David Conyers is a science fiction author residing in Sydney. He is the co-author of The Spiraling Worm with John Sunseri and editor of the horror anthology Cthulhu’s Dark Cults. David has been a multiple nominee for the Aurealis, Australian Shadows, and Ditmar Awards. He won the Australian Horror Writers Association’s Flash Fiction Award in 2007 and was shortlisted for the Aeon Award in the same year. He recently joined Albedo One, Ireland’s magazine of speculative fiction, as a regular reviewer and is currently editing Cthulhu Unbound 3 with Brian M. Sammons for Permuted Press.
David’s view on ebooks is fascinating. In a perspective usually missing from the ebook discussion, a science fiction writer is applying his imagination to speculate on the far-flung future of reading:
“E-Thoughts on an E-Future”
I like reading books, paperbacks especially. I spend so much time on the computer at work where I write corporate text, and then at home or the train where I’m writing short stories, editing stories, writing reviews, writing introductions, tackling my novel, reading the works of colleagues, reading e-magazines, researching online, and so forth. By the time I need to read for pleasure, I don’t want to stare at a computer screen anymore.
A book is nice. It fits into the human hand so perfectly. It’s not heavy. It’s not bombarding my body with radiation (well, not much if you count infrared and the visual light spectrum). Computer screens, like television screens or game consoles, stimulate parts of the brain that aren’t good for you. Books, on the other hand, relax us. At the end of a day, I notice I sleep much better if I have read a book for half an hour compared to nights where I finish off with a television show or completing another scene in that elusive novel on the laptop.
So am I against e-books? Not in the slightest.
I do believe e-books have to evolve before they truly replace the paperback. The i-Pads and Kindle Readers are certainly a step in the right direction from where we were reading from the laptop or desktop. They are portable and comfortable to read like a book. But they are still screens. They still stimulate in all the wrong ways.
I see a future where e-books come full circle and resemble a paperback. Everyone owns one book with paper. You download an e-book, and like magic, all the pages are filled with your latest book. The cover changes, too, with a blurb, captivating jacket artwork, author and broadsheet testimonials, and a sales blurb. There will even be copyright information, or not, depending on whether your scruples allow you to read pirated copies or not (let’s hope not). Wait, you want to go back and check the last book you read because there is a scene you really like? A quick command and the book transforms again because you have thousands of books in the memory. It looks like a paperback, if feels like a paperback, and hopefully the resolution is just like paper, but it’s an e-book. It might even come with a bookmark that even if it falls out tells you the last page it was in. The book might even read to you, and you can choose whose voice you want to hear it in (think of your favorite, sexiest movie star and you’ll see what I mean).
Now re-reading the above paragraph, I realise that I’m a victim to my generation (Gen-X). I want the future to adjust to my needs. I’m like a Baby Boomer buying a computer and then expecting his or her secretary or children to transcribe all their handwritten notes to e-text to store on their new machine, which they’ll never use. Humans are evolving so fast. (I see it in my four year old daughter. She expects to watch television shows whenever she wants, not when a television station dictates timeslots, an expectation I grew up with). I can’t expect the world to adjust to my antiquated needs (as I’m sure they will become). I have to adjust to new ways of doing things.
Perhaps the electronic paperback I just described isn’t going to appeal to the generations that follow after me. They’ll want something different. Perhaps I’m going to have to adjust to the e-book whatever form it takes.
But is this the end of it, the e-books we have today? It seems highly unlikely that it will be, otherwise we’d all still be using computers the size of office buildings that have less capabilities than a calculator. Perhaps the future will present us with books that have no physical mass at all. We could have a computer chip in one iris, another two in the ears, and one in the tongue that works like a modern day mouse. Whenever we want to read, a virtual book appears suspended in the air before us (and it could also be our video phone, internet access portal, an encyclopedia, computer game, surround sound system, and so forth). Moving our tongues about flips the pages. And the ear chips? Well they’re there if a friend calls, interrupting. Such devices makes choosing which book to take on that beach holiday so much easier: take them all!
Perhaps we’ll go one step further. Perhaps cyber-neural interface will become a reality, and the link between virtual and the physical universe will become undetectable. We could then download books directly into our mind (better hope we don’t get a virus that gives us Tourette Sydrome or makes us send all our money to unscrupulous Nigerian gangsters claiming to be deposed princes. Besides, who really wants their mind hacked, anyway? So this may not be our future).
I read a Charles Stross short story recently (“Down on the Farm”). One line was particularly telling, when the protagonist looked at a bookshelf with paperbacks and immediately estimated their info content to be about 30Mb. I think that is very telling that our perspective on what a book is today is already outdated. The future of reading, e- or p- (and p is for physical), is going to change, whatever we want or hope to happen next.
I think the biggest problem with e-books is that so many people have a perspective that electronic information, whatever its form, is free. I have too many friends who download pirated films, television shows, music, and so forth without any thought that what they are doing might not be ethical (shame on you, and you know who you are). Think about it this way: if the whole world used only pirated e-content, no one in the entertainment industry would get paid, and the whole system would collapse. It seems that only in the physical that we want to pay (except for porn, but we won’t go there. There are plenty of other sites on the net that will discuss the values of this topic).
Now let’s look at the e-situation from another perspective. Piracy did work for the music industry, at least for some of the participants. Recording companies for so long had Machiavellian contracts where artists and bands never made any money through record sales because the artists were always paying for their studio time, production costs, marketing, and so forth, eating all their profits to the point where they owed money. Artists made money through live performances.
Then e-piracy came along, music was downloaded everywhere and by more and more people. Those ‘pirates’ listened to more artists than they otherwise would. The artists then realised that free music was actually helping their concerts, because their fan base was growing, and so they made more money. It was the record companies that suffered … well, they had it coming.
Movies still have cinema releases for the experience, but that is changing with the proliferation of home theatres that are today like going to the movies, anyway, but only three steps away instead of 15 minutes in the car. Perhaps we’ll all go back to watching musicals and stage shows if the film industry can’t make money in a future were everyone watches pirated films.
So where does that leave authors, storytellers of the written word form? It’s not like you go to a concert and listen to authors read their books as a performance piece (and let’s face it, authors aren’t actors). And who wants to sit for fifteen hours to hear out a 150,000 word thriller? If piracy takes over e-books, and e-books are all we have, then book stores and libraries will disappear, and then the whole publishing industry might collapse. Who will write if there is no money in it? Good authors still might, and those that cannot do anything else but write, but they’ll all need day jobs and so their output will suffer as a result.
I tend to believe we as a species will work something out for the e-future that will suit the majority. Storytelling is as fundamental to the human condition as the wheel, language, and opposable thumbs. If we can’t tell stories, if we can’t record information to learn, grow, and entertain, I don’t think we’d cope (I suspect it will be like taking a pack a day smoker’s cigarettes away and then watching them cope, but translate that to billions of people). We’re going to need books or we’ll all go mad, or savage, or both.
What is the e-future going to be like, really? I have no idea, but the above are some ideas of what we might face. All I do know is that the best I can do is sit tight and be ready to go with the e-flow, whatever direction it takes me. Perhaps there will still be a p-fork downstream that will still interest me, too.
David Conyers’ print books The Spiraling Worm and Cthulhu’s Dark Cults are available from Amazon.
His latest Harrison Peel/Cthulhu Mythos novella, The Eye of Infinity, will soon be available in print from Perilous Press.
The Grand Conversation on ebooks will run here at www.jiraiya.com.au until February 28. If you’d like to contribute a guest blog post, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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