In Space No One Can See You Read

I was thinking about iPads recently, specifically about how much I want one and how unfair the world is. I was also thinking about how I’d like to take my friend’s fancy new Kindle that he’s been showing off and repeatedly slap him about the head with it. The point is that everyone has an e-reader except me and random acts of violence are how I choose to deal with this fact. When I eventually get some form of e-reader I will do one thing – read heaps of sci-fi on it. Because if you ask me, that’s what it was invented for.

In the sci-fi that I’ve consumed since childhood, e-readers seem to be a fairly standard accessory for your average space explorer. On Star Trek everyone had ‘pads’ on which they viewed information and they even had awesome smart phones with some really useful apps (they called them tricorders). On Deep Space Nine, Jake Sisko wanted to be an author and he did all his writing on a ‘pad’, he even had a futuristic space pen in one episode. Pretty much the only person in Star Trek who was ever shown with a book was Captain Picard, and then it was usually done to emphasise how old school he was. I don’t think Captain Kirk ever had a book. If he saw one, he probably wouldn’t recognise what it was, assume it was a new alien species and then try to either beat it to death or have sex with it.

In Star Trek, the representation of stories was taken even further with the advent of the holodeck. The holodeck was a place where you could put yourself in a story – characters and locations were represented with realistic holograms and you could ‘live’ the story. It seemed that the holodeck had taken the place of videogames, films and television, even to the point where there were adaptations of famous novels that characters like Picard were constantly playing in. But think about the last time you went to see a filmed adaptation of a book you loved. Were you disappointed? Usually the answer is yes, so I can barely imagine how awful adaptations of books would be if I was in there bumping into things, trying desperately to be cool and accidentally killing characters who weren’t meant to die.

Both Battlestar Galactica and Babylon 5 showed societies in which books and paper were still prevalent. They even had special space-paper in BSG that had missing corners. Adama read octagonal books, but that was also a character trait meant to show him as older, experienced and a thinker. Of course, in BSG the human race and its culture had just been wiped out, so storytelling wasn’t really top of the agenda. But something common to all these shows was that the humble novel seemed to have gone the way of the dinosaurs, or were only read by dinosaurs. Or the commander’s kid, but he was doing it ironically so it was still cool.

Science fiction representations of reading have seemed to emphasise technology as a way of receiving stories, and participating in them. Or maybe it’s just not interesting to watch characters read. After all, when was the last time characters leapt out of a paperback and held the ship’s doctor hostage while Moriarty attempted to pilot the vessel into a black hole?

Written by Mark Harding


6 thoughts on “In Space No One Can See You Read

  1. Representations of readers reading in Sci-Fi are, as you say Mark, often ways of “showing” the audience something about the character. Old-school Picard and his first editions.

    The reference is lost in the mists of my short term memory loss, but I only recently saw someone make the observation that in Sci-Fi, there are not many reference to the writing of Sci-Fi. Which makes one wonder, at what point do we hit a future that no longer allows us to write about …. the future?

    Deep Space Nine, which I think contained some of the most successful world building in TV Sci-Fi, created a culture for the Cardassians that included quite a detailed account of their literature. Admittedly most of the epic novels referred to were designed to be models of behaviour, containing themes of duty and self-sacrifice. Though they did have a kind of “crime” novel, the Enigma Tales, in which everyone was guilty of something, the trick was to discover of what. Not too disimilar to SBS’s The Killing.

    It’s interesting to think about how often readers are shown reading – something which our Genre correspondent, Kirsten Tranter looked at back in 2008 in The Oz, when she noticed something about Harry Potter:

    “Harry Potter lives in a world without literature, without fiction and without art as we know it. For a student of literature this was an appealing escape, but I suspect it is also part of the reason why millions of Harry Potter fans have not become readers. In Rowling’s world, Harry Potter is the only fictional work. No other stories but me, says Harry; I am the one and only novel.”


  2. Yes, it’s like how you never see people on television watch television.

    Harry Potter doesn’t read fiction or comic books or play videogames or go to the movies or watch TV. In fact, all he ever does is work, poor little puritan.

    Maybe in sci-fi universes the only characters who read about ‘the future’ are sci-fi nerds who aren’t cool enough to be on the spaceships? A bit of negative reinforcement perhaps?

    But would you want to watch a show or read a book in which the characters sat down and read a book or watched a show?

    • Very true Cpt Pants, watching people on TV watching TV is tricky to do – unless it’s The Simpsons, or maybe Married With Children.

      When it comes to showing characters who have a reading life though, well, *ahem Mark* my master Joss Whedon created a couple of vampires who were shown reading books, and not just spell books or books about magic, but novels.

      On a couple of occasions I recall Buffy coming to visit Angel and Spike and interrupting them reading a book. Those glimpses of the two vampires and their interior lives is the kind of detail that really enriches both character and world building. As well, it made perfect logical sense that being immortal, vampires would have all the time in the world to spend reading a good book.

  3. Thanks for resurrecting my Harry Potter argument Pam! Time for an update I reckon since the advent of Potterama, I mean Pottermore.
    Books are an integral part of the Harry Potter universe: characters are frequently shown reading books and relying on books – just not fictional books. It’s all about non-fiction and books as sources of facts and information. Words that actually move and persuade through lying (fiction) are associated with evil Tom Riddle and fraudulent Gilderoy Lockhardt. Then there’s the weird children’s fairy tales in the last novel that turn out to be, you know, not fiction but true.
    Great post, Mark. You’ve made me want to go back to Star Trek Enterprise. What do you think of the new much vaunted Spanish fantasy novel The Map of Time? Not a very good book in lots of ways but interesting for the way it puts science fiction at the centre of the story, with H.G.Wells a major (and really dopey) character.

  4. Thanks Kirsten! Enterprise was such a great idea but it was poorly executed. However I loved the fourth season where the writers changed, there were some very cool storylines. I haven’t had a look at The Map of Time yet but it’s interesting how often H.G. Wells turns up as a character in novels like this, he was even in Shaun Micallef’s Preincarnate. And you should write an article about Pottermore, I know a blog that would publish it (I can pay you in cookies).

    Pam, yes I suppose that vampires would have lots of time to read, but what would a vampire read? If every story is a variation on the classic seven stories and you were immortal, you’d probably get bored after a couple of centuries.


  5. Mark, I cannot recommend The Map of Time. And I’m trying to remember whether Edward The Vampire reads… I think he reads Wuthering Heights on Bella’s recommendation (the “This is Bella’s favourite book” edition of which sold buckets, from what I remember).
    We will talk about cookies soon. Still trying to convince ALR that they should pay me actual money for writing about Potterama…

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