Sunday, March 14, 2010

Science fiction and foresight

I happened to be quite sick earlier this week and ended up spending quite a bit of time lolling about with little energy to do anything.  Sleep eluded be because of congestion and aching body and so I tried reading a book.  Some might gasp at such audacity in this age of instant information in the micro-doses of tweets, but, in fear of stating the obvious, I am a blogger, not a tweeter, and so I relish the long form.

I actually ended up rampaging through two huge (1,000+ pages) books while actually ill, and two smaller books while improving.  Three of these happened to be books I had read before, and recent conversations or events prompted me to take them up again after many years.  Retreading old territory might have been helped by the fact that I was in no shape or mood to go peruse the offerings at the local used book stores.

At the time, especially which actively sick, I viewed these as a fun romp that diverted my mind, but now I am interested in how the three re-reads treated the issue of communication, particularly in today's world of e-mail, Facebook, and those giant brains lurking behind the internet where all of our missives are saved in perpetuity.

The first book, Battlefield Earth, by L. Ron Hubbard (no Scientology in this tome),  is set in the year 3000 with an alien race that has taken over Earth and the story follows how the remnants of humans quest to take back their own led by one incredibly smart dude.  What interested me in hindsight, and I think highlighted by a re-read of Asimov's Foundation immediately following Battlefield Earth, is the total reliance in Battlefield Earth on physical forms of communication.  Communications between worlds were printed, sensor readouts were printed, little messages rolling out on long strips of tape.  Shredders were a means of controlling the passing of information into unfriendly hands.  Given the publication date of 1982, the context of the writing is clear because the first Macintosh computer wasn't introduced until 1984,  fax machines didn't become really affordable until the mid-1980's, and e-mail and the internet weren't widely available until the 1990's.  Even when these machines and services came available, they used dot matrix printers rolling reams of perforated papers or heat sensitive tape.

The book is filled with other wonderful gizmos and technology and I'm stuck on the means of communication.  But then, like I said, I read Asimov's Foundation immediately following Battlefield Earth, and what do I find?  Little ticker tape communications coiling out of little capsules that were delivered physically.   The echo through four decades from Asimov to Hubbard was remarkable but the question in my mind is whether these major authors in the world of science fiction were constrained by the methods of communication in their respective experiences or were they actually so foresightful as to know that we may want to be able to control our personal information a bit more discreetly?


  1. The time between the Asimov stories and the Elron hugamunga novelish thingy is considerable ... but the thing is that Asimov was writing in the 1940s, in the wake of Elron's massive popularity as an Astounding writer. Elron was bidding for topseller status, and achieving it presumably by means of minions buying the book by the minions, I mean millions, four decades later.

    So was Elron mincing out his tome on his aged typewriter -- or was it just his superbody, sometimes called his church? Why not the latter - - since his church would likely not add any elements that would go against his sort of 1940s sensibility that already existed in his published fiction.

    Meanwhile, I'm bloggered (isn't that a word?) that you read Hubbard's novel -- and not just once -- !

    Cheers ...

  2. Yup, just about 40 years right on the button, and I wonder if I would have noticed the anachronism as much if I hadn't moved on to Asimov right away. I remember those things from the first go 'round, but perhaps now I am more steeped in the foibles of electronic communications. Who knows. And I am known for reading as much trash as quality and when I'm sick and looking for a diversion, all bets are off. Of course I didn't mention that the first one I read was one of the Sword of Truth books by Terry Goodkind...

  3. Asimov's thinking changed during the 1940s when digital computers came on the scene. See: The Fun They Had