What Future the Book?

15 March 2008

We May Not Have the Eyes to See the Electronic Page

Book of Secrets, by Damgaard, with Creative Commons LicenceAs our expectations shift and shift again, the future of the book changes apace. Pages move to cyberspace, bookmarks tag ephemera, jackets become jpegs. Everything seems to point now at the screen. But are days to come arriving early, or is this just a techno-dream?

Reading through the front matter of Cory Doctorow’s Eastern Standard Tribe in PDF form recently, I was struck by his enthusiasm for changing the way in which books are offered to their readers. Part of his career depends on it, on dragging new readers in with electronic forms of his published work, at no charge. It worked for me, and I’m very thankful for it.

The book, Doctorow writes, is not what it once was: paper is now merely one expression of the form. As increasingly more people read books on screens, “fewer people are reading words off of fewer pages than ever before”.

Now, I’m a little skeptical about this. I’ve lived just long enough to have read the printed book’s epitaph, to have rejoiced at its revival and to have wondered at what next prediction would pronounce its indubitable fate. But I’m with Doctorow on one thing – electronic books have the potential to increase the reading public. And they’re not likely to be accumulated by people who won’t actually read them. Traditional paper books are sometimes little more than middle-class wallpaper, the pretentiousness of something never read.

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The Future is Now

12 March 2008

Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the New Internet Economy

Down and OutThe very best science fiction isn’t about ray guns or spaceships, and very little about science at all. It charts how we constantly drag heritage through the muck of the moment, how we live the future vicariously in the fleeting present. Cory Doctorow knows this, at least instinctively, and his Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom artfully captures the ever present tension of the future-now.

And an intriguing time it is. Doctorow doesn’t spend an eon building a universe around his tale, but eases us quickly into its here and now by ensuring that the sights we see, the worries we have second-hand and even the devices we marvel at are either what we have today or extrapolations of them, clever plays on present memory. In that way, futurist though he is, Doctorow’s closest peers are Philip K. Dick writing Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? in the late 1960s, and Robert Heinlein at work on Beyond this Horizon in the early 1940s.

The sense conveyed is that in this, Doctorow’s debut novel of 2003, a writer is at work shaping and reshaping his talent, reforming the genre as he embeds himself firmly within a tradition of realism and release, science fiction’s great double act. Like Dick and Heinlein before him Doctorow asks, what happens after utopia? There must be something beyond the appearance of perfection, because we’re imperfect beings.

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