Imperial Earth

Arthur C. Clarke
Imperial Earth
(London: Victor Gollancz, 1975)

The ’Sec was the standard size of all such units, determined by what could fit comfortably in the normal human hand. At a quick glance, it did not differ greatly from one of the small electronic calculators that had started coming into general use in the late twentieth century; it was, however, infinitely more versatile […] There were fifty neat little studs; each, however, had a virtually unlimited number of functions, according to the mode of operation […] on ALPHA-NUMERIC, 26 of the studs bore the letters of the alphabet, while ten showed the digits zero to nine […] Another mode was DICTIONARY; the ’Sec stored over a hundred thousand words, whose three-line definitions could be displayed on the bright little screen … but for dealing with vast amounts of information it was desirable to link the ’Sec to the much larger screen of a standard comsole. This could be done through the unit’s optical interface […] As long as this lens was in visual range of the corresponding sensor on a comsole, the two units could happily exchange information at the rate of megabits per second.

Often regarded as one of the earliest literary predictions of today’s most ubiquitous accessory, Arthur C. Clarke’s 1975 novel Imperial Earth describes a device that resembles a smartphone. Password- protected and with a screen interface, the Minisec functions as a personal organizer, memo recorder, and data storage tool that becomes indispensable to those who use it to manage personal information and interpersonal communication. Set in the late twenty-third century, Imperial Earth imagines a future in which the modes and spaces of human interaction have shifted dramatically. The novel reflects on the history of the telephone, from the local exchanges that were possible in its early years to the ‘universal globe communication’ that arrived at the end of the twentieth century. For the novel, this history needs to be understood as an unfolding ‘abolition of space’ that brought the planet together as a communicative community. However, Imperial Earth thinks projectively about the departure from planetary place (specifically, the colonising of Saturn’s moon Titan), and for the expansion of humanity’s reach new networking devices—the Minisec and the Comsole—will be needed. If the Minisec does indeed anticipate the smartphone, then in Clarke’s novel it should be understood not only as an evolution of the telephone, and of the global universality that the Imperial Earth attaches to it. Instead, it is a tool for capturing new territories.

by Philip Leonard