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.
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.