November 2011
Rewriting History (17 November 2011)
Water Supply System Apparently Hacked, with Physical Damage (18 November 2011)

Rewriting History

17 November 2011

I just returned from the IETF meeting in Taipei. To avoid carrying too much, I got some ebooks to read on the plane; to make sure I could read something when jet-lag had scrambled my brain, I made sure I had some light reading; in particular, I borrowed ebooks of Isaac Asimov’s original Foundation series, since I know them more or less by heart and they don’t take much concentration. It worked well; I was indeed able to read a great deal of it, despite being mostly unconscious — until I found that someone had tinkered with it.

I wasn’t certain about the first anomaly I spotted: "Could Anacreon supply us with adequate quantities of plutonium for our nuclear-power plant?" But Asimov didn’t use the word "nuclear"; I was pretty sure he used "atomic". Later on, when the Time Vault is about to open, the ebook spoke of a "computer" and a "muon beam". I was quite certain that these words were not in my copy.

I confirmed that today. My paperback (the 1972 Avon printing) speaks of atomic power, and the Time Vault is controlled by a "speck of radium" and a "tumbler". Why the changes? To make the text more "modern"? To "translate" the book into modern English? Thanks, but no thanks. One reason I enjoy reading older works is precisely to enjoy the older language, and to meditate on how language has evolved with the times. Making gratuitous changes like these reminds me of a line from E.M. Forster’s The Machine Stops where he speaks of people who "will see the French Revolution not as it happened, nor as they would like it to have happened, but as it would have happened, had it taken place in the days of the Machine."

Another interesting question is when the change took place. I suppose that the Avon edition might already differ from the original 1951 Doubleday version, but I think it more likely that it was the Bantam 1991 paperback that had the change, or perhaps their 2004 hardcover. The copyright notice on the ebook says "1951, 1979" — was the change made by Asimov himself to enable renewal of the copyright? If so, that’s a case of legally-induced tinkering. Regardless, I don’t like it.

There’s a larger issue here. If you’re studying texts, the edition matters. (This is, of course, not a new statement to many scholars in the humanities.) One sometimes-touted "feature" of cloud-resident ebooks is that mistakes can be fixed, that you can always have the latest version. This isn’t always a benefit! To behave like this is to hurt future researchers. I’d rather see the power of electronics used for online versioning: make all editions available simultaneously.

Tags: history