(This short story is set in the Starforgers Era of the Star Saga, before the events in Starforgers.)
THE VALUE OF A BOOK
by Ken McConnell
“Why do you have so many old books in your study madam?”
She smiled warmly at the innocent question. Silicants were so naive sometimes and it always struck her as amusing.
“I simply like books. Leather bound paper with ink printed on the pages gives me pleasure. My fingers love the texture of the paper and my nose the smell of the binding. Nothing is as timeless as a book.”
Sumi-ness ran her pliant rubber fingers over the spines of several old books on the senator’s wooden shelves. The tactile sensation was not very satisfying to her. The sensors in her finger tips registered the bumps and cracks in the leather, but it didn’t give her pleasure.
She pulled a volume off the shelf and held it like a human would. It was not very heavy and it did not communicate with her as so many objects in her world did. It was silent and mysterious.
Gail Constantine read the title and rested her wrinkled hand on the face of the book. “This was from my father’s library on Prahran. The Price of Freedom by Erno Severon. A classic from the colonial times.”
Sumi-ness opened the leather cover and scanned the printed words on the pages inside. It was a crude and inefficient way to consume information. You couldn’t search the data, you had to scan every page and create a memory buffer to store the information being imparted. She did not recognize the language it was written in. In seconds she had searched the info grid and learned the ancient Starscrit.
“I have just learned the language of the book and find it to be somewhat lacking in expression. Was this language spoken on your world?”
“Starscrit? Of course it was. All the Outer Rim worlds spoke that ancient tongue. It was the dominant language on Selene in pre-spacetravel times. Not many people speak it these days. Fewer still can read it.”
Sumi-ness turned the book over slowly in her hands, examining the outside and wishing that she had the ability to smell.
“Can you read Starscrit?” Sumi-ness asked.
“Yes, but I’m afraid that I have not used it much in later years. Perhaps I should read this book again and reacquaint myself with the language.”
“It was printed on Selene and transported to Prahran. Why didn’t they simply take the data of the book with them and print it out when they arrived? The weight of such books would have been costly to travel with for long distances.”
Gail took the book from Sumi-ness and walked to her reading chair. It was made from leather and wood with comfortable arm rests. She sat down with her legs tucked under her and made herself comfortable.
“Books are more than just information carrying devices. They have sentimental value and they are timeless. They don’t require energy to operate and if well protected from the elements they can last for thousands of years. There has never been a more efficient way to pass down information.”
Sumi-ness sat down on the ornate carpet that covered the wooden floor. It was imported from Arkab, an Outer Rim planet known for such elaborate pictorial carpets. Her finger traced the filigree in the carpet.
“I understand the practical aspects of books, but I still don’t agree with using them for information storage. You cannot easily search them and they are not connected to the grid.”
Gail firmly grasped the book in her hands and brought it to her chest.
“But the early pioneers of my world didn’t have an info grid. They only had what they brought with them and this book was one of those original items they brought with them. It was a piece of their homeland and it was very important to them.”
She looked thoughtfully for a moment at the brown leather volume in her hands.
“This little book has traveled the vast distances of interstellar space to an alien world and helped build a civilization on that world. A society that cherished the ideals of freedom that its author had written about some thousand years before. Kind of ironic that it now finds itself back where it was published.”
Gail looked around the dimly lit library, trying to recall the location where the old book had been published. “In fact, Iberis Books was located on Sixth Street, near where the old Trader’s Tavern used to sit.”
Sumi-ness scanned the grid and came back with a more accurate location.
“According to the city planning office, it used to be one block north of Sixth Street.”
Gail gave the Silicant another warm smile.
“Here’s something I bet is not in your grid database,” she said.
She opened the book and flipped some pages back. A smile played across her aged face as she handed the book down to her aide. Sumi-ness took the weathered old book and scanned the page. There were hand written notes scribbled in the margins.
Sumi-ness’s image processors scanned, rotated and deciphered the writing. In some cases her handwriting recognition routines had to guess at what the ancient words were. But she was able to read it.
“It appears to be hand written in Starscrit.”
“That’s correct. Can you read it?”
Sumi-ness looked up at Senator Constantine. Her black eyes shined from the light of the reading lamp nearby.
“It mentions trouble with securing the rights of individuals who are not human. Were they referring to Colundrians?”
“No, he was talking about AI’s. That was written by Hans Slokum, an early champion of android rights on Prahran. He owned the book and gifted it to my grandfather.”
Sumi-ness looked back down at the book.
“That book was printed two thousand years ago a few blocks from here. It traveled across the void to a distant world and inspired my pioneers to apply basic human rights to early artificial life forms. Now it rests in my library back in the city of its origin and you, the most advanced AI ever created, can read it.”
Sumi-ness caressed the page with her hand. She was more than just the most advanced AI, she was a Silicant Rights crusader. For the first time she actually connected with a book. It was now more important to her than any other object in the world. More precious than a rare jewel. It was a part of her own history.
“I now understand your affection for old books.”
Gail smiled and said, “It’s your book now Sumi-ness.”