Icelandic writer Sjón has spent the first half of this year in Lillehammer, Norway, where, on June 2, 2017, he handed over his contribution to the “Future Library”, which is at the moment a forest of small Norwegian spruce, birch and pine trees, called Nordmarka, in the north of Oslo. This little plantation will provide the paper for the publication of 100 literary works in the year 2114, one hundred years after the project started in 2014. Sjøn’s book, and those of the other contributors, will be held in trust, unread, until then. It’s an interesting idea – books printed on paper in the year 2114. The question is, what will the format of books be by then? I am reminded of the end of LIU Cixin trilogy, The Three-Body Problem, in which, finally, millennia into the future, it is proved that no medium can be as long-lasting as chiseling words into rock.
“‘Our conventional data storage techniques could preserve information for two hundred thousand years, but we needed to get to a billion! […] According to the most advanced theories and techniques in every field, based on extensive theoretical research and experimentation, through analysis and comparison of multiple proposals, they did find a way to preserve information for about one hundred million years. And they emphasized that this was the only method known to be practicable. Which is—’ Luo Ji lifted the cane over his head, and as his white hair and beard danced in the air, he resembled Moses parting the Red Sea. Solemnly, he intoned, ‘—carving words into stone.’” (Cixin Liu, Death’s End, pp. 510, 511)
It’s back to basics in other words. The library building that will be built to house the books in this project will have a printing press with instructions on how to print the books on paper, one medium which seems long-lasting. Think of how long prehistoric carvings on cave walls have lasted, and ink on papyrus, versus tape recordings or vinyl records. In contrast to bulky physical recordings, forms of electronic data storage are small but require electrical power to store and retrieve the data, as well as compatible hardware and software. And then there are the many types of degradation or decay that data is prone to in storage, no matter how carefully it gets secured.
The Future Library Trust
To ensure that in a century’s time, the project will actually come to fruition, a trust has been established, with noteworthy people giving it authority and legal status, and the forest is protected by the state as well. But by 2114, the people originally involved will all be dead, and the forest might be gone, and the publishing houses that are involved might have ceased to exist. Who knows if there will be a Norway as we know it today? Or an internet? Websites and the internet may have changed beyond recognition. Who knows if carbon footprints will still be measured as they are today? The authors will definitely all be dead. And they might have sunk into obscurity with no-one caring what they wrote in the years after 2014. The whole thing is a bit of a conceit.
Remember the time capsules that were all the rage during the space race in the 1960s and 70s when people were obsessed with the future? When I was at school, we built those capsules. Where are they now? Irrelevant and rotted. Storage, preservation and decoding methods have made most of the publicized time capsules pointless or ruined beyond repair. This particular literary time capsule is meant to be a cross between an art project and a museum-style archiving project. Will it work? Who knows? You and I won’t be there to read what was written.
The paramount objective of the Future Library Trust is to select and invite the authors, and to compassionately sustain [eh?] the artwork for its one hundred year duration. The Future Library trustees include artist Katie Paterson, Publishing Director of Hamish Hamilton Simon Prosser, Former Director of the Deichmanske Bibliotek Liv Sæteren, Publishing Director of Forlaget Press Håkon Harket, Editor-in-Chief of Oktober Press Ingeri Engelstad and Anne Beate Hovind, Project Director at Bjørvika Utvikling, and Chair of the Trust. The authors are being selected for their outstanding contributions to literature and poetry and for their works’ ability to capture the imagination of this and future generations. Key words in the selection process are “imagination” and “time”. The Trust is inviting one hundred outstanding writers of any nationality or age to contribute works in any genre or language. The length of the piece is entirely for the author to decide. – Future Library Trust website
(Original video has been edited for length.)
It’s a cute idea – but it is intrinsically flawed, and while I like the idea of a piece of forest filled with tweeting birds and creaking branches, I’d rather read the books while the author, language, and format are still accessible to me. It is also a money-making scheme, to which I don’t object either since I won’t be there to spend money on it: “Certificates entitling the holder to the full anthology in 2114 are being sold by the artist [and project founder, Katie Paterson] through the Ingleby Gallery; certificates initially sold for £625, with the price increasing to £800 in 2017.”
The future works of authors – to publish or not to publish?
The project will be handed over to a new team of trustees every few years, and, as Paterson explains, the writers will never see their books being read, and since writers write to be read, to communicate, this might make it a very strange creative experience for them. If you knew that what you wrote would not be read before you died, would you care what you wrote, and what would you write? For Science Fiction or Speculative Fiction writers, this is of course the core of their subjects – what they write about is far in the future, and hasn’t happened yet, and may never happen.
Another thing to consider about this project is that many authors are quite understandably concerned about their legacies – how their books or the characters they created will be treated after they are dead. Some authors are quite certain that they do not want any half-finished works or leftovers published, nor do they want their books republished without their overview and approval.
Five writers who did not want their creations published after their deaths, and one who does.
For instance, this month, according to instructions from author Terry Pratchett before he died, the manager of his estate, Rob Wilkins, had Sir Terry’s computer and hard drive thoroughly and completely destroyed by crushing them with a steam roller.
It is a bit dramatic and who knows where on the internet and on microchips data remains, considering that Sir Terry was a bit of a computer geek and had many computers. But it was to prove the point: There shall be no more posthumous Terry Pratchett publications, after The Shepherd’s Crown (published 27 Aug. 2015). Such symbolic gestures are intended to ward off the scourge of takeovers of the works of famous, dead authors by people wanting to make big bucks, and the associated legal suits and counter-suits.
So where does this leave the authors of The Future Library? They don’t know, and no-one else knows either. Is it a fascinating puzzle? Yes, but don’t take it too seriously.
As of July 2017 three contributors to the collection have been named – there are still 97 to go:
- 2014 – Margaret Atwood, Scribbler Moon, submitted May 2015.
- 2015 – David Mitchell, From Me Flows What You Call Time, submitted 28 May 2016
- 2016 – Sjón, VII: As My Brow Brushes On The Tunics Of Angels; or The Drop Tower, the Roller Coaster, the Whirling Cups and other Instruments of Worship from the Post-Industrial Age, submitted 2 June 2017