The Great Library of Alexandria survived the attempts to destroy it. Those who run the library now rule the world. With the use of alchemy, they monitor all the knowledge in the world, delivering the greatest works every written to tablets in an instant – and keeping all physical books from individual hands.
Caine – who is also the author of the incredible Morganville Vampire series – knew that, for the Library to survive, technology would have changed drastically. The Library was a huge institution whose sole job was to control information. The printing press would have been a threat. It would have been destroyed.
“I started thinking about this concept by saying, if we didn’t have the printing press, and the Library had survived, what would the world look like? And I realized that they’d have developed some kind of equivalent, but highly restricted, system to circulate books,” said Caine. “They were, after all, the original inventors of the concept of the public library system! So as I worked, I realized that [alchemy]not only was standing in for the internet, but also for ebooks. Then I had a print vs. ebook tension as well.”
Surviving in this bookless world is Jess Brightwell, the son of an illegal bookseller. After years of running books for his father, he is sent to the Library, to train to join their ranks and to spy for his father. But there is danger in the library and in Jess’ intelligence.
It’s not the idea of being caught by the Library that initially haunts Jess. It’s the Inklicker he met years earlier – a man who bought one of his father’s books and ate it, page after precious page.
“I wanted something dramatic, and boy, did that work,” said Caine with a grin. “But mostly, I thought about human nature. If something is both valuable and rare, there’s probably some kind of fetish around it. The Inklicker in that scene talks about other men who slaughter endangered animals to be the last to taste them … which is, sadly, a real thing. I just thought it would also work for books.”
Books – or, at least, scrolls and other physical writings – may seem like the heart of the original Library, but Caine discovered quickly that there was more to the Library than meets the eye.
“We tend to think of it as an entirely altruistic institution, but in fact, it was built for political reasons,” said Caine, with a reminder that the king with the most books meant the king with the most knowledge, leading to the king with the most power. “Just like the other things in the complex. The Library itself was actually just a tool for the huge University complex, which attracted world class intellects. There was also a zoo, which was a new innovation in itself.”
The zoo may have inspired some of the more steampunk elements of Caine’s world, which include giant metallic lions that protect the Library from theft and harm.
Caine pulled from automatons, first invented in Greece and used in a real way in Antikythera and Alexandria.
“The Greek myths speak of gods [Hephaestus] and men [Daedalos] creating automata of such size and cleverness that they moved – and thought – for themselves,” said Caine. “Examples of these include the mechanical eagle that tortures Prometheus, the Hippoi Kabeirkoi [mechanical horses], the Keledones [golden singing maidens in Apollo’s temple], the mechanical fire-breathing bulls of Colchis that Jason and the Argonauts defeated, more beautiful maidens of gold created by Hephaestus to serve him on Olympus, and … of course … Talos, the bronze giant bronze warrior also battled by the Argonauts. So … plenty of choices!
“If the technology of the Antikythera existed—and we know it did!—then it opens the possibilities that many of the other things we think of as myth might have existed as well, in some form. The descriptions by contemporaries of Heron’s amazing, complex inventions that apparently motivated themselves—gods that spoke in temples, statues that moved on their own—were technology that was lost for thousands of years, because of the loss of the Library. So if the Library survived, it would have not only been possible, but probable, that such technology would be everywhere.
“The Library’s survival, to me, had to be based on something they had that allowed them a kind of independence from a particular kingdom or political/religious group … and if it, using the Codex system, became a nation/state in itself with the power to make and enforce treaties with other nations in exchange for access to the Library, that made sense. Every other library it saved (and there were hundreds of ancient libraries lost in history) would have added to its’ power and prestige.
“But it only works if two things happen: private books don’t exist, and neither does the printing press. So it also made sense to me that, given the Library’s history of confiscation, they might continue that and institutionalize it to consolidate power … and ruthlessly crush any ideas that threaten their position, like the printing press.”
Like the Library of Caine’s Ink and Bone, the Great Library often confiscated works in ways that don’t seem entirely legal to our modern eyes. In fact, Caine described it as “built on theft and intimidation.”
“The most striking thing is how the Library was originally built. After all, original works were expensive and rare … and people valued them highly. So getting someone to donate them wasn’t as simple as a book drive. Some they paid for, but many they simply confiscated in the name of the Pharaoh. Way cheaper. They went so far as to search incoming ships and declare any incoming works they didn’t have as contraband. Oh, there was usually a promise of a copy being made, but it was vague on timelines, and often nothing ever happened.”
In Rachel Caine’s Ink and Bone, to own a book is a crime, one that can end in your death. But if it were up to Caine’s choice, the library would have survived, even if this was our future.
“It really was an amazing institution, and a model for everything we think of as the public library system,” said Caine.