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Entry updated 29 July 2023. Tagged: Theme.

Libraries inevitably feature from time to time in Genre SF and other Fantastika, as repositories of knowledge and power-houses of Education in SF. A famous mathematical Thought Experiment is the unthinkably vast yet provably finite Total Library containing all book-length permutations of letters and numerals, and thus all possible books. This was proposed by Kurd Laßwitz in "Die Universalbibliothek" ["The Universal Library"] (in Traumkristalle, coll 1901), cited by Jorge Luis Borges in his brief 1939 essay "La biblioteca total" ["The Total Library"], and developed in Borges's famed story "La biblioteca de Babel" ["The Library of Babel"] (in El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan, coll 1942). David Langford's "The Net of Babel" (February 1995 Interzone) notes that making this impossible resource digital and searchable would in no way lessen its essential futility. Borges also proposed that the Library of Babel could be accommodated in a single book of infinitely many infinitely thin pages, as in the title story of his El libro de arena ["The Book of Sand"] (coll 1975). Rudy Rucker's play with the mathematics of infinity in White Light; Or, What Is Cantor's Continuum Problem? (1980) includes the Library of Forms, comprising a finite number of infinite books, each covering its subject in total detail. During the narrative, the geometrical compendium Smooth Curves (of which there are infinitely many) is added to this library as item number 2470 while the protagonist's infinitely detailed autobiography is rejected for being a mere "subset of the Lives book on shelf three twenty-eight."

Similarly fanciful if less wide-ranging libraries are found in Fantasy [see also The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]. Beyond Life (1919) by James Branch Cabell has a library that includes books by fictional characters (The Complete Works of David Copperfield) and others that real authors supposedly planned but never wrote (Milton's King Arthur). There is a roughly similar dream library in David H Keller's The Eternal Conflict (1949), which includes lost as well as never-written works; and Neil Gaiman pays homage to Cabell and perhaps also Keller in Sandman #22 (1990), whose Library of Dream contains "every story that has ever been dreamed". Several tales of the Cthulhu Mythos mention the library at the imaginary Miskatonic University in Arkham, Massachusetts, noted for its locked collection of infamous grimoires – a publishing genre wryly summed up in John Barnes's One for the Morning Glory (1996) as just two volumes, Highly Unpleasant Things It Is Sometimes Necessary to Know and Things It Is Not Good to Know at All. The library in Stefan Themerson's Professor Mmaa's Lecture (1953) consists of termites who literally ingest knowledge and untap it on demand. The Library of Unseen University, also containing many dangerous books, is a continuing feature of Terry Pratchett's Discworld sequence – as is its orang-utan Librarian. Another fantasy-tinged library is the eponym of The Midnight Library (2020) by Matt Haig (whom see).

Further libraries of interest include the supposed Tibetan occult library of Theosophy (which see); the library of Atlantis, rescued in The Radio Boys Seek the Lost Atlantis (1923) by Gerald Breckenridge; the library-City of the Great Race of Yith in H P Lovecraft's "The Shadow Out of Time" (cut June 1936 Astounding; restored in The Outsider and Others, coll 1939), which imports future scholars via cross-time Identity Exchange to contribute their learning; the Imperial Library on Trantor in Isaac Asimov's original Foundation trilogy, a research centre par excellence which houses important secrets; the Far Future library of the Museum of Man in Jack Vance's The Dying Earth (coll of linked stories 1950), which unfortunately lacks any overall index; the archival library in Wilson Tucker's The City in the Sea (1951) whose slow disintegration over the ages in the Ruined Earth forces its curators to develop their Memory powers to retain human knowledge; Master Ultan's library in Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun (1980-1983 4vols), which seems to extend Underground far beyond the Citadel which notionally contains it; and that of Castle Banat in Lucius Shepard's The Golden (1993), a broad and mile-deep circular stairwell lined with bookshelves. Computers, often conscious, which contain all human knowledge in their circuits, are frequently found (see Clichés); in Anthony Doerr's Cloud Cuckoo Land (2021), a relatively unusual example of the topos, the tale effectively climaxes in an honouring of the narrative import of the cache that contains us.

Less impressive but clearly more prophetic are such miniature repositories as the all-embracing library of Hal Draper's "MS Fnd in a Lbry" (December 1961 F&SF), hyper-compressed to shoebox size via "nudged quanta" storage and unfortunately mislaid forever amid the colossal apparatus of its catalogues and indexes; Telzey Amberdon's portable (microfilm?) law library in "Novice" (June 1962 Analog) by James H Schmitz; or the jewel-sized data crystal in the above-cited Book of the New Sun library, which paradoxically contains more books than does the library itself. Multiple human Brain in a Box storage – each brain holding many books – is somewhat macabrely employed in David H Keller's "The Cerebral Library" (May 1931 Amazing); more conventionally, refugees from the book-burning society of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 (February 1951 Galaxy as "The Fireman"; exp 1953) each retain one work in Memory and collectively form a living library. Library patrons in Gene Wolfe's A Borrowed Man (2015) borrow not books but recreations of authors (Clones with synthetic, reconstructed personalities), who are treated as disposable property. Ultimately, in Gordon R Dickson's The Final Encyclopedia (1984) and other volumes of his unfinished Childe Cycle, human accumulation of knowledge tends towards a never-actually-attained mystical epiphany (see also Omega Point).

The historical conflagration (or perhaps multiple conflagrations) at the Library of Alexandria is remembered as a monstrous crime or Disaster. This event has sparked occasional rescue attempts via Time Travel, as in the Doctor Who audiobook The Library of Alexandria (2013) by Simon Guerrier. Echoes of the destruction at Alexandria are detectable in the burning of Lord Sepulchrave's library in Mervyn Peake's Titus Groan (1946); in the apocalyptic blaze of the library-cum-Labyrinth which concludes Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose (1980; trans 1983); in Iain Banks's The Player of Games (1988), where a conqueror quibblingly keeps his promise not to destroy a world's digital library by instead having it sorted letter by letter, and its images pixel by pixel, into Borgesian uselessness; in Terry Pratchett's Small Gods (1992), where the burning cannot be averted but the entire library content is preserved by one man's eidetic Memory; in the Librareome Project at a Near-Future University of California, San Diego, in Vernor Vinge's Rainbows End (2006) – with books horrifically shredded and blown through a wind tunnel where they are scanned from all angles for digital reconstruction, as the most brutally efficient means of "saving" them for posterity; and in the burning library of all imaginable books in Reif Larsen's I Am Radar (2015).

In Television, two relevant episodes of The Twilight Zone are the well-remembered "Time Enough at Last" (20 November 1959), in which the lone survivor of a nuclear World War Three anticipates a lifetime of consolatory reading in the public library, only to break his glasses and become effectively blind; and "The Library" (28 March 1986), centred on a private library of magical biographies that not only describe their living subjects' past and future but can be rewritten to alter this history.

Real-world libraries play a part in several genre works. The eponymous fin-de-siècle poet of Max Beerbohm's "Enoch Soames" (May 1916 Century Magazine) Time-Travels from 3 June 1897 to the British Museum Library of exactly a century later; the setting of C S Lewis's "The Dark Tower" (written circa 1939; in The Dark Tower and Other Stories, coll 1977) seems to be a Far Future reconstruction of Cambridge University Library as completed in 1934; Michael Innes's Operation Pax (1951; vt The Paper Thunderbolt 1951) climaxes in a fanciful version of the underground stacks in the Bodleian Library, Oxford; the New York Public Library features in Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970), Escape from New York (1981) and The Time Machine (2002); and a key metaphor in Justina Robson's Natural History (2003) is a painting – which in the manner of René Magritte simultaneously depicts and conceals its subject – of Shinjuku Library in Tokyo. [DRL]

see also: Gulliver; Matthew Reilly.


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