Libraries in fiction: A prescient tale of information governance and security
Daniel Gooding steps into an alternate reality where the forces of good and evil fight for control of information in Haruki Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.
“It’s so complicated, I myself don’t know what’s what. Well, in my case, the simplest explanation is that I’m up to here in information warfare.”
“I can’t follow all this,” she said, flaking her suzuki with the edge of her fork. “Our library is full of books and everyone just comes to read. -Information is free to everyone and nobody fights over it.”
“I wish I’d worked in a library myself,” I said.
Although written more than 30 years ago, and before the emergence of the World Wide Web, Murakami’s fourth published novel is a remarkably prescient tale of information governance and cybersecurity. Set in an alternate reality where the forces of good and evil fight for control of -information, our unnamed protagonist works as a Calcutec, a sort of human data-encryption key:
“Calcutecs work as individual independents not unlike tax accountants or attorneys, yet we need licenses from the state and can only take on jobs from the System or through one of the official agents designated by the System. This arrangement is intended to prevent misuse of technologies by the Factory. Any violation thereof, and they revoke your license.”
The System are the good guys in this information war; “[preventing] the Semiotics from robbing data banks and selling on the black market, thereby upholding the rightful ownership of information.” Like all good information professionals, the System is highly subject to regulations; any Calcutec who is found in contravention of them is immediately blacklisted, at which point they often defect to the Factory. Referred to by some as the Data Mafia, the Factory “deals only in information. Information is clean and information makes money. The Factory stakes out a computer, hacks it for all its worth, and makes off with its information.”
Our Calcutec is hired by an elderly biologist researching mammalian palates and bones, who wants to protect his findings from the likes of the Factory and its more sinister allies, the INKlings: foul-smelling creatures who dwell in the sewers and feast on unwary subway workers. This data is laundered by the Calcutec in a bizarre process which involves passing the data from one side of his brain to the other; this data is later encrypted by a much more complex and hazy process called “shuffling”, where the Calcutec accesses the inner core of his sub-conscious through a specially implanted key word or phrase; in his case, “The End of the World.” This phrase allows him unconscious access to an inner-world within his own mind, in the form of a Town surrounded by a great Wall, where unicorns (or Beasts) roam the street in daylight and people seem to live in a state of vague and mindless contentment.
Ice cream eater
Just as there are two protagonists in the book (the real world Calcutec and the Narrator of the Town), we also have two Librarians. The real-world Librarian, “a slender young woman with long black hair”, is not as strict as other fictional library employees; when the Calcutec asks if she will let him take out a confined library book she refuses at first, but eventually agrees in return for ice cream.
Later, when he phones her at the Library and asks if she will bring some books directly to his apartment, she initially expresses outrage, but is soon asking for his address. When she does eventually arrive at his place, she makes up for the imposition by immediately devouring the meal he has prepared for himself, as well as some extra dishes that he cooks especially for her; she explains that she suffers from gastric dilation, which means she can eat almost continuously and still not put on any weight.
In the inner world of the Town, the Librarian is less quirky but equally helpful. Soon after his arrival, the Narrator becomes the Town’s Dreamreader, and everyday must go to the Library at 6pm to read dreams from the skulls of old Beasts that are kept on the shelves; the Librarian’s sole job, as she explains, is to assist him in this task. When he has read as many dreams as he is able to, and another person comes to take over, the Librarian will also be replaced; but for as long as he serves as Dreamreader, the Librarian will be there to help him. Although she seems familiar to him, the main character cannot figure out where he has seen her before: “in this Town, memory is unreliable and uncertain,” the Librarian tells him. “There are things we can remember and things we cannot remember.”
Whether reading Dreams or shuffling data, the narrators of both realities come to realise that their respective assignments are more than they first appear to be, and it soon becomes clear that “The End of the World” is more than just a codeword.
Ultimately, the Calcutec/Narrator comes to terms with his fate, through a combination of inescapable circumstances and personal choice; but as the Town Librarian says: “You did not come here to live happily ever after, did you?”