The Future of Books (as Told by the Sci-Fi I Watched as a Kid)

jake sisko book
Did I mention that in the same episode Jake gets accepted to a school for writers that’s based out of Wellington, NZ?

Interested in science fiction and fantasy from a young age, by the mid-90’s one of my favourite programs was Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. There were many bizarre futuristic aspects of the universe depicted in this program that I accepted without question. However, in one episode (titled Explorers) the captain’s son asks him to read a story he has written. The text of the son’s story is displayed on a small digital tablet (remember, this was aired in the mid-90’s) and I remember thinking at the time “no one will ever want to read off something like that.”

Imagine my surprise.

penny's computer bookEven at a tender age I thought this kind of reading looked hard on the eyes and lacked the tangibility of a paper book. This kind of reading wasn’t real enough…even for the United Federation of Planets. But I’ll tell you what futuristic book technology I did love. I loved Penny’s computer book on Inspector Gadget.

For those who never experienced it, Inspector Gadget is a program from the early 80’s where a bumbling cyborg detective attempts to out-wit his nemesis, Dr. Claw. In this recurring quest, Gadget is assisted by his dog Brain and his niece Penny. Penny’s best tool in aiding Gadget is a computer built into a book. Imagined in the early 80’s, Penny’s computer book anticipated video chat, regulation and control of outside devices and the existence of a database probably comparable in size to the internet.  But I don’t think it was these capabilities that so entranced me. Rather, I think it was the idea of advanced technology held in such a familiar and trustworthy package. Penny’s computer book looks (and I assume feels) like a hardcover book. Where the still laptop-like packaging of today’s e-readers and tablets suggests, to my mind, the idea that all worthy knowledge is now to be digitally gained, the binding and leaves of Penny’s computer book show that it is technology rooted in what came before it, paper and the ink on a writer’s fingertips.  I bet it smells nice too.

In the past few months I have begun to make my peace with e-reading, mainly after a surprisingly positive experience with the Kobo Glo (more on this to come). And yet, if I didn’t think it was a fire hazard, I’d probably be gluing a binding, intro and appendices around my laptop this second.

Liz Gillett

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56 thoughts on “The Future of Books (as Told by the Sci-Fi I Watched as a Kid)

  1. technophile9 says:

    I like the computer book too. When I was younger I was much more attracted to there being lots of buttons on a device rather than it being touchscreen or ‘mind controlled’ – sometimes old concepts are the best. Congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

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    1. Vic Books says:

      Thanks technophile9, I know what you mean about the appeal of buttons vs. touchscreen. When I was a kid I used to pretend I could shapeshift by pushing buttons on a control panel in my shoulder. But I think that may also have been partly inspired by the movie “Not Quite Human.” — Liz

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  2. tamberrinoartstudio says:

    There’s nothing like the feel of a real book. I love the smell of them, the feel of them in my hands, the sound the paper makes when I turn the page. And I love to dog-ear those pages! I do buy books for my iPad through my kindle account, but it’s just not the same. Maybe the younger generation won’t feel the way we do. They are children of the technology era. I’m a Trekkie, too, and love that Star Trek predicted so many of the amazing technologies we use today! 🙂 Great post!!

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  3. villagerambler says:

    I remember Inspector Gadget, but had forgotten about Penny’s book – well spotted, and a great point too. Having worked for a book publisher for the last ten years, I have seen the gradual and then not so gradual change in the industry. It is a difficult adjustment for many, but books will survive and people will continue to want to read books, in some form or another. Science Fiction is always creative in the ways it speculates on the future, but as you have shown it is often not far off the mark. I will always love the physical book, but like you I have made peace with the new world of e-readers and digital publishing. I do like your idea about adding ‘booky’ elements to your laptop – hmmm…with the right glue perhaps…

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    1. villagerambler says:

      PS – didn’t realise you were the Vic Books from Wellington! Congrats on being Freshly Pressed, not easy to do! I work/ed at HarperCollins NZ (I guess you’ll understand what the slash indicates…)

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    2. Vic Books says:

      Hi villagerambler, great to hear from another NZer! I definitely agree about the survival of the book. Whenever I’m feeling a bit iffy about e-reading I try to remind myself how much human writing mediums have changed already since the advent of papyrus scrolls and cuneiform tablets. As long as we don’t end up in a world like M.T. Anderson’s Feed then the book should be ok. Still, let me know if you find a glue that you think would work. — Liz

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  4. illustrationmage says:

    E-readers were definitely something that I had to get used to. While I didn’t see a lot of the technology in the media as a kid, when the Kindle came out I was staunchly against it. It was thin, hard, and didn’t have that “new book” smell that I had come to associate with adventure into worlds yet unknown.
    It as only after I moved first from Alaska to the “Lower 48’ts” and then over the course of a summer moved 4 times in three months and lugging all those books with me that I decided maybe to give one of those E-reader things a try. While there are book series’ I still have and refuse to ever part with, I have come to love my Kindle and keep it with me often. I adore the idea that I have a small library in my purse at all times now.

    Thank you for sharing your experience and how it compares to those “older” shows we grew up with.

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  5. dydityet says:

    Vic Books,
    I love this post! It really shows our interest in technological advance, yet our somewhat reluctance to embrace it when it is realized. Perhaps this provides yet another example of “we want what we don’t have.” And the closer we are to achieving it, the less partial we are to actually owning it. If you want to feel how fast things are changing, check out my blog post on cool concept gadgets of the not-so-distant-future:
    http://dydityet.wordpress.com/2013/06/18/6-trendy-concept-gadgets-you-know-you-want/

    Awesome post, thanks for the great read!
    Cheers,
    Jon

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  6. artisticlady says:

    Totally love this blog subject! I have been telling people back in the day in the 70’s when I was watching Star Trek reruns that everything we saw in Star Trek would one day be created in my life time. Everything that was hand portable push button we would be using today and as they say history has been made. Reading from computers I saw that back when I was a kid in the 70’s. I think e-readers are great for those who love reading and instead of carrying one book to read on the bus an avid reader can have several to read as they go to and fro from work; however, I still love the smell & feel of a new book in my hands of which a computer can’t ever replace that special feeling!

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  7. Jay Dee says:

    I love real books, but I do read eBooks with Kindle on my iPhone. Yes, it is small, but I don’t find it difficult. The only thing I don’t like about Star Trek’s PADD is that the background is black and the text is a lighter colour. I get a terrible afterimage when I read a website like that. Black on white is a must.

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  8. ashton manswell says:

    Very good read and so true. I remember those Inspector Gadget days…lol. One thing I truly love about the digital age is the ability to travel or simply carry with hundreds of digital books or references on my person with no hassle whatsoever.

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  9. Rob Klecha says:

    Hey,
    Like the post. I watched 2001: A Space Odyssey the other week and noticed they were using ipads/tablet devices. That was 1968! Amazing. We are officially living in the future.

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  10. polaris299 says:

    Call me a traditionalist but for me, an ebook just doesn’t cut it. Yes, they are convenient and you can jump to exactly the page you left reading but you can’t replace the feel of the letters on the paper. Some of my books I have had for 20 years and they will always work, never running out of power, never having the screen break, and never needing you to find a spot that isn’t too sunny to see your screen.
    I do envy Penny though, her book is totally cool.

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  11. Matthew Wright says:

    The guy who first predicted the way books and everything else would be digitised and then networked – down to the social impact – was Arthur C. Clarke, who laid it all out for us in the 1960s. Nobody much listened outside SF readers…

    My take on the development is that we shouldn;t be misled by the notion of ‘dinosaur books’ being inevitably replaced by ‘THE FUTURE’. Printed books won’t die; they’ll take their place alongside all the other ways we obtain our reading. My suspicion is that quality coffee-table style books will continue, but the ‘airport novels’ we used to read once and then dispose of to the second hand shop will certainly diminish – perhaps go completely.

    The physics of it all are clear; it’s harder to read from a glowing screen than it is from paper, where the light is reflected. Formal studies here in New Zealand suggest screen images drop reading speed by a third.

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    1. Vic Books says:

      Hi Matthew,

      Great to hear from a New Zealand author! Your mention of “dinosaur books” vs “The Future” made me think of Neil Gaiman’s address at the London Book Fair this year (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N6KB6-7uCrI ). In it he compares paper books to sharks, some species of which have survived almost unchanged since before the dinosaurs, and are still going strong. Despite this comparison, Gaiman doesn’t seem to think that physical books are guaranteed to continue, but rather that the key to the future of the book is to be creative and open in the making and dissemination of new content, to “embrace the old as we embrace the new.” For my part, I agree with your sense that digital and paper will continue side-by-side, with paper catering more toward those of us looking to engage with the beauty of the object, as well as the content.

      I would be interested in reading the results of the studies you mentioned if you can point me in their direction. Thanks for the comment. — Liz

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  12. girl_upstairs says:

    I sometimes bind books and I’ve been planning to make myself a case for my e-reader that feels like a book because, yes, Penny’s book is so much better than our computer-y slabs, however much like a Starfleet officer they make me feel. And, really, the number of times I end up making Star Trek references while reading is getting ridiculous.

    Like

  13. dercollartcos says:

    Even as a child of what I call “the smartphone generation” I have yet to see the appeal of e-readers. There is just something so much more real about cracking open a book and feeling the paper than staring at a screen could ever achieve (it’s a bit like being a literary vinyl fetishist).

    Like

  14. Jeff says:

    Congrats on getting Freshly Pressed.

    While I do enjoy my Sony Reader (I haven’t tried any of the newer ones, yet), I still prefer the feel of a real book with real pages. I suppose that will always be the case. However, the e-reader is convenient in certain circumstances, especially on trips and vacations, when packing space and/or weight is limited. I’ve not heard of the Kobo Glo.

    I guess I didn’t see that episode of Deep Space Nine, but it is curious how science fiction predicted the future. Except that we still don’t have “Jetsons cars,” darn it.

    Like

    1. Vic Books says:

      Hi Jeff,
      Rather than Jetsons cars, I’ve always been disappointed that we didn’t get hoverboards like in Back to the Future II. I was really hoping for one of those. — Liz

      Like

  15. ruthy82 says:

    I think that we can happily use both, one can complement the other and is best used at certain times, like for me I find it easy to read articles on an e-reader e-readers are great for travel and taking many books, but nothing beats a paperback novel on the beach 🙂

    Like

  16. ctdub74 says:

    Great article. As a part-time conspiracy theorist, I have a small comment to make, which is that there should always be a place for the real thing, otherwise who’s to know if the Gremlins start changing the text here and there?

    Like

  17. preposterousplum says:

    I loved Penny’s computer book as a kid! It’s interesting how Star Trek has managed to anticipate a couple advances in technology like cell phones and tablets, but I’m still waiting for my holodeck! I’m not a big fan of e-readers, largely because they don’t feel real somehow like you said. There’s something about having real bound paper in front of you that is an integral part of the experience of reading a book…at least it is for me. Love the post.

    Like

    1. Vic Books says:

      Hi preposterousplum,
      The holodeck, yes! I definitely want one of those. Though if I had to choose, I’d probably take the transporter first. As someone who flies to the US a lot (family there), being able to get across the world in seconds is the kind of technology I am really waiting for. Although with my luck it would probably end up like the movie The Fly instead… — Liz

      Like

  18. gothichydran126 says:

    Great post! I loved Penny’s computer book! I use mime her as a kid and use a regular book when she used hers. Since we now have notebook computers and flat screen e-readers, I’m still looking for Penny’s cool wrist watch that shoots lasers and communicates to Brain the dog.

    Like

  19. awax1217 says:

    A good post. I recently went to the doctor and when he came into the room he brought his tablet. He put the information right into it. Prior to him I was scanned and probed by his nurse. Remember the way they use to take temperature way back. Those Thermometers they use to stick in our behinds had mercury. If they broke how dangerous that would have been? Eventually they will use a body scan as shown on Star Trek. It is only a matter of time. Next step body parts grown in the lab to be used for transplant.
    Can you imagine, a spleen from a sheep, a kidney from a walrus and a lung from a blow fish and finally a grown part from the lab. The future boggles the mind, which was transplanted from DNA from Einstein’s comb.

    Like

  20. Sam McManus says:

    I am one of the idiots who think we will still get that kind of technology packaged thusly, for all the nostalgics out there who need to have it look like a book but still be packed full of all the interesting, intriguing, and futile trappings of the digital tablet.

    Like

  21. L. Palmer says:

    First, there are covers you can buy for tablets that make it feel book like.
    Second, everything is cooler with lots of nifty buttons – something the simplicity of tablets makes disappointing.
    Third, I thought I was fully converted to e-books, until I read a physical book last week and remembered the excitement of turning physical pages. E-books are convenient. Physical books (even crossovers like Penny’s) are still cooler.

    Like

  22. georgechusted says:

    I love the feel of books. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to make the switch to e-reading. With physical books, you can see and feel your progress and as someone who learns by doing, this is an important aspect of books that can’t be digitized. So, as the world continues going paperless, I continue to build my collection of books.

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  23. 4myskin says:

    I still think that the I-Pad’s name came from the PADDS in Star Trek! And there’s a book where Kirk wants to read a book that everyone is talking about, but he has to get a real book…he wouldn’t read it electronically. If it’s good enough for Kirk, it’s good enough for me!

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  24. thecontentangel says:

    Loved your post so much I reblogged ya. You are my very first reblog. I’m not sure what being “freshly pressed” means, but if all your posts are as great as this one then I’m sure you deserve it. 🙂

    Like

  25. johnoparah says:

    I find it interesting how books and shows seem to relate more to the modern day than books or shows IN the modern day do. For example, 1984 related more to the modern day now, to me, than Hunger Games did.

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    1. georgechusted says:

      I think it’s because we always relate to the future. But hopefully The Hunger Games doesn’t become our future…

      Like

  26. jlmartindesigns says:

    I want to like e-readers so much…but I can’t get over the smell of a new book opened for the first time, or the feel of a decades old book that I have read a dozen times over. Damn you technology, must you replace my nostalgia with convenience everytime!

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  27. lauraswonderland says:

    I remember that episode of DS9. I’m still not so keen on Kindles and such though. Maybe I’ll come around eventually. Great post.

    Like

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