Ben Bova Was Almost Right

In an earlier post, I mentioned that my days of nearly endless business travel afforded me the opportunity to read a lot of books. As a child who grew up in the magazine and book distribution business, I was used to spending my down time with a book or magazine or newspaper in my hands. And as a young teenager with a constantly renewing supply of books, I quickly fell down the rabbit hole of the great American science fiction authors of the last century.

Alan Dean Foster, Philip Jose Farmer, Asimov, Herbert and Marion Bradley. I read them all. Endlessly. And I recycled their stories over and over as well. I’m one of those readers who doesn’t mind picking up a book I’ve already read to see if there was anything I missed the last time around. Or I’ll re-read simply to revisit an old friend.

When I was around 15 or 16, my dad brought home a hard back book by Ben Bova titled “Millenium” and deposited it on the steps going up to our second floor. In our home, any reading material left on the stairs was considered “fair game”. I grabbed it, and started reading it, and then read it again, and again. This book, which told the story of a “revolution” that occurred on a fictional moon colony of American and Soviet colonists against an increasingly destructive and belligerent set of American and Soviet governments back on earth was the first of four books Bova would write about the hero, Chet Kinsmen. Interestingly enough, as much as I loved that book, I didn’t know there were three other Chet Kinsmen books until recently.

Thirteen years later, I am in my late twenties and traveling around the country working on magazine distributions. My travels frequently took me into bookstores where I would, after examining the magazine rack, look for something to read. At some point I came across this book by an author who’s work I had really loved, but who, for some inexplicable reason, I had only read one of his many, many novels.

It foresaw the future of reading, but fortunately, not fashion.

“Cyberbooks” was published in 1989 and the weird thing I find about it’s cover is that it feels more like something from the early or middle eighties. In spite of the horrific cover, I snapped it up because I had remembered my love affair with “Millenium” and the book was about the publishing industry.

The plot of the  book is simple. The publishing industry is screwed up (No, really? Who’d have imagined that?). An earnest MIT engineering student creates an easy to use, simple to manufacture and cheap to buy electronic reader. The publishing industry reacts poorly and tries to kill him so they can keep on doing what they’ve been doing best. Screwing things up and having their way.

At the time, the book resonated for me. It was still relatively early in the personal computing era. Most PC’s were DOS based. Color monitors on anything but the most expensive desktops were still a rarity. I had just started to use a laptop computer and I had lots of things I wanted to do with it, but the technology was just not there so Bova’s fantastical vision was interesting, but seemed as far away as an iPad.

I don’t think anyone from Simon and Schuster or Random House wants to kill Jeff Bezos or Steve Jobs. Although maybe Leonard Riggio would like to a private moment in a small darkened room with Ron Burkle and William Ackman. But Bova demonstrates some scathing satire of the publishing industry ranging from the control corporate buyers have on what goes into the stores, to tales about the distribution industry that he clearly based on the actual  history of the magazine and book wholesale business (Like the wholesaler who printed his own covers and submitted them for credit).

Like many of the good science fiction writers, Bova predicts some of the technical aspects of today’s digital e-reader. The machine he describes is full color, easy to use, easy to read. Books are stored on “disks”  (it would probably have been too much to expect him to foresee cloud based computing or flash drives). Because they’re digital, you never “run out” of a book. The novel is intended as a satire and as such, it pokes a lot of fun at what the “future society” is like: Huge corporate mega mergers, lots of plastic surgeries, dumbed down public school classes, hospital admissions based on the quality of your insurance, book buying procedures run by monkeys and teenagers.

In an article published in the Naples News earlier this year, Bova pointed out some of the similarities between his novel and the current market today. In particular, the reaction of the publishing industry (with the exception of the assassination attempts)  and the current struggles over who gets paid royalties and how much those royalties will be.

I first remembered “Cyberbooks” when the Kindle began to get some traction and the publishing industry seemed to go into full “fight or fright” mode a year and a half ago. Weirdly, what stuck with me from the novel were the stories that Bova had told about the distribution side of the business and the description of the book buyers on their post plastic surgery cruise.  While it feels dated, it’s worth a second and third look.

Better yet, for me in any event, the trip down memory lane brought me to Bova’s website where I learned that I have a few more novels to go if I want to get the complete story about my first introduction to this writer.

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