The Quiet Pools and The Fictional World of Archives

Original Novel Title: The Quiet Pools

Author: Michael P. Kube-McDowell

Publisher: New York : Ace Books, May 1990 (hardcover); Ace Books, March 1991 (paperback)

All quotations are from the March 1991 paperback edition.

This novel, set in the late 21st century, revolves around the Diaspora Project when colonization starships embark for other solar systems. They carry with them not only thousands of human beings and frozen eggs and sperm, but a carefully selected and stored digital library/archives. Dedicated personnel and volunteers carry out the selection and manage the digitization of multimedia records, in particular books:

There were a hundred scavengers in the field, supported by a public appeal campaign paying finder's fees to donors of material on the team's Red List. More than two hundred of Allied Transcon's Houston complement were working part- or full-time on the library, including archaeolibrarians. (p. 24)

The physical process of digitization of rare books is handled by black-box computers that physically manipulate the books once they are inserted into "a slotlike drawer". As one of the character cautions one of the artificial intelligence personalities (AIPs) named Benjamin,

"And be careful with that one," he added. "It's almost two hundred years old." (p. 24)

Amidst the planning is the fateful monkeywrench in the form of the Homeworld movement. Spiritual descendants of environmentalist figures of the late 20th century who thought humanity should clean up its own planet before exporting itself and its pollutants to other worlds, the Homeworlders are led by the mysterious Jeremiah. He apparently will stop at nothing, including destruction of the second starship, the Memphis.

But the subplot of the creation of a complete library of human knowledge for a human colony cut off from Earth is far more interesting!

Here are quotations showing how good science fiction authors extrapolate from present-day trends to future possibilities:

McCutcheon gestured with his right hand as though waving off an irrelevancy. "Do you realize how many people believe that everything we know is in DIANNA? That it's the first and last source? The Authority. But it only contains the tenth part of everything we are."
"It's a digest. An electronic encyclopedia," Christopher said. "That's all it was ever meant to be."
"And the more we come to depend on it, the more its weaknesses show. Washington knows that. And Allied Transcon knows that. It's inevitable that DIANNA will be upgraded with the Memphis hyperlibrary. The only issue is the price."
Christopher was slow to answer. "I'm surprised to hear you say that."
"That I value learning? That I believe in the Twenty-ninth amendment? Access to information doesn't mean much when all you have access to is rewritten secondhand truth." (p. 39-40)
If it seemed odd sometimes to outsiders that the director of the Diaspora hyperlibrary project was not a librarian but a historian, it usually seemed less so when they found out who the historian was.
Thomas Tidwell was that oddity which seemed to come along once in a generation--a popular writer-director who also had the respect of his more reserved peers. The British-born, Oxford-trained Tidwell had earned respect through more than thirty years work on Millennial culture, including two standard reference works, Global Technocracy and Faith and Fear. But he gained notoriety with a single work, a series of nine videssays on the sexual mores of the last pre-AIDS generation. (p. 64)

Also attempting to block the starflights are lawsuits on behalf of unsuccessful applicants for seats on the ships, as well as parents and others of those who were selected. The Diaspora Project Historian finds himself enmeshed in Allied Transcon's finely tuned bureaucracy and denied access to records he considers vital to his documentation of the project's history. Among the most sensitive of records he wishes to view are personal histories along with genetic information on the passengers:

"Perhaps, being comparatively new to the Project," said Tidwell, "you don't realize that this sort of information was made available to us for the Ur library."
"Times are different now," Oker said.
"Not in any meaningful way. Surely, the first thing that any competent lawyer would do is subpoena our records."
"And he would fight any order to release them. We would destroy them rather than release them."
"Interesting," Tidwell said. "Are the selection practices that subjective? Are we afraid to defend our selection practices in public?"
"No," Oker said. "They're as objective as possible. They're blind selections, made by AI engines at the proc centers." (p. 68)

Upon pressing for access, Tidwell is advised of the secret known only to less than a hundred that drives the project, a biological imperative going back to the beginning of sentient life. The historian is devastated -- "I've built a career describing the symptoms of history while the cause went undiagnosed" (p. 70).

Tidwell is convinced by the project director, Hiro Sasaki, of the need to keep the secret, that only those who contain the genetic code called the Chi Sequence were selected for the long voyage between the stars.

Selection criteria for the hyperlibrary used by the archaeolibrarians comprise a number of factors, the most important being:

"...Impact. Impact is the final criterion. You look at sales, cross-media citations, major reviews. You look for seminal ideas, innovative techniques, representative examples. What did the work give us? How did it change us?"
"So it has to be popular and prestigious," said Christopher. "It's not enough to be good."
"It isn't even necessary to be good," said Edkins. "There are inferior fictions in the stacks because they added a single new word to the language, inferior songs because they caught everyone's ear one summer. It's not always fair. ..."
(p. 153)

Towards the end of the work when a figure professing to be Jeremiah is killed, his son, an archaeolibrarian with Allied Transcon, is given access to hidden digital files in "Portables," a transitional book publishing/reading technology:

Though the archive had been opened to Christopher, he saw very quickly that it had not been created for him. Save for a few decades-old "letters" from a father to his new son, it was not even addressed to him.
And instead of the systematically organized, theatrically perfect deathbed soliloquy Christopher had expected, the archive was a fragmented and incomplete potpourri, a scattering of the thoughts and reflections and memories of a man of complexity. It was his attic, the bottom drawer of his rolltop desk, the notes scribbled in the margins of his days. (p. 277)

The AIP called Lila Christopher's father used to present the "archiviana" to his son even had specific instructions on how it was to be presented:

"Christopher, there are very specific restrictions on how I may access this material. I may not look ahead, skip ahead, or redisplay already viewed sections. I may not store, mail, or copy any part of it, or allow it to be filmed off the display. (p. 279)

With the help of a former co-worker at Allied Transcon, the secret of the Chi Sequence is revealed to archaeolibrarian Christopher. To keep the secret intact, explains the co-worker, even commercial databases were purged, "papers withdrawn, copyrights and biopatents bought." (p. 302)

The novel ends on a nicely turned phrase, as Diaspora Project Director Sasaki puts it to Historian Tidwell, " 'Starting today, we write the histories.' " (p. 371)

The concept that genetic coding contains some mysterious element or puzzle is one that was used in a 1993 episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation titled "The Chase."

CONTENTS: The Fictional World of Archives

Submitted by David Mattison, 1997.03.28. Updated 1997.03.31.