A Book of the Future

A bit of fun: is there a future for e-books?
Rita Toews on e-books

   Saturday 10th of November 2000 was a BUSY day for me. It was the day of the Australian Federal elections, and all morning, I was handing our 'how to vote' cards for the Australian Democrats, a small but vigorous political party that has held the balance of power in the Senate for many years, and has used it to force the major parties to take note of environmental and humanitarian concerns.

   It was also the first day of Healesville's 'Gateway Festival', an annual event that has been getting better each year. It was MOST inconsiderate of the Prime Minister to call an election to clash with our Festival!

   My contribution was to organize a demonstration speaking event by Lilydale Toastmasters, the public speaking club I belong to. I am currently working my way through a manual on 'Specialty Speeches', one of which is a sales presentation -- my weak point. I combined three goals: doing this speech, helping the Gateway Festival along, and publicizing my books.

   Here is a transcript of the speech:

   Madam Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen, let me read you the first few words of a book:

   The voice came as if from far away. It was a pleasant, deep female voice, saying over and over, "wake up. Flora Fielding, wake up, Flora..." on and on.

   I'm awake, Flora tried to say, but her mouth, her lungs wouldn't obey. Her eyelids felt too heavy to lift. And she was cold. Her body was ice. If she moved, surely she'd snap like an icicle -- if she could move at all. Her skin hurt everywhere from the bitter, malevolent cold. Her bones ached, all over.

   The voice stopped its endless chant and said, "I detect that you are conscious. Don't struggle. The machine is slowly bringing you back. You'll be OK."

   So it worked. It must have worked, Flora thought, and a feeling of triumph lent her energy enough to force her eyelids open. The research she'd funded must have found a cure, and now they were resuscitating her.

   At first everything was a liquid blur, then she was gazing at the sight she'd seen before going into suspended animation, before she'd been frozen. A network of plastic pipes descended from a pastel yellow ceiling. They were filled with fluids of different colors: red blood, creamy yellow food, a blue one, another with clear liquid.

   "Move your fingers," the voice commanded. Flora tried, and after several attempts felt them twitch, then bunch up. The cold was now less excruciating. She took a breath that made her chest rise. "What year's it?" she managed to mumble.

   The voice answered, "Thirteen hundred and twelve."

   This was meaningless. I couldn't have gone back in time! Flora thought in panic, but then the voice explained, "You have been in cryogenic storage for 1433 years. We now have a new system of dates, from the establishment of Control."

   A feeling of unreality, of complete disbelief swamped Flora: It can't be true. It just can't! "I... I expected to be asleep for maybe ten," she said, her still-weak voice quivering. One-and-a-half thousand years!

   This is the start of my novel, Sleeper, Awake. So far, I have only received positive reviews, and the book has won this trophy: the EPPIE 2001 Award for Science Fiction. [Hold up EPPIE Award] That means it was the best Science Fiction book published electronically in the past year.

   Published electronically? Does that sound like gibberish? Isn't a published book a thing like this? [hold up the EARTH GARDEN BUILDING BOOK]

   Sleeper, Awake is not only a book ABOUT the future. It is also a book OF the future. It exists as an organisation of electrons, not on paper.

   But how do you read an electronic book? Why would you bother? And surely, such a thing is a passing fad, could never replace REAL books?

   Let's look at these questions in turn.

   You can read an e-book on various devices. One of these is a computer. Now, a desktop computer is not the most comfortable way to read for hours, though thousands of internet addicts and game freaks do so. If you enjoy various activities on a computer, you WILL enjoy reading a book on it too.

   If you like, instead, you can read an e-book on a palm computer, a device that is slowly gaining in use. I don't like these, mainly because the screen is so small.

   Then there are the special-purpose e-book readers. You can buy them in Australia now -- the cheapest is about $500. That's ridiculous -- but I have recently attended a conference where it was stated that the next generation of readers should be around by about 2003. They will eventually become VERY cheap, and VERY convenient.

   Unfortunately, they are not here yet.

   What is left is the notebook computer. Here are three. A notebook can do everything a desktop can, but it also has an inbuilt rechargeable battery, and is portable. The screen is far kinder to the eyes than a cathode ray tube.

   And possibly you can get one for free, or not much more. This one here is 6 years old. That's like a 20 year old dog. Just the same, you can read a book on it. It has enough storage for maybe 500 books, and you can do lots of other things with it: write letters, keep the family budget, play games. After all, in 1995 is was State of the Art.

   I can GUARANTEE that someone in your acquaintance has something very much like it gathering dust on a shelf. Pass the word, and it may be yours for nothing, or at a nominal price.

   Why on earth would anyone want to read a book on a screen?

   My prediction is that within ten years, cheap, convenient e-book readers will be as common as mobile phones are today. Within thirty years, a paper book will be as rare as a vinyl record or a wind-up watch are today.

   Of course, the experts disagree with me. It may be amusing to hear what past experts have said about technological advances.


   These wise experts were wrong. Anyone who doubts the future of e-books is wrong too. E-books are going to change our world in ways as fundamental as the printing press did. And you can get in at the start of this revolution. For only $8, you can buy one of my e-books -- and I will even sign the cover for you.


   And indeed, I made my first-ever sale of a book on a disk.

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