Although The Virtual Librarian: A Tale of Alternate Realities by Ted and Bob Rockwell is not a literary masterpiece, it is a hip pedagogical novel with an exciting array of current day lessons. Ever since the Dresser read John Barth's novel Giles Goat-Boy, a book that helped her make a transition from a college life studying French and American literature to a business world where she wrote energy-related computer programs punched into rectangular cards arranged in long trays for a Honeywell computer, she has loved the idea that librarians can have secret lives. Yo! Giles, tell everyone how your mama was a virginal librarian of a certain age and your papa was the mainframe of the West Campus.
Rockwell's librarian, known as Lib, is a computer providing a virtual reality library and under development by a group of computer engineers at a firm named InfoPower or IP for short. The project is the brainchild of a young Korean-born engineer named Kim Lee but who has assimilated to American culture. The story is told by an IP engineer named Keith Robertson who the Dresser suspects loosely represents Ted Rockwell. Ted Rockwell, a touted engineer and nuclear power expert, wrote this book based on passionate discussions he had with his late son Bob, a cultural anthropologist, about the rise of the Information Age, virtual realities, and 3-D.
Once a reader gets past book jacket superlatives like "magnificently illustrated by Thomas Chalkley" (are the illustrations really necessary? Maybe this is the only way to get people who don't read much to open this book), introductory scenes where dialogue does not flow naturally, and old slang like "This drove some of the theoretickers wiggy," he or she will most likely join the Dresser in appreciating how Rockwell weaves together a story that incorporates science, technology, and paranormal phenomena. For example, the Dresser loved the scene where a mysteriously dark psychic, "the seventh son of the son of a universally feared gypsy sorcerer," tries to exorcise what ails Lib (what ails Lib is the main thread of this novel) and manages to fell Keith Robertson in a hypnotic trance and to strew the room where Lib "lives" with a stinking mass of herbs and melted candle wax.
As Rockwell juggles the human stories of the engineers working on how to fix Lib (is it industrial sabotage by IP competitors?), he slips in a variety of interesting information. For example he gets the IP uber boss nicknamed Murph to expound on Denis Diderot who in 1775 wrote, "the number of books will grow continually, and one can predict that a time will come when it will be almost as difficult to learn anything from books as from direct study of the whole universe."
Did you want to know something about random number generators, the philosophy of Christian Scientists, or geomagnetic interference with ESP performance? Have a look at Scene 14: "Sprindrift and the New World Order" starting on page 75. Just reading the titles of the scenes listed in the table of contents is enough to give the reader a thumbnail sketch of where Rockwell is going with the story. Ending scenes 27, 28, and 29 deal with lobotomy, zombie, and awakenings.
Another aspect of Rockwell's tutorial approach is his offerings of Washingtoniana. For example, Rockwell sets one of his scenes at the venerable Cosmos Club where he accurately describes every detail about what surrounds the old French Renaissance mansion that houses the club and also talks about the hidden entrance to its off street parking. Then he talks about the hot popovers served daily in the club's dining room. The Dresser who occasionally is a luncheon guest at the Cosmos Club thinks that Rockwell creates a holographic experience--the reader could walk into this scene through Rockwell's description and accurately experience the Cosmos Club.
Other sign posts of the Washington, DC area include mentions of George Washington University professor and author Deborah Tanen, Beltway Bandits (the technical contractors located on interstate route 270), and (the Dresser makes a conjecture here) the Spiritualist Church mentioned by Rockwell that is headed by his fictitious psychic Anne Winfield might, in fact, be modeled after the Falls Church, Virginia, Center for Spiritual Enlightenment which was founded by the world renown psychic Anne Gehman. Oh, yes, there are a lot of surprising goodies packed into The Virtual Librarian.
REPRISE: THE LIBRARIAN'S SECRET LIFE
Like any thorough scientist, Rockwell has looked under every rock, including the increasingly popular virtual world Second Life, as his protagonist tries to solve the mystery of Lib's erratic behavior. Has Ted Rockwell abandoned the scientific credo? The Dresser was relieved to find out what ailed Rockwell's computer librarian was not a freakish phenomenon but more like an Isaac Asimov progression that, in this case, involves a librarian (albeit she is a computer) with a secret life.
Chella Courington of Santa Barbara, California, sent this poem to the Dresser about a modern updating of the secret life of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre. Courington has a poetry blog at http://gravityandlight.blogspot.com/.
JANE EYRE TAKES TO CYBERSPACE
Weary of midnights in drafty rooms
she thrills at a jaunt down lover's lane
strolling on sunny moors
to distract her dampened spirits.
If only she could score on match dot com:
fly through question after question
no governess agency
dares to ask.
Jane usually speaks the truth
despite the trouble it brings.
But this time she'll slip
into white lies.
Plain? Not Very
Sexy? Without doubt
She turns herself into a babe
Who cares if Rochester
waits beyond a burning house?
Sick of being the model for every
wallflower in every century,
Jane longs to shine in cyberspace:
hot young star even Paris would envy.
by Chella Courington
published in Iris (2005)
Copyright © 2005 by Chella Courington