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ARISIA 2018: FINDING ALEXANDRIA: LIBRARIES IN SCIENCE FICTION & FANTASY

ARISIA 2018: JAN 12th, FRIDAY 7pm (tonight!)

Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, `and what is the use of a book,' thought Alice `without pictures or conversation?'

–Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Ch. 1, Lewis Carroll.


I am honored to be a guest participant of this panel along with our moderator librarian Cate Hirschbiel (our esteemed moderator), librarian Megan Lewis, Greer Gilman, and Christopher K. Davis.


I am not and have never been a librarian, nor played one on t.v., nor will I sleep at a Holiday Inn Express the night before our panel. I'm a relatively new author and a recently retired radiologist who has spent much of his time professionally (by necessity) and personally (by infliction of bibliophilia) within the walls and amid the stacks of many libraries in my 60 years.


The panel description includes: “Many authors love and use libraries, and some of them like to show off their love in their works,” and then poses two questions for discussion:


1. What are some books that celebrate libraries and librarians?

2. What would you like to see differently in portrayals of libraries and librarians?


I suspect we will, in part, recommend and discuss works in which libraries and librarians are featured, both works well-known to them and, perhaps of greater interest (if you're bibliophiles like myself), other works that are less known. Our world is a library of innumerable treasures.


I know it is our moderator Cate’s wish that we delve deeper into the roles (even archetypes) libraries and librarians play in SFF.


There may possibly be digressions into pseudobilia (invented books -e.g. Necronomicon) and elsewhere. Despite the panel description focusing on libraries and librarians in print, occurrences in other media (e.g. film, television ) where libraries and librarians feature will almost assuredly be included. This should be fun.


I thought I'd share some of my preparatory thoughts, and simultaneously provide a brief list for those who do attend and do not wish to take notes (ha!):


Libraries are Sources of Knowledge and "Scientia potentia est!" (Knowledge is Power).

Or:

גֶּבֶר-חָכָם בַּעוֹז; וְאִישׁ-דַּעַת, מְאַמֶּץ-כֹּחַ.

"A wise man is strong; yea, a man of knowledge increaseth strength" [Proverbs 24:5].


I think this is inherently understood by author and reader alike, if sometimes only subconsciously.


How libraries and librarians in SFF uniquely (and speculatively) provide this power to the benefit or detriment of their protagonists is fascinating.


1. Libraries as sources of hidden or forbidden knowledge and power:


  • The Orne Library of Miskatonic University in the writings of H. P. Lovecraft. --The Library’s "Rare Book Collection" is replete with many pseuobibliographical works (e.g. The Necronomicon, The Book of Eibon, and Unaussprechlien Kulten which were invented by Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, and Robert E. Howard respectively). Reading these books to discover understanding of the weird events or to seek power nearly uniformly leads to disastrous ends for the protagonists of "The Dunwich Horror," "The Dreams in the Witch House," and other Mythos tales. They part the veil of our naive perception of reality to disclose the horrible “truth” of the inimical alien and hostile universe. Their readers are forever changed, often driven to insanity or suicide, or carried off or murdered by entities whom they sought to understand or control.

As an aside, I am reminded of a line of verse from J.R.R. Tolkien's poem "The Mewlips":


"You go to find the Mewlips,

and the Mewlips feed."

:)

  • Pnakotus, the Library City of the Great Race of Yith in Lovecraft's "The Shadow Out of Time" depicts the Yithians as the ultimate librarians. They are an extraterrestrial species that can travel through space and time to record the past and future histories of multiple races, including our own, by switching bodies with their hosts --wherever and whenever they may be. Their Great Library is depicted primarily as a purpose unto itself and, as such, proves insufficient as a Power to prevent their continued flight from their enemies.

  • The Hogwarts Library, Restricted Section - contains books of Dark Magic preserved for the preventive education and training for senior students in Advanced Defense Against the Dark Arts. Harry, Ron, and Hermione achieve (through deception and sneakery) these books’ forbidden Knowledge and Power by breaking "The Rules" in the pursuit of battling evil. Of note, the librarian, Irma Pince, is always portrayed as unhelpful and unfriendly; and the library itself as inimical to students. Since the knowledge gained is essential to our heroes defeating evil, the message of having access to knowledge is, contrarily, very positive.

This also brings to mind the literary device of:


2. Libraries (and Librarians) as an Antagonists:


The settings of some libraries in SFF are not only repositories of Knowledge and Power but also obstacles to obtaining Knowledge and Power, thus becoming in themselves exciting sources for story conflict and tension.

  • The Library of Babel by Jose Louis Borges - Steeped in symbolism (even theology and theosophy), this short story is very clear in its allegorical intent from its first line: "The universe (which others call the Library)..." Like the Biblical tower of the same name, and like the Preacher of Ecclesiastes, the futility of prideful human endeavor—here, the pursuit of Knowledge for self-vindication--is reiterated.

  • The Archives of The University in Pat Rothfuss' "The Kingkiller Chronicles." His hero Kvothe is deceived and forestalled by Ambrose, an older student, in his access to The Archives (in pursuit of knowledge regarding the arcane murderers of his parents). Ambrose provides Kvothe a candle to go into the library - where all open flame is forbidden. Master Archivist Loren is so incensed that Kvothe is banned from The Archives "forever." Through cleverness (and kindness to Auri, a mad girl of "the Underthing"), he gains a backdoor access to The Archives and, later, Loren's guarded open permission. However, he finds an additional hurdle in pursuit of the Knowledge and Power he seeks: past Master Archivists have successively (in expressions of self-importance) and incompletely changed the cataloging organizational system of the library. The result is organized disorganization making the task of finding any particular book and knowledge near hopeless. Only time and perseverance (and luck) results in the revealing bits of the information he seeks.

Both preceding tales demonstrate that a repository of books alone is insufficient – knowing where the information one seeks is within the repository is essential.


As an aside: In James Gunn’s “Libraries in Science Fiction", he notes “the first library was the human brain” and, while portable, its deficiencies in regard to capacity, loss or alteration in storage and access. SFF tales in which tis is explored include Robert Heinlein’s “Universe,” David H. Keller, M.D.’s “The Cerebral Library,” and Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451.”


  • The Library of the Clayr in Garth Nix's "Lirael" is, in design, an upended conch shell, a downward decreasing spiral of rooms and corridors from a mountaintop to the base of a glacier, as much a museum, even a prison, for arcane knowledge (and creatures) as a library. It is also a repository of Clayr prophecies, a subject of bitter concern to the young Lirael who alone among her peers has not developed "the Sight." Much of this Library is inaccessible, and Lirael discovers this can be for good reason. Still, the purpose of a library, and librarians, is not to hoard knowledge but to provide it to those who seek and need it.

  • The Mere of Books in James Stoddard's "Evenmere." “Evenmere” is the most recent of three novels set in the Compton-award winning universe of "The High House" (a fantasy series deserving far more attention). Anderson Carter, the Master of Evenmere, must traverse the Mere of Books to secure “The Book of Lore” in order to keep it from the hands of anarchists who seek to unmake The High House and, by atavistic extension, the Universe.

The Mere of Books was once an above-ground library "well-lit, no darkness anywhere.'Twas the darkness of men's minds that created the marsh, and the books gravitate to the part of the library that suits them."


There is symbolism and allegory here amid the heroic quest for knowledge, of protecting knowledge, and the striving to maintain the Balance -- which is the best outcome possible in a universe naturally unwinding by entropy.


Concerning libraries, the work provides one of my favorite quotes: "The human spirit...That's what it's about. Cities and countries, physical objects--these are ephemeral. Words and ideas, they have a tangible reality. When towers tumble, the words remain. Troy is gone, but Homer lives on."


3. Libraries as Repositories (for the Benefit of Present and Future Generations)


  • The Library of Trantor and The Encyclopedia Galactica in Isaac Asimov's "The Foundation Trilogy."

  • The Final Encyclopedia in Gordon R. Dickson's novel of the same name achieves a compilation threshold that empowers it to part the fabric of time and space [See also the Star Trek episodes I note below].

  • A Canticle For Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr. tells the story of the fictional Order of Leibowitz over the course of 1000 years, beginning in the 26th century, whose post-nuclear Holocaust mission is to preserve the surviving remnants of man's scientific knowledge until the day the outside world is again ready for it. Unfortunately (unlike the more positive message in Asimov’s “Foundation” series), man again proves unworthy and misuses this knowledge, leading again to his own self-destruction.

  • The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy in Douglas Adam's novel of the same name- The ultimate portable repository: being book and library in one. Furthermore, it is poignant in the conciseness of its entries- e.g. "EARTH: Mostly harmless."


4. Libraries and Librarians as Sources of Inspiration and Wonder, and as Portals


  • The Library of Dream in Neil Gaiman's "The Sandman": Who wouldn't wish to read the books that our favorite authors never completed in their lifetimes except in their dreams. :) There are sites on line that have sifted the series to record the many unwritten dreamt of books found in the comic series. E.g. http://www.strangehistory.net/2010/12/15/the-library-of-dream/

I was pleased to discover an even earlier example of this in James Gunn’s article “Libraries of SFF”: David H. Keller, M.D.’s “The Eternal Conflict” whose protagonist is transported back in time to also act as the librarian of a dream library that contain all the books of myth and legend, all the books there are, and all the books planned to write bit never completed.

  • The Guardian of Forever in Orginal Star Trek's "The City on the Edge of Forever" by Harlan Ellison: Although its function as a time portal is used as the story device for this tale, The Guardian is primarily a time "viewer" of everywhere and everywhen.And it is sentient, a living library, "both machine and being" -- a library that is simultaneously its own librarian.

  • The Library of Sarpeidon in Original Star Trek's "All Our Yesterdays" written by Jean Lisette Areoste, who herself is a librarian (UCLA, Harvard, Princeton).The Sarpeidon world library of Mr. Atoz serves not only as a repository of knowledge but a gateway to the past as well – this time, the portal, called atavachron (Latin: ancestor, Greek: time), permits Atoz and the library to save the entire population of their world from the destruction of its sun going nova by sending them to wherever they wish to reside in the past.

  • The library of D'Ni in the Cyan game "MYST" and its successors by Robin and Rand Miller as well as the three novels co-authored by David Wingrove: The games and novels concern the family of Atrus, a scientist and explorer who has the ability to write unique books that serve as links to other worlds, known as "Ages." This godlike ability, known as "The Art," was practiced by the lost race of "The D'Ni." The idea of books as portals to other worlds made literal.

  • Libriomancy in Jim C. Hines' "Magic Ex Libris" series reverses this portal concept: Isaac Vaino is a libriomancer, a member of a secret organization founded five centuries ago by Johannes Gutenberg who discovered the art of libriomancy. Libiomancers are gifted with the ability to magically reach into books and draw forth objects, to create things from their pages. Libriomancers of the Porter Socety are sworn to protect the world from supernatural threats.

  • The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman - This library that exists outside of time contains not only all the books of our reality bit also of other realities, and its librarians are agents (well, thieves) that retrieve books in alternate realities by use of a unique and inconstant "Language," much like D'Ni "Writing" creates portals between world/Ages.


5. Librarians:


In addition to Issac Vaino, Mr. Atoz, Master Lorren, and Irma Pince above (and Dr. Henry Armitage of the Orne Library, there are the orangutan librarian (Dr. Horace Worblehat) of Terry Pratchett's Discworld, as well as others from the SFF universe such as Rupert Giles of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and Flynn Carson of TNT's "The Librarian” who serve as heroic librarian models in television.

As noted above, our second listed panel question concerning Libraries in SFF is:

2. What would you like to see differently in portrayals of libraries and librarians?


But I think this might be best answered by, Cate and Megan, as our two representative librarians. I know how I'd wish radiologists were portrayed in stories and media, but we do not seem to appear anywhere. :)

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