The Big Idea: Tobias S. Buckell

The power of books is undeniable. But the power of books is also fragile and constantly in danger. These are facts which inform Tobias S. Buckell’s latest work A Stranger in the Citadel — along with his own love of literature and the physical form it takes.


It’ll surprise none of you that I love books. I mean, I write them, after all! I love that faint musty odor that clings to old book stores, along with the tactile sense of flipping through the pages while hoping for a sentence that lets me fall right into the story. That moment our thoughts could end up permanently chiseled, inked, and read, it feels like history became this granite edifice. Thanks to this next level invention we could beam our thoughts to each other, and read the musings our ancestors left to us.

I’ve always felt this gift of paper, this paper-based telepathy, was a defining moment in human history. Before it lies the mists of pre-history and the unknown, and since then, words. And what would happen if we lost the books?

At the end of Fahrenheit 451, the Ray Bradbury novel that involves ‘firemen’ who have the job of burning books (which have been outlawed), there’s a scene that always chilled me. The main characters end up with a group of insurgents fighting back by memorizing sections of novels so that the words aren’t lost. This horrified me at the time because I suspected the numbers willing to commit to memorizing *my* favorite SF/F novels would be small. Bradbury’s little moment of hope at the end of his book came across much in the same way the end of a horror movie does.

I also assumed there was no way people could memorize books. I could barely memorize my own phone number at the time, and was ADHD. Listen to a rumor, or play the game telephone in a classroom, and you would get garbled nonsense out the other side. Fidelity of transmission could not be assured. Or so I thought.

It was a friend of mine that took this seed of an idea, what would a post-book society look like with distant memories of our wealth of literature to draw on, and helped me understand that this has been the case for most of our history. A professor at a nearby university, Dr. Ray Person, studies oral history and transmission. He pointed out to me that oral tradition has a self-correcting mechanism in it: the community that values the story itself.

The storyteller alone does not bear the weight of memory, the storyteller is the performer. And if they stray too far from the story, the community shouts out corrections. Thus, we are all the memory, passing on stories. In oral culture that values the stories, researchers have found startling details preserved over hundreds of years. Storytellers among the First Australians have passed on details in descriptions of ten thousand year old volcanic eruptions that climate scientists have studied.

Obviously some stories would change, mutated to meet their community’s needs, and some stories we think important now may be lost. But it wouldn’t be that deep easement, a void that I’d feared when I finished Fahrenheit 451 for the first time. It may not be the exact paper-printing world we know now, but storytelling is buried so deep in our bones I believe it speaks to something about being human.

In these days of book bans, the fights over who gets to tell what stories, and where, what is canon, what is not, I think I take heart in the fact that stories have existed for as long as we’ve had the tools to tell them. Which is why I wrote this book. To imagine the people of a society that have lost all touch with print books, who are in a world of myth and legend, who are trying to understand the world around them with what they’ve been given and what they can seek.

I think, even if we lose it, if our community values it, stories can’t be killed. They’ll try, those who manipulate and bend and demand that only their views are seen. But the words, they’re like magic, the stories live on in us, and to take on story itself is to underestimate the weight of thousands of years of stories that yearn to break free and be told.

The first line of this book “Thou shalt not suffer a librarian to live” came from a tongue in cheek exercise I teach where we reimagine common phrases as a seed for a story. But as I got deeper and deeper into the story that came from it, I found something reassuring at the heart of it.

Stories are stronger than we realize.

And the search for knowledge will always be there, because the truth and knowledge never went anywhere. They were always there for us to discover. And those who fight it, who cast it into darkness, they have to actively hide it and bury it from us. They’ll always have to be on the look out, they’ll always have to be actively censoring, they’ll always have to expend energy to take this away from us.

But the moment they tire, the moment they take their eye off the ball, the stories and words resurface. There are renaissances, even after the darkest ages.

Writing this book led to this realization for me, and regardless of who reads or champions what I wrote, that understanding will always be the lesson I learned from this book, and the big idea buried in the heart of it. There will always be characters like Lilith, from this book, who will reach out to something as forbidden as a librarian in her world, who will set aside their fears, and pick up a book.

Even if the entire world says it’s forbidden.

Honestly, if it’s a good book, we can’t help ourselves.


A Stranger In the Citadel: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Bookshop|Powell’s

Read an excerpt.

Author Socials: Web site|Bluesky|Instagram

3 Comments on “The Big Idea: Tobias S. Buckell”

  1. I recently moved into a bigger apartment and I am busily unpacking my 8 bookcases’ worth of books (which is taking a long time because I keep trying to read them all as I go, so I’m into the second or third chapter of about 20 books…) and I really relate to this post. Anybody who comes to destroy my books will be met at the door by a cast iron skillet to the face; some things are sacred, dammit.

  2. I dunno.

    Literacy offers an advantage over those unable to extract knowledge from print. Simple-minded example being the algorithm for effective gunpowder by way of purification of feedstocks and stabilizing via corning. ad hoc gunpowder is literally hit-or-miss.

    Ditto, antibiotics. Lenses grinding. And other stuff. Skills which are too useful in arming an army (or maybe a post-apocalyptic militia) and healing wounds and offsetting ageing of leadership to be allowed to fade away.

    [ this is where the author clarifies why everyone is book burning and actively hunting librarians ]