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Books in Sci-Fi, part 1: Asimov

July 30th, 2008 by Noam Berg

As part of my research I’m looking at how various speculative fiction authors and futurists have imagined the evolution of print media. It seems only fitting to start with Isaac Asimov. In the book Prelude to Foundation, the Good Doctor describes a religious text which shows many characteristics of epaper. The volume looks like a book of blank pages, which at the flip of an activation switch become covered in slow-scrolling print. Apparently each page can store a limited amount of text, and when it scrolls down to its limit it resets (scrolling speed is adjustable). About the odd combination of old and new, the protagonist says of the books makers: “The Mycogenians are stubbornly primitivistic, but not entirely so. They will keep to the essence of the primitive, but have no objection to using modern technology to modify it for convenience’s sake. Who knows?”  Read on for the excerpt after the break.

Seldon produced [the book] and Dors thoughtfully hefted it.
She said, “It might not do us any good, Hari. This doesn’t look as though it will fit any projector I’ve ever encountered. That means you’ll have to get a Mycogenian projector and they’ll want to know why you want it. They’ll then find out you have this Book and they’ll take it away from you.”
Seldon smiled. “If your assumptions were correct, Dors, your conclusions would be inescapable, but it happens that this is not the kind of book you think it is. It’s not meant to be projected. The material is printed on various pages and the pages are turned. Raindrop FortyThree explained that much to me.”
“A print-book!” It was hard to tell whether Dors was shocked or amused. “That’s from the Stone Age.”
“It’s certainly pre-Empire, ” said Seldon, “but not entirely so. Have you ever seen a print-book?”
“Considering that I’m a historian? Of course, Hari.”
“Ah, but like this one?”
He handed over the Book and Dors, smiling, opened it-then turned to another page-then flipped the pages. “Its blank, ” she said.
“It appears to be blank. The Mycogenians are stubbornly primitivistic, but not entirely so. They will keep to the essence of the primitive, but have no objection to using modern technology to modify it for convenience’s sake. Who knows?”
“Maybe so, Hari, but I don’t understand what you’re saying.”
“The pages aren’t blank, they’re covered with microprint. Here, give it back. If I press this little nubbin on the inner edge of the cover- Look!”
The page to which the book lay open was suddenly covered with lines of print that rolled slowly upward.
Seldon said, “You can adjust the rate of upward movement to match your reading speed by slightly twisting the nubbin one way or the other. When the lines of print reach their upward limit when you reach the bottom line, that is-they snap downward and turn off. You turn to the next page and continue.”
“Where does the energy come from that does all this?”
“It has an enclosed microfusion battery that lasts the life of the book.”
“Then when it runs down–”
“You discard the book, which you may be required to do even before it runs down, given wear and tear, and get another copy. You never replace the battery.”
Dors took the Book a second time and looked at it from all sides. She said, “I must admit I never heard of a book like this.”
“Nor I. The Galaxy, generally, has moved into visual technology so rapidly, it skipped over this possibility.”
“This is visual.”
“Yes, but not with the orthodox effects. This type of book has its advantages. It holds far more than an ordinary visual book does.”
Dors said, “Where’s the turn-on? -Ah, let me see if I can work it.” She had opened to a page at random and set the lines of print marching upward. Then she said, “I’m afraid this won’t do you any good, Hari. It’s pre-Galactic. I don’t mean the book. I mean the print . . . the language.”
“Can you read it, Dors? As a historian–”
“As a historian, I’m used to dealing with archaic language–but within limits. This is far too ancient for me. I ran make out a few words here and there, but not enough to be useful.”
“Good, ” said Seldon. “If it’s really ancient, it will be useful.”
“Not if you can’t read it.”
“I can read it, ” said Seldon. “It’s bilingual. You don’t suppose that Raindrop Forty-Three can read the ancient script, do you?”
“If she’s educated properly, why not?”
“Because I suspect that women in Mycogen are not educated past household duties. Some of the more learned men can read this, but everyone else would need a translation to Galactic.” He pushed another nubbin. “And this supplies it.”
The lines of print changed to Galactic Standard.
“Delightful, ” said Dors in admiration.
“We could learn from these Mycogenians, but we don’t.”
“We haven’t known about it.”
“I can’t believe that. I know about it now. And you know about it. There must be outsiders coming into Mycogen now and then, for commercial or political reasons, or there wouldn’t be skincaps so ready for use. So every once in a while someone must have caught a glimpse of this sort of print-book and seen how it works, but it’s probably dismissed as something curious but not worth further study, simply because it’s Mycogenian.”
“But is it worth study?”
“Of course. Everything is. Or should be. Hummin would probably point to this lack of concern about these books as a sign of degeneration in the Empire.”
He lifted the Book and said with a gush of excitement, “But I am curious and I will read this and it may push me in the direction of psychohistory.”

[…]

[Dors] tapped lightly on the door and said softly, “Hari?”
He said, “Come in, ” in an abstracted way and she did.
The toilet lid was down and Seldon, seated upon it, held the Book open on his lap. He said, quite unnecessarily, “I’m reading.”
“Yes, I see that. But why?”
“I couldn’t sleep. I’m sorry.”
“But why read in here?”
“If I had turned on the room light, I would have woken you up.”
“Are you sure the Book can’t be illuminated?”
“Pretty sure. When Raindrop Forty-Three described its workings, she never mentioned illumination. Besides, I suppose that would use up so much energy that the battery wouldn’t last the life of the Book.” He sounded dissatisfied.
Dors said, “You can step out, then. I want to use this place, as long as I’m here.”
When she emerged, she found him sitting cross-legged on his cot, still reading, with the room well lighted.
She said, “You don’t look happy. Does the Book disappoint you?”
He looked up at her, blinking. “Yes, it does. I’ve sampled it here and there. Its all I’ve had time to do. The thing is a virtual encyclopedia and the index is almost entirely a listing of people and places that are of little use for my purposes. It has nothing to do with the Galactic Empire or the pre-Imperial Kingdoms either. It deals almost entirely with a single world and, as nearly as I can make out from what I have read, it is an endless dissertation on internal politics.”

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About the Mad Scientist Running this Show

Noam Berg is a graduate Student in the Design and Technology MFA program at Parsons School for Design in New York City. He is also the (debatably) creative force behind Exfish Studio. Noam is obsessed with old vacuum tubes, type design, computers, guitars and comic books. Noam likes Thai sweet chili sauce, hats, suits & ties, Wacom tablets, Japanese green tea (with the toasted rice), nerdy science girls, many varieties of music, SLR cameras, AnarchoJudaism, lithography and pocket watches. Noam's not a big fan of cell phones, the cool kids, ugly and over-used fonts (you know who you are!) and talking about himself in the third person. Seriously, this is really weird. I'm gonna stop doing it now.