Are There Bookshelves in the Future? Seven Science Fiction Libraries

If science fiction is any indication, we see the future as cold, bleak, dystopian, and nihilistic — a place where computers are king and androids abound. The future, as we tend to imagine it, rarely contains printed books, let alone bookshelves. In Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Ayn Rand’s Anthem, books-on-bookshelves is actually a forbidden scenario. Even in the campy sci-fi universe of Star Trek, the twenty-fourth century boasts digital books stored on tablets; the Enterprise doesn’t waste space with something as antiquarian as a bookshelf.

In those sci-fi futures, bookshelves symbolize past life on earth — they are artifacts that boasts a connection to long cultural history.

So when books on bookshelves do pop up in science fiction, they’re the cultural exceptions, rather than the rule. In those sci-fi futures, bookshelves symbolize past life on earth — they are artifacts that boasts a connection to long cultural history.

1. Bookshelves from Unmentionable Times, Anthem

In Ayn Rand’s dystopian novella, the character Equality 7–2521 runs away from his society where learning philosophy and science from Earth’s history is banned. The bookshelves he encounters on his journey signify this old knowledge — to him, rediscovered.

“What kind of world did they have, the men of the Unmentionable Times? . . . We found a room with walls made of shelves, which held rows of manuscripts, from the floor to the ceiling. Never had we seen such a number of them, nor of such strange shape. They were not soft and rolled, they had hard shells of cloth and leather; and the letters on their pages were so small and so even that we wondered at the men who had such handwriting. We glanced through the pages, and we saw that they were written in our language, but we found many words which we could not understand. Tomorrow, we shall begin to read these scripts.” (Ayn Rand, Anthem)

2. The Banned Bookshelves of Fahrenheit 451

The hiddenness of books and, thus, bookshelves, permeates Ray Bradbury’s 1953 novel Fahrenheit 451, where books and bookshelves are dangerous, illicit objects. The bookshelves that show up are impromptu shelves are found in secret places, like air ducts.

“A fountain of books sprang down upon Montag as he climbed shuddering up the sheer stairwell. How inconvenient! Always before it had been like snuffing a candle. The police went first and adhesive-taped the victim’s mouth and bandaged him off into their glittering beetle cars, so when you arrived you found an empty house. You weren’t hurting anyone, you were hurting only things! And since things really couldn’t be hurt, since things felt nothing, and things don’t scream or whimper; as this moan might begin to scream and cry out, there was nothing to tease your conscience later. You were simply cleaning up. Janitorial work, essentially. Everything to its proper place. Quick with the kerosene! Who’s got a match!” (Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451)

3. In the high-tech cybernetic society of Neuromancer, Neo-Aztec bookshelves are analog symbols of wealth, power, and prestige. Protagonist Henry Dorsett Case meets with his shadowy employer, Julius Deane, in Deane’s office where they are surrounded by Neo-Aztec bookshelves.

“His offices were located in a warehouse behind Ninsei, part of which seemed to have been sparsely decorated, years before, with a random collection of European furniture…Neo-Aztec bookcases gathered dust against one wall of the room. If the furniture scattered in Deane’s makeshift foyer suggested the end of the past century, the office itself seemed to belong to its start,” explains the narrator of William Gibson’s Neuromancer. (William Gibson, Neuromancer)

4. Jedi Archives, Star Wars

The Jedi Archives were part of a vast library put together by the Jedi Order, cataloging thousands of years of knowledge. The bookshelves in the Archives were easily identifiable wooden shelves, but the books on the shelves were digital. The Jedi Archives show a brilliant juxtaposition of “new” book technology with “old” bookshelf design.

5. Khan’s Bookshelf on the Botany Bay, The Wrath of Khan

On the desolate plant Ceti Alpha 5, the genetically engineered Khan has a shelf full of books from Botany Bay’s cargo hold that contains the Bible, Paradise Lost, Moby Dick, The Inferno, and King Lear.

6. Captain Picard’s Elusive Bookshelf, Star Trek (The Next Generation Season 4; episode 2)

At 2:05 minutes into the episode, viewers glimpse a bookshelf in Captain Picard’s personal quarters. (The shelf isn’t included in past episodes and it doesn’t make another appearance.) But this particular TNG episode is about the starship crew connecting to family on Earth, and a bookshelf brilliantly captures the nostalgia for Earth of the past that so saturates this episode.

7. Captain Adama’s office, Battlestar Galactica

In Battlestar Galactica, the few bookshelves that do appear show up in Admiral Adama’s office on the old, archaic battleship Galactica. The shelves are wooden ones with books facing every which-way. The bookshelves remind the audience of the age of both the admiral and the ship.

These seven are by no means the entirety of science fiction’s bookshelves. These are props, McGuffins, set pieces, plot devices. But, more significantly, they are rare objects in our collective imagined futures — because we don’t expect to see bookshelves, they take us by surprise.

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