Future Tense, one of the revolving features on this page, presents stories and
essays from the intersection of computational science and technological speculation,
their boundaries limited only by our ability to imagine what will and could be.
mightier than the Pen
The computer reconfigures me.
i’Ve Been A writer for 40 years, and my
attitude toward writing machines has
never been simple. Right now I’m sitting in a quiet one-room cabin in the
Maine woods, writing in natural light
with a fountain pen into a bound blank
book. I could have done that in the 19th
century—or 5,000 years ago, if you trade
the fountain pen for a quill or stylus.
But when the day’s writing is done, I
pull out my featherweight MacBook Air
and type the words from the book into a
text file. Then I port it over to NeoOffice
to get a word count for the day.
I have various reasons to make it
this complicated, but the main one is
simple: that hand-written draft is a true
first draft. You can name a computer
file “first draft,” but there’s no way to
prove it was first. In fact, you would be a
very strange writer if you didn’t go back
and forth, changing things, long before
you finished the draft.
Why should that make any difference? Well, as a practical matter, sometimes you do get something right the
first time. After a book’s gone through
a half-dozen rewrites, it doesn’t hurt to
look back and see whether the changes
were all for the better.
There’s also the archival and financial value of the physical document itself. Even for a moderately well-known
writer like myself, the holographic
(handwritten) manuscript of a novel is
worth thousands or tens of thousands
of dollars. I’ve twice put handwritten
drafts of short stories up on eBay, and
collectors paid more than I got from
the magazine that printed them. In addition, if you’re egotistical enough to
want your work to last after you die, it’s
not a bad strategy to leave behind lots of
material for scholars—so they’ll write
papers on you and force their students
to buy your books.
I get a lot of esthetic, or at least craft,
pleasure out of writing an actual book.
In front of my window in this little cabin
is a cup holding a dozen different fountain pens and four different bottles of
ink. Each combination has its own personality, and it’s fun to start out the day
making that small decision.
I’ve written about 20 books with this
collaboration between pen and computer, and although I love my pens and
blank books with hobbyist zeal, if I had
to choose between them and the computer there would be no contest. The
pens would have to go, even though
they’re so familiar they’re like part of
my hand. The computer is part of my
brain. It has reconfigured me.
When I started writing, there weren’t
any out-of-the-box word processors within the budget of a freelance writer. (
Stephen King had an industrial-strength
Wang with a screen on a robot arm coming down from the ceiling.) If you were
good with hobbyist electronics, you
could cobble something together from
Ohio Scientific or Radio Shack. But like
most writers, I had to wait until around
Sometime during the
age of Primates the
internet got into the
1980, when the Apple II came out. I
bought one of the first, along with a
printer about the size and weight of a VW
Beetle. It used Doctor Memory as a word
processor; the letters were all screaming capitals, with actual caps showing in
By today’s standards it was crude
and slow, and it took a half-dozen big
fragile floppy disks to store a novel. But
what a feeling of power.
At least when it worked. You heard
horror stories about a person touching the wrong key and losing an entire
novel. I once lost a chapter by hitting
“Backspace” at the wrong time. I told
my friends that this new machine was
really great; no mere electric typewriter
could leap off your desk into a filing
cabinet and eat a chapter of your novel.
One triumphant day I forced the
top off the Apple II, I think voiding the
warranty, and swapped out a couple of
chips and soldered in a third-party component—and suddenly I had lower-case
letters, black on white, just like a typewriter but infinitely malleable. From
then on I was crawling up the beach, the
fish gulping air becoming the lizard becoming the mammal and then the ape.
Sometime during the Age of Primates
the Internet and Web got into the evolutionary stroll, and the computer was no
more a fancy typewriter than a human
is a fancy chimp.
About 15 discarded machines litter
that evolutionary beach, and it’s a long
way from the Sinclair that whistled into
a tape recorder to the superlight Frisbee
of a Mac Air that talks to satellites and
brings a huge and complex universe
into my rustic little shack.
Evolution doesn’t end. The ape became the human, and now the human
is drawing pictures in the sand.
Joe haldeman ( email@example.com) is an adjunct
professor in the Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies
at the Massachusetts institute of Technology, Cambridge,
MA. His most recent novel is Marsbound. His novel
Camouflage won the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 2005.