Sunday, June 21, 2009

When reality is more advanced than science fiction

I am not much of a science fiction reader. There is much about it that I find too contrived. And at least one literary technique which annoys me no end. This is what I call the 'Universal Out'. When you are reading typical science fiction, there is never a situation where you feel like a character is in an inescapable bind. However tricky the situation, the author can always conjure up some magical mix of words, throw a technical sounding phrase at you, and change the rules of physics to get the character out of said bind. The author always reserves the right to use this Universal Out. That annoys me and feels like cheating.

So anyway, to get back to my original point, I don't usually read science fiction. Sometimes though, I go through a phase, and might read a couple. Currently, I am going through one such phase. As I wrote some time back, I have been listening to Douglas Adams' A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy for the last little while. Since I finished that book, I started listening to another masterpiece, Isaac Asimov's Foundation. As flippant and humorous as Hitchhiker was, Foundation is earnest and serious. I am only a third of the way through this classic of the genre. But it is already clear, Foundation deserves its place in the pantheon as one of the all time greats.

There is one interesting element that shows up in both these books, and is the subject of this post - the Encyclopedia Galactica. The Encyclopedia Galactica is a fictional encyclopedia that is supposed to contain all the knowledge of the universe. The idea (and this particular name) has been used in multiple books and by many authors, but was first introduced in Foundation by Asimov.

In Foundation, a whole tribe of people, the Encyclopedists, is set up by a great mathematician, to collate all the knowledge of the known universe. This collection of knowledge is to be called the Encyclopedia Galactica. To put this together, the mathematician, Hari Seldon, brings together 10,000 scientists and sends them to a remote planet to spend decades (maybe centuries) capturing and cataloguing the knowledge of the universe. Creating this mammoth work, the Enclyclopedia.

In Douglas Adams' version of the universe, The Encyclopedia Galactica has been supplanted by a more versatile book, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Adams mentions the EG in his tongue-in-cheek way early on in his book, on page 2 in fact. "In many of the more relaxed civilizations on the Outer Eastern Rim of the galaxy, The Hitchhiker's Guide has already supplanted the great Encyclopedia Galactica as the standard repository of all knowledge and wisdom, for though it has many omissions and contains much that is apocryphal, or at least wildly inaccurate, it scores over the older, more pedestrian work in two important respects. First, it is slightly cheaper, and secondly, it has the words DON'T PANIC inscribed in large, friendly letters on its cover."

Cut to reality of today's world. When you hear 'one place for all the knowledge of the universe', what do you think of? Let me tell you what comes to my mind - the internet. And Wikipedia. This is the Encyclopedia Galactica of real life. Putting it together did not take centuries. It did not take 10,000 scientists on a remote planet. And it wasn't out of date by the time it was published. It is all the knowledge we have. It is live. It is current. And yes, it contains much that is apocryphal, or at least wildly inaccurate. But it scores over the older, more pedestrian versions in science fiction in one important respect - it is free.

1 comment:

  1. I am a huge fan of the Foundation series, which I read more than a decade ago. Since then I have occassionally browsed through one of the books when at a library. But I never made the parallel of wikipedia with EG. Good parallel.