Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Life imitates Science Fiction

Not quite, but close: The Atlantic's James Fallows blogged recently about the Livescribe Pulse Pen pictured above. His description of it reminding me of a futuristic pen described in the science fiction short story Radiant Doors by Michael Swanwick. First, here's Fallows describing the Pulse Pen:

Here's how it works: The somewhat plump looking, cigar-sized item, propped on a pack of special notebooks above and below, is both a ballpoint pen -- and a very sensitive, high-quality, high-capacity tape recorder.


The pen I have holds up to 2GB worth of recordings -- many many many hours' worth.

But in addition to recording sound, the pen also includes a very small camera at its tip, which many times per second takes pictures of whatever you are writing in the special notebooks.


[T]he pen registers exactly what sound you were hearing at exactly the moment you are writing a certain word, letter, or doodle. Then when you want to hear the recording, you can point the pen to that word and hear what was being said at the time. More on how it works here.

What does this mean in practice? Suppose you're having an hour-long interview, in my case -- or listening to an hour-long lecture as a student, or sitting through an hour-long business meeting. When something comes up that you want to remember, you can write a note at just that point ("Interesting point about Poland") and later go back to get just that part of the conversation. You do so by touching the pen's tip to the relevant phrase in the notebook, or moving your cursor to it on a stored online image of the page. No searching through the whole hour's recording; no need to make sure you write down every detail in real time.

Now here's a brief excerpt from the Swanwick story that features a pen from the future that performs a similar function. The premise of the story is that refugees from the future start appearing through "radiant doors", and governments have set up refugee camps for them. In this excerpt, the speaker/protagonist is interrogating a refugee about future technology:

I sat interviewing a woman whose face was a mask etched with the aftermath of horror. She was absolutely cooperative. They all were.


"What do you know about midpoint-based engineering? Gnat relays? Sub-local mathematics?"

Down this week's checklist I went, and with each item she shook her head. "Prigogine engines? SVAT trance status? Lepton soliloquies?" Nothing, nothing, nothing. "Phlenaria? The Toledo incident? 'Third Martyr' theory? Science Investigatory Group G?"

"They took my daughter," she said to this last. "They did things to her."

"I didn't ask you that. If you know anything about their organization, their machines, their drugs, their research techniques -- fine. But I don't want to hear about people."

"They did things." Her dead eyes bored into mine. "They --"

"Don't tell me."

"--returned her to us midway through. They said they were understaffed. They sterilized our kitchen and gave us a list of more things to do to her. Terrible things. And a checklist like yours to write down her reactions."


"We didn't want to, but they left a device so we'd obey. Her father killed himself. He wanted to kill her too, but the device wouldn't let him. After he died, they changed the settings so I couldn't kill myself too. I tried."

[...] This was something new. I tapped my pen twice, activating its piezochronic function, so that it began recording fifteen seconds earlier.

"Radiant Doors" was one of the stories in Swanwick's Tales of Old Earth collection.


JK said...

The science-related posts upstream made me remember that I read "Jack Faust" on your rec. Decent book, overall I thought it was uneven: it had flashes of brilliance but also faltered at some points. I would venture to guess, judging from Jack Faust and "Radiant Doors", (what an imaginative premise, by the way!) of which I read more of on Google books, that his short stories are probably his strong point.

A genius with the short story, btw, is Richard Matheson. Incredible wordsmith.

DaveinHackensack said...

Radiant Doors is one of my favorite Swanwick stories. Worth reading. Swanwick has probably won more awards for his short stories than his novels, though the first novel of his that I read -- The Iron Dragon's Daughter -- was an NY Times notable book, among other awards it received. The short story collection that includes Radiant Doors is consistently good though. I'll have to check out Matheson when I have a chance. Thanks for the rec.