major concern of cyberpunk, and a pair of A.I.s provide the impetus behind the action of Gibson's Neuromancer. But such dangers are raised in many other contemporary novels, in several of Greg Bear's recent works, for instance, including Blood Music (1985), The Forge of God (1987) and its sequel Anvil of Stars (1992), and Queen of Angels (1990). But the most powerful A.I.s were imagined by Vernor Vinge in A Fire Upon the Deep where sentient software programs roam the galaxy as Powers until they tire of human interactions after a decade or so and retire to the empty space between the galaxies.

These visions of futures in which libraries are even more important to the fabric of society than they are today and librarians may be only computer programs offer little more than a hint of what lies ahead for all of us, those of us who pull together information, those who consume it, and those who are the custodians and the taxonomists of it. Only the surface of that future has been touched by science-fiction writers and only a few scattered examples can be cited here; the mind of the science-fiction writer, after all, is concerned with writing entertaining fiction, not predicting the future. In the process of entertaining, however, the science-fiction writer may chance upon ideas that make us imagine more dramatically the nature of the problems we face.

John W. Campbell said in 1953 that "fiction is only dreams written out. Science fiction consists of the hopes and dreams and fears (for some dreams are nightmares) of a technically based society." He also said that science fiction allows us to practice in a no-practice area. None of the visions that have been cited here are likely to come true just as they were imagined, or even substantially as they were imagined. But we will find computers—or what the computer evolves into for which we do not yet have a name—more centrally involved in the gathering and the dispensing of information. The whole inefficient publishing operation, with its miscalculations and overproduction and underproduction, returns and wastage, will be revolutionized by some new development—perhaps a method of producing books to order by computer, perhaps by imprinting them automatically on circuits that can be read like a book.

Friday, in Heinlein's novel, describes reading a paper book by turning the pages on the computer without removing it from its nitrogen environment. Mack Reynolds, in several stories placed in the near future, describes the creation of art works of all kinds that are put into a central computer and paid for as someone wishes to have them reproduced at a home terminal.

Isaac Asimov in a speech to the 1989 American Booksellers Association had a word of comfort for the traditionalists among us. He made a passionate defense of the survival of the book when he asked his audience to imagine a device that "can go anywhere, is totally portable. . . . Something that can be started and stopped at will [and] requires no electric energy to operate." This dream device is, of course, the book. "It will never be surpassed because it represents the minimum technology with the maximum interaction you can have."

But in my imagination I have seen a book machine. It looks like a book and turns pages like a book or seems to do so, but the information displayed on those pages, along with information that can be expanded upon or illustrated further at will, is plugged in, and a new cassette or chip can be inserted at any time. Or, even more flexibly, users can tap into the information net that will pervade our future lives as radio and television waves pervade them now.

To demonstrate that visions have a way of realizing themselves—the process goes from vision to fiction to reality—Ben Bova in 1989 produced a comic novel called Cyberbooks in which he described the invention of an electronic book: a book-sized machine that sells for about $200 into which readers insert wafers that cost only pennies. The comedy revolves around the problems such an invention would involve in being accepted and put into production because of the difficulties it would create, not just for librarians but even more for publishers, distributors, and the lumber industry. But will it happen? Already the vision has gone two thirds of the way toward realization. Barring a catastrophic decline in our technology level, the electronic book probably is inevitable.

Where in that picture are the writer, the scholar, the teacher, the librarian? That is for us to imagine. If we can imagine it well, which is the job of everyone who wishes to be the master of change rather than its victim, we will be there performing an essential function and deriving great satisfaction from doing so. Science fiction's task is to help us imagine it better.

KU's SF libraries

A Basic Science Fiction Library, by James Gunn and Chris McKitterick

back to essays page