E-books and Audiobooks (1960 AD)

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Lem described future e-books and audiobooks in his 1960’s novel “Return from the Stars”.

An Astronaut returns to Earth after a long space expedition. One and a half centuries have passed on Earth because of the Einsteinian twin time paradox. During that time Earthly civilization changed in a fundamental way: people gave up risk for the sake of prosperity and safety. The novel presents a fascinating vision of “Earth as an alien planet,” full of new technological inventions. One them are books of the future:

lem return from the starsI spent the afternoon in a bookstore. There were no books in it. None had been printed for nearly half a century. And how I have looked forward to them, after the micro films that made up the library of the Prometheus! No such luck. No longer was it possible to browse among shelves, to weigh volumes in hand, to feel their heft, the promise of ponderous reading. The bookstore resembled, instead, an electronic laboratory. The books were crystals with recorded contents. They could be read with the aid of an opton, which was similar to a book but had only one page between the covers. At a touch, successive pages of the text appeared on it. But optons were little used, the sales-robot told me. The public preferred lectons – like lectons read out loud, they could be set to any voice, tempo, and modulation. Only scientific publications having a very limited distribution were still printed, on a plastic imitation paper. Thus all my purchases fitted into one pocket, though there must have been almost three hundred titles. My handful of crystal corn – my books. I selected a number of works on history and sociology, a few on statistics and demography, and what the girl from Adapt had recommended on psychology. A couple of the larger mathematical textbooks – larger, of course, in the sense of their content, not of their physical science. The robot that served me was itself an encyclopedia, in that – as it told me – it was linked directly, through electronic catalogs, to templates of every book on earth. As a rule, a bookstore had only single “copies” of books, and when someone needed a particular book, the contents of the work was recorded in a crystal.

“Return from the Stars”, translated by Barbara Marszal and Frank Simpson, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 1980, p. 79

2 thoughts on “E-books and Audiobooks (1960 AD)

  1. Fabulous! I have read First Men and Last Men and was disappointed by the author’s inability to imagine electronic books. This is the first time — Asimov’s description comes close though — I am seeing a writer see into the future so precisely. Thank you for sharing!

  2. It might be noted that Arthur C. Clarke predicted a few other things. His paper on Wireless communications in the 1940s envisioned 3 equally spaced satellites in geosynchronous orbit, that is from the earth’s point of view, always above the same place on earth, enabling continuous communication via radio waves. This is an early but necessary step for mankind’s progression to the internet.
    He also predicted the lander/ reentry vehicle of the Apollo missions. At a time when 50s science fiction films routinely showed the entire ship landing on its car-like fins, Clarke envisioned just the very top of the rocket detaching and landing. His idea was more economical and efficient than the entire behemoth of a rocket, which is mostly propellant, making the entire journey to an astro-body and back. I happen to have an old English “pulp” magazine called “Tales of Wonder,” the Summer 1939 issue (#7) where Clarke mentions in his article “We Can Rocket to the Moon-Now!” about “stacking rockets” which are ejected after their fuel burns up, leaving only the nose cap to complete the lunar trip.
    His novel “The Fountains of Paradise” has as its star technology the Space Elevator- a series of bundled tubes made of carbon nano-fibers, or buckminsterfullerene, the strongest material for its weight known. The long cable or elevator is tethered to a geosynchronous satellite or asteroid, and people or payloads ride up out of the “gravity well” without the tons of expensive propellant. Kim Stanley Robinson used one of these as well in his Mars trilogy. I see Clarke crediting Yuri Artsutanov in the book “Greetings Carbon-Based Bipeds!” Whoever had the original thought or worked out the mathematics of the elevator, the manufacturing of the carbon nono-tubes is something that is being researched and worked upon. I saw once that a company in Japan was tackling the problem as I looked online a few years ago.The cable has to be extremely lengthy, 20,000 kilometers or so, and in the novel, another 20,000 Km is needed for a counter weight that extends past the satellite to keep it stable. Apparently this would work and the cable could withstand the stress. Anyway, another idea from science fiction authors that will most likely come to pass.

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