"I received a nice letter the other day from the Dalai Lama. He had read 'The Nine Billion Names of God'. It is about a computer at a Tibetan monastery."
- Arthur C. Clarke
||A small creature that is used to contain and play back information.
| It was with a common impulse of curiosity that we first went towards the living book which was resting motionless within the metal circle. It had no distinguishable features, and I cannot tell how it became aware of our existence, but it was its function to respond to the approach of any inquiring mind. It rebuffed any attempt to explain our own presence, or what we were, being evidently unable, or forbidden, to accept information except from the official librarian, but as we were more anxious to obtain information than to impart it, we had no objection to this, and, as we found it a cause of confusion to question it together, my companion generously gave the preference to my own curiosities, and composed her mind to receive the replies which it should give me.
We learnt at once that it was the last volume of the official History of the Dwellers, its record extending back for about two hundred years, and it would have been quite willing to begin at chapter one of that period, and go on for a week, had we been willing for it to do so. When it understood that it was required to select specific information in response to my questions, it assented, rather sulkily, though I soon realised that its function was limited to supplying the actual information which it possessed. It was unable to give any explanation or comment beyond anything which it had received with the facts. To any question which went outside its period, or beyond its province, it returned no answer. Even of the way to the library from which it had come it had no knowledge, though it wished to be returned to its accustomed shelf. It knew, however, that it must not venture to cross the metal circle which now confined it, under penalty of a swift destruction, should it touch it at any point.
My companion perceived the reason for this, as she was aware, without touching it, that the metal was heavily charged with some petrifying force having the vigour of electricity, and of a current sufficient to overcome a much larger creature than that which it now imprisoned.
"Are you impervious to electricity?" I was led to ask, as I perceived her indifference to this new danger.
"No," she replied, "of course not. How could we live without it? But we can naturally control the quantity which we receive. Otherwise our bodies would be continually exposed to the risk of a sudden destruction. Are you so liable?"
I said that I was certainly not immune from such danger, and it added a new peril to our investigations if the Dwellers were accustomed to use it or other forces of unknown potentialities, in such a manner. She agreed, but assured me that she could give warning very easily, now that she knew of this additional infirmity of my body, as she could always tell the quantity and direction of any electric force which might be in her neighbourhood.
I was puzzled to think that the Dwellers should expose so valuable a record to the risk of destruction as a penalty for its own disobedience, and this made me somewhat sceptical of the accuracy of my companion's explanation, but I learnt afterwards that the effect would merely have been that a new volume would have been commenced. These creatures are only kept alive until they have received as much information as they are capable of retaining, and are then slaughtered. The information which they contain being permanently available, as is that of a gramophone record, and the minds that hold it being more surely and easily stored when they are dead, than in a living state.
Having realised the character and limitations of the record at our disposal, I asked first concerning the safety of the two friends whom I had come to seek. I had to repeat the question in many forms before obtaining any response, but I finally obtained this information, which was obviously the only record which had been made, and the extent of the help which was here available.
'Two Primitives of the False-Skin Age were captured by the 42nd Coast Patrol. One was of a venomous kind. They were received by the Bureau of Prehistoric Zoology. The body of one was found to be suffering from microbic disease beyond sterilisation, and was scrapped by the Vivisection Department. The other was transferred to the Experimental Section, after the usual method.'
|From The World Below,
by Sydney Fowler Wright.
Published by 1929 in Collins So
Additional resources -
Compare to the preserving machine from Philip K. Dick's 1953 short story.
Ray Bradbury also made use of this idea in a way; in his Fahrenheit 451, individual people memorize particular books or chapters of books and are ironically referred to as the books themselves.
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