Monday, 28 July 2008

Frederik Pohl, Science Fiction and Google Book Search

May's Dad bought her a sci-fi book last Christmas, which I duly pinched and read first. The book was "Gateway" by Frederik Pohl, and it was spectacularly good. Published in 1977, it's a sci-fi book that's more about people and relationships than it is about technology and as such it's barely aged at all. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I've decided to read some more Pohl books, moving onto "Man Plus" which I got from Winchester Library.

The premise of "Man Plus" is that the human race are getting close to ruining Earth and so the Americans have decided to send a man to Mars. To do this, they start with a human and then heavily cyborgify him, including fitting cyborg eyes. The first attempt fails spectacularly because the poor human brain can't deal with the overwhelming amount of input coming from the sweet new cyborg eyes and gently explodes. On the 2nd attempt they decided to run the output from the cyborg eyes through a computer to mediate the huge range seen by the eyes into a form that the human brain can deal with and process. Check this out:

"... the prosthetic and surgical teams began doing things that had never been done to any human being before. His entire nervous system was revised and all the major pathways connected with coupling devices that led to the big computer downstairs. That was an all purpose IBM 3070. It took up half a room and still did not have enough capacity to do all the jobs demanded of it. It was only an interim hookup. Two thousand miles away, in upstate New York, the IBM factory was putting together a special-purpose computer that would fit into a backpack."

"... The backpack computer was rated at 99.9999999999999 percent reliable in every component, but there were something like 108 components. There was a lot of backup, and a full panoply of cross-input paths so that failure of even three or four major subsystems would leave enough capacity to keep Roger going. But that wasn't good enough. Analysis showed that there was one chance in ten of critical-path failure within half a Martian year. So, the decision was made to construct, launch, and orbit around Mars a full-size 3070, replicating all the functions of the backpack computer in triplicate."

Proper amazing scenes right there. Both "Gateway" and "Man Plus" are getting a strong recommend from me.

To write this post I thumbed through the book for about 10 minutes trying to find the sections I wanted to quote, and then remembered reading about Google Book Search. The goal of this Google project is to digitize every book in existence and make it available and searchable online. After initial outrage from the publishing houses, increasing numbers are signing up to make 20% of each book readable for free online because they've realised that doing so drives printed book sales.

So, to make this post I used Google Book Search to find the search term '3070' within the book and tell me which pages in the book to look at, brilliant!

Looking further, I discovered that as well as searching all books, you can also search only for books that are available partially or fully online. Very very cool.

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