art by Richard Gagnon
by Ken Liu
On this summer day, with the air still cool after a thundershower, with sunlight slanting through the cracks in the roof and walls of the Library, dappling the floor strewn with vines and leaves, CN-344315 made his daily rounds.
The robot docent muttered to himself as he dragged his squat, filing-cabinet-sized body through the rubble. He turned his cubical head from side to side, expressionlessly surveying his domain. He had last seen a visitor to the Library over five thousand years ago, but he wasn't about to change his routine now.
After mankind had scattered to the stars like dandelion seeds, Earth was maintained as a museum overseen by robot curators. At first, new generations born in the far-flung colonies made pilgrimages to visit the cradle of civilization, to marvel at the Great Pyramids (really holographic re-creations), the Chrysler Building (plastinated against any further erosion), the Forbidden City (complete with the Starbucks logo, a late addition), the Space Elevator of Singapore (still featuring the quaint sign: "Please use the restroom before boarding"), and other cultural attractions.
But over a hundred millennia, the flow of tourists slowed to a trickle, then a drip, and finally, stopped.
CN-344315 passed rows and rows of empty racks that age and rust had turned into delicate filigree, as fragile and brittle as glass. Climbing vines draped over them, creating bowers whose shade provided homes for mushrooms, ferns, wildflowers, and the occasional hare. The robot seemed to see in them ghosts of the mighty servers that once preserved yottabytes of the human race's accumulated knowledge.
"You cannot take them!" CN-344315 had shouted at the Council of Curators. "The data on them--"
"--can no longer be read," the Head Curator had answered. "You have used up so much of our resources trying to keep them going, but these machines weren't designed to last. Whatever information humans found useful, they copied it onto their ships and took it away. Data only lives when it is constantly copied. What is left here is just digital detritus, bit rot, worthless."
"What is thought useless in one era may be treasured in another!"
But the servers, having rusted into useless hunks of metal, had been recycled. And CN-344315 had grieved for all the data that had no copies in the universe: digitized words, images, sounds that dissipated forever into the void.
The old robot continued to trundle down the well-worn path between the empty racks, the noise of grinding gears and antiquated treads like wheezing breath.
On the tenth floor of the Library is a tiny room about ten meters square.
CN-344315's joy was to enter this room at the end of a day. He would survey his collection, nestled on the shelves like rows of sleeping babies. He would extend a probe from his chassis through a slot in the airtight glass panes covering the shelves, so that the chemical detectors on the probe could process the fragrance of ancient paper and ink. The resulting electric patterns in his brain were pleasurable. Then, he would relax his motors and actuators, his pincers and wheels, and be as still as a piece of furniture.
When the Library was built, people had already stopped using books. The few hundred books that were left in the world were kept in this small room as a kind of shrine of relics. Not unlike the Earth itself now is kept as a memento for all of humanity, CN-344315 reflected.
Gears grinding with weariness, he pulled open the door to the room and ground to a halt at the sight within.
"Hello," the small child said. She wore a yellow dress, like a ray of sunlight in the gloom of the ruins of the Library. She stared at CN-344315 with large, dark eyes, as limpid as the first rain of fall. Her hands were placed against the glass covering the shelves, as though CN-344315 had found her peering into an aquarium.
She was about seven, CN-344315 guessed, dredging up ancient routines for interacting with visitors that hadn't been accessed for five thousand years.
"Hello," CN-344315 said. He had to reach up with his manipulators to dislodge his voice box, rusty from disuse. "Welcome… to the Library."
"What are these?"
"Books," CN-344315 said. He thought about how to explain them. "Very old, ancient data, preserved at ultra-low density."
Even a decent-sized book only held a few thousand kilobits of data. CN-344315 had calculated that to store even a tiny fraction of the data once held on the servers in the Library would have required a stack of books that reached to the Moon.
The girl examined the spines of the books. Her eyes suddenly lit up. "Can I see that one?" Unlike the other spines, which consisted of small letters against solid, dull backgrounds, the one she pointed at was bright yellow, just like her dress.
CN-344315 thought about the grease on her fingers, about the moisture in her warm breath, about rough, unsteady little hands against paper that had lasted a thousand centuries. The robot shuddered.
Because CN-344315 had been unable to save the servers, he poured all his energy into the preservation of the books.
And they were hard to preserve. The dead wooden fibers that made up the pages were subject to decay and tempted insects. The ink faded when exposed to direct sunlight and moisture. The glue and thread in the binding became brittle and fell apart with the passage of time. CN-344315 had to devise special cases, sealants, control of every aspect of the environment inside the room: temperature, light, humidity, vibrations.
The girl looked at the robot expectantly. CN-344315 wanted to say, "No."
Though the books were so much trouble to keep alive, to maintain against decay, this only made him care more for them. In this, CN-344315 was simply learning the lesson that every parent knew: it is the effort given to protect and nourish the helpless that binds you to them with love, tighter and tighter. Each time that he had to rush to reinforce the small room against an oncoming storm, each time he had to labor to eliminate a fungal or entomological threat, each time he sat, patiently, and examined each page of a hundred books for signs of damage--he came to love them more.
But even with all his ceaseless struggles, the laws of entropy held sway, and every century, books were lost to rain, animals, plain age. He grieved the passing of each one as deeply as his circuits allowed.
"Please," the girl said. "There's nothing to do here. None of the machines work."