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"Cyberbooks" by Ben Bova

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Cyberbooks by Ben BovaAfter reviewing women's lit for two years for Girlebooks, I began to wonder when we might get around to publishing a review of a book written by a man. I had visions of something by Sir Walter Scott, as his books are revered and mimicked at least a dozen of our authors. However, Scott will have to wait while we point you toward a contemporary Science Fiction author--one of my favorites. We publish this review because the subject matter is especially relevant to our line of business: electronic books.

I love Ben Bova. Yes, his characterizations are not Steinbeck quality, and he is prone to stereotype. His narration is not that of a Fitzgerald or a Hemingway. His names are sometimes too cute. For example, in Cyberbooks Gunther Axhelm was a consultant usually engaged by corporations who want to thin their managerial ranks. That being said, Dr. Bova's ability to predict future scientific trends is astounding. His novels Mars, Return to Mars, and Mars Life read like reports from real manned Mars landing crews many decades into our future. How delightful it was, then, to see that the scientific breakthrough that Bova chronicled in the book Cyberbooks is already in use. Cyberbooks tells the tale of the development of the first dedicated electronic book reader. Yep, you guessed it--a reader almost identical in shape, size and function to Amazon's Kindle.

I happened across this book in the basement of our local library, where they sell used books. This scenario is a paradox, because I seldom read a book in paper-and-cardboard form, preferring to read my books on my Kindle, my Palm Tungsten, or my phone. However, for a topic such as this by an author I adore I would make the sacrifice. Funny also, that I should find reading a paper-and-cardboard book rather inconvenient after using my electronic readers.

Cyberbooks was published in 1989. The action of the story takes place in the early third millennium (possibly this year,) when the first electronic reader was being developed.

Along with his predictions regarding the development of the electronic reader, Bova projects other future trends, with much success along with a few comical and a couple of painful failures. One sad failure was his mention of the new Disney Dome that was supposed to reside next to the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. A more felicitous inaccuracy is the scene where a heavily-armed man enters a courtroom unchallenged. Not likely in a world ruled by metal detector.

In fashion, he envisioned that men would be wearing shirts that had neckties painted on them. Amusingly, fashions would change weekly. In the automotive industry, mergers will produce cars like the Citroen/Mercedes and GMota. On the latter, perhaps the ToyGM might be more accurate considering the recent downturn at the American auto giant. The PicturePhone reminds me a lot of Skype and the videoconferencing software put out by Logitech that is coming into use for homes as well as corporations. The curriculum in schools will be "dumbed down" to the point where students will read such things as "classic comics" in their high-school English classes (reason enough to pursue the electronic reader?) Men and women with a lot of money will resort to plastic surgery to keep their youthful appearances. The overweight will have their "fat sucked out" by machine. People would get lazy or overwhelmed and resort to decision-making on the basis of Astrology or computer programs. Stock market investing would be one of those computer programs. Hospital admissions and dismissals would be largely determined by the quality of the patient's insurance policy.

Bova's predictions for the electronic reader are surprisingly accurate. Books could reside on a wafer the size of a postage stamp (I do keep a lot of books on SD cards. I bought my first electronic dictionary imprinted on an SD card.) If you will recall, in 1989, when this book was published, we were saving our documents on 3 ¼ inch floppy disks.

Bova emphasized that electronic books would be immediately available, and prevent the possibility of running out of books if the title becomes a best seller. Bova's suggested delivery method was to buy the wafers with books already imprinted or to download them over the phone, in much the way one would record a phone message. Wireless networks or widespread use of cell phones was not a part of his narrative, but the Kindle's Whispernet is part of a phone network, so Bova was pointing in the right direction.

Bova suggested that the electronic reader would have the capability to read aloud as well as display the text. The Kindle does this amazingly well.

Bova understood that it would take a while for the price of an electronic reader to catch on. The developers would work to make the device as inexpensively as possible while maintaining quality and reliability. The electronic reader would be rejected by the publishing industry, and electronic books would catch on in a roundabout way. Bova envisioned toy stores as the medium for distribution. He was not far from the truth. Adult "toys" such as the "Personal Data Assistant" or PDA, served as the first electronic readers, opening the way for dedicated electronic readers with more elegant interfaces and features.

Bova knew that development of electronic books would help authors, who would no longer have to deal with as many middlemen to get their work published. It would also help the environment, eliminating the practice of chopping trees for wood pulp and burning books that do not sell. It can help the poor who can get readers from the government and load books onto the readers for a fraction of the cost of cardboard and paper books.

After reading Stephen King's amusing Ur, a novel offered exclusively for the Amazon Kindle, I hoped that the same might happen with Ben Bova's Cyberbooks. Ur was panned by some readers as being too flip. The same cannot be said of Cyberbooks. It is an earnestly written, surprisingly accurate book that makes one wonder what else Dr. Bova has up his sleeve.


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