Monday, April 16, 2012

The A to Z of Fiction to Reality: the Opton

Yeah, yeah, I know... you've never heard of an opton. I bet most of you own one, though. I don't, but that's not because I don't necessarily want to own one; I just don't feel like paying for one. At least, not right now. I'm sure I'll get to it at some point.

The novel Return from the Stars by Stanislaw Lem came out in 1961 (it wasn't translated into English until 1980). It's about an astronaut that goes away on a mission. A mission that last 10 years... for him. However, 127 years pass on Earth while he's gone (time dilation (don't ask; this post isn't about that)). As you can imagine, many things have changed... including the fact that there are no more books. Not that there are no more books, but they're all electronic. Imagine that! An electronic book that you read with a little device called an opton. The description is rather like a Kindle.
Imagine that...

Lem's work is the earliest description of electronic reading devices or, more specifically, the electronic paper display. I didn't know this, but electronic paper was actually invented all the way back in the '70s. I want to be clear about what Lem was doing here: on his Earth, books were all stored electronically. Physical books only existed as a template. One would be printed and stored and people could access the book through their optons. This was before computers. Not, of course, before computers existed, but before computers were a thing. Some countries didn't even have computers in 1961. Probably, most countries didn't have computers in 1961. I sort of bet Poland didn't, and that's where Lem was from.

Let's take a step forward:
So Lem has predicted the electronic book, but he also predicted the absence of the physical book, something that the astronaut regretted. Will we look back in 100 years at Lem's work and say "wow, he was right"? I think so. All the signs of the passing of the paper book from society are here, even if we don't want to admit it.

1. Paper books are becoming prohibitively priced. When I was a kid, a paperback was a couple of bucks. When I was a teenager, they were $4-5. Standard price for a paperback is now $10. Hardbacks... well, I don't really even think much about them unless Amazon has them on sale or it's a book I just can't wait on for the softcover. As paper prices continue to rise, and they are rising, the cost of physical books will continue to rise as well. At some point, physical books will become a status item that only the wealthy can afford.

2. Electronic books are cheaper and better for the environment. This will be even more true once Apple and the rest of the big publishers finish getting slapped for price-fixing on e-books to force Amazon to not undercut the profits of the big publishers by pricing the e-books lower.

3. E-books are more convenient to store.

4. Physical book sales are in a decline while e-book sales are in a sharp rise.

Look, I don't even own an e-reader, but I see the day coming when physical books just aren't a "thing" anymore. The publishing industry is one of the most wasteful industries on the planet. They destroy hundreds of thousands of unsold books every year. It's just bad for the planet. As we (slowly) become more aware of the steps we need to take to ensure the viability of the planet, physical books are just going to pass away. I do believe we're in the early stages of that, right now, and I do believe that Lem was right.

I just hope he wasn't right about the rest of the stuff in that book.

Extra fun facts about Stanislaw Lem:
1. At one point, he was the most read sci-fi author in the world. Just not in the US, since he mostly wasn't being published here at the time. Like I said, he was from Poland. However, he is rarely read, now, anywhere else in the world except the US where he is often considered on the same level as H.G. Wells.
2. He held American sci-fi authors in disdain. He felt like they were more interested in money than in the science fiction. This lead to a situation between him and the Science Fiction Writers of America that lasted for something like 30 years.
3. Philip K. Dick was his only exception, and he praised Dick's work. PKD, however, wasn't convinced that Lem was even a real person. Dick felt that Lem was a composite personality formed by a committee operating under orders from the Communist party to sway public opinion. He even wrote a letter to the FBI saying as much.


  1. I see the ebooks as a potential problem for the future. If we ever have a major malfunction in our societies and lose power we will potentially have a bunch of people who, though literate, cannot find out how to do some basics - like soap making, raising crops, building houses, etc. because we have no books, nor Wikipedia to help us along. For although digital books are permanent in some respects, they are also very, um, nonpermanent in some respects.

  2. Since acquiring my first iPad, I've only purchased one physical book, so I can see it happening.

  3. Someone on Facebook linked to an article where agent/author Nathan Bradsfield was saying how cheap paper is and so forth.

    Reading another article somewhere I could see why the publishers wanted the "agency" model or whatever they called it. They don't want Amazon to set the price point for eBooks at $9.99 because as paper books fall away, publishers would be stuck charging $10 for their books, which means much narrower profit margins for them vs. a $25 hardcover or $15 softcover. Because it is true that there are costs associated with the eBook that are the same as other platforms (author advance, promotion, design, etc.) but right now they can spread those costs among 2-3 formats. But if they eventually lose paper formats, then that means they have to lump all the costs into just the eBook, making less profit for them.

    As for storage, a problem the film industry has had with digital is that with some movies by the time they're finally sold and ready to be shown, the format has changed and no one can read the format the movie was created in. In terms of eBooks, if you save all the world's books as Kindle files now, 100 years from now no one will be able to read them. For that reason we should really keep paper editions of books somewhere so that we don't lose the collected knowledge of the world.

  4. See, now I have to go and read Return from the Stars to find out what else Lem predicted. I think you planned that :-)

    I'm all for e-books. My opinion is probably not the most popular one, but if civilization goes to heck in a hand-basket, somehow I don't think reading books will be the key to survival. They'll probably be used for kindling (no pun intended) before they'll be kept for whatever knowledge they might have. I just don't see people flipping through The Idiot's Guide to Building A Hut when day to day survival is high priority.

    In that situation, I think a person would be better off searching for someone who knows how to survive, and teaming up with them.

  5. I have my option and I am using it daily - but I still read paper books too. I generally read traditional publishers in print and small press/indie authors via my ereader. Probably because most traditional publishers inflate ebook prices so much.

  6. This is easily the most fascinating thing I've read all day. I'm speechless. That's hard to do.

    Bravo, Andrew. I loved this post.

  7. I don't have one. And I might sound like a dinosaur, but I refuse to have one. I very much appreciate the wonderful benefits of e-books, but I need printed ones. I write in my books - a leftover habit from my Lit Major college days - and I need to be able to underline and highlight to really synthesize what I read. I really hope we never lose print books all together. That would kill me. It already blows when a book I want to read ONLY comes as an e-book.

    Don't get me wrong, I think they're great. Just not for me.

  8. I don't own an e-reader and have only read a few books in electronic format, but I think it's true that physical books will eventually fade out.

    The Golden Eagle
    The Eagle's Aerial Perspective

  9. I bet George Lucas had the idea for electronic books at about the same time as Lem. He just hadn't gotten around to doing his space opera for another decade.

  10. You just hit on one of my big fears for the future. I do fear losing a generation's work if the power ever goes out.

  11. Donna: If we had a breakdown of that magnitude, I don't think people would be worrying much about books, anyway.

    Alex: Hmm... what book was important enough to you to buy the physical copy? Was it a copy of yours?

    Grumpy: Paper is cheap, relatively speaking, but it's nowhere near as cheap as it used to be. Besides, I'd rather pay the artist (writer) for his work rather than a publisher.

    Stephanie: Well, you know, he didn't really predict anything good. But that might depend upon your point-of-view.

    And, yeah, I agree about global disasters.

    Rusty: I agree! I am -not- for paying publishers extra money for an e-copy of something. If the author got the extra money, I'd be more willing.

    Briane: Wow... I'm speechless at your speechlessness. Glad you liked it :)

    S.L.: I use my computer as my e-reader, at the moment, and I do that because of some books that are only available in that format. I'm sure, at some point, I'll have to get one. My wife already wants one.

    TGE: yep!

    Michael: You know, other than the Jedi holocrons, there's never any indication that any kind of book even exists in Star Wars.

    L.G.: I don't think it would be that bad. Most information storage devices aren't actually dependent on power to keep storing the data.

  12. I'm commenting back in time again... Just wanted to let you know that I linked to this post from my recent post that this inspired.

  13. Bonnie: I love time travelling comments!