The ceiling was high and apparently glass, letting through white light from the sky above, though much later I would begin to wonder about that. The reception/information desk which appeared to my left as I walked into the building looked like any other modern-day information desk. Behind it sat a bespectacled lady at a selection of flat-screened computer terminals. She was thirty, and wore dark brown. Behind her were several racks of books of all sizes in wheeled trolleys. I saw rubber stamps, bookmarks in a "please take one" stand, and a clock on the wall, though I didn't register what time it was.
Down some steps just beyond the desk was the building proper, where I could see shelves with more books. My exceptional powers of deduction led me to conclude that this was some sort of library. Passing the librarian, I walked right on in.
The bookcases were three times as high as a man and densely filled with books. All of them, I came to realise, were from the same series - big, heavy volumes roughly a foot tall and two inches thick, hardback bound in dark red, with gold writing on the spine. An archive of some sort?
Reaching as high as I could I selected a volume at random. The spine said:
Two thousand, seven hundred and fifty-four volumes? I flipped through the book but found little more than meaningless columns of incredibly long numbers interspersed with odd symbols. Shaking my head, I replaced the book in its slot on the shelf, and wandered away along the shelves, hoping to find just how many volumes there were altogether. As I reached the end of the narrow aisle, I found myself at a white railing overlooking the main body of the library. I gulped.
The library stretched away to my left and right, seemingly for miles. Far below me I could make out a few individuals moving about on the ground floor. Above me, sunlight streamed through the vaulted glass roof, illuminating a sign that was suspended between two balconies on the top floor. "META-INDEX".
There had to be a million volumes within eyeshot at least. If this was the meta-index, then what of the index? What of the book itself? I shivered and hurried back to the librarian's desk.
"What's going on? Where am I?" I demanded.
"This is the Book," she said calmly, carefully enunciating the capital letter.
"This whole library is a single book? What book?"
"The Story of the Universe and Everything In It," said the librarian, with a faint trace of pride.
"Big Bang, expansion, heat death - that's one book at most," I countered.
"Yes, and if you search long enough and hard enough, you will find that book. But that is but one book within the Book. You will find books chronicling the story of galaxies, of individual suns and planets and asteroids. Even of your home Earth."
"A book for each star? There are a million suns for every grain of sand on Earth."
"You will find a book for each of them, as well. The Book contains everything. Literally everything. The Story of every single subquantum particle and set of subquantum particles the Universe has ever seen, and every interaction that each one felt in its entire quintillion-year existence. And quarks, atoms, molecules, all chronicled from creation to destruction. Viruses, bacteria, cells. You will find the book for every blade of grass that ever grew and every ant, every cloud, every stone and pebble, every hair on every head. All thoroughly cross-referenced, of course. Though people of your sort are rarely interested in such mundane things."
"Oh, I don't know. I could finally do what so many Amazing Science Factbooks have told me and run a background check on every molecule in a glass of water. See if it was really true that some of it had been dinosaur urine, some of it drunk by Leonardo da Vinci. Hey! Could I find the book of Leonardo da Vinci?"
"Of course," said the librarian. She stood up and led me into the meta-index.
We walked for almost half an hour. She seemed to know where she was going as she led me down a long, long stairwell and for about a quarter of a mile along the rows and rows of bewildering bookshelves. As we walked, she explained. "The Book itself is so staggeringly large and complete that no human could hope to get past the first half-billion volumes before becoming so thoroughly lost and despondent that they would give up, never finding anything of interest, unless the story of the very first E-subquark to come into existence after the Big Bang interested them, which it rarely would. Instead, it was subdivided into Stories, each one concerning a given subset of the Universe. A subset can be any group of more than one subquark - from a simple quark made from seven subquarks, up to entities the size of the Universe itself."
"I've been thinking about that," I said. "See, I do a lot of mathematics. If there were about ten to the eightieth truly indivisible particles in the Universe-"
"Actually closer to ten to the ninetieth, but go on."
"Then the number of subsets - and therefore the number of Stories - would be two the power of that number. That's about ten to the power of (three with eighty-nine zeroes) Stories!"
"Actually, there are rather more than that. You see, a human being such as yourself is constantly changing in composition, as dead skin falls off and cells are replenished from the food you eat. I won't bother you with the details of how we counted exactly what constitutes a given human being, or a star or an asteroid or indeed anything else that is changeable in composition from moment to the next - it all gets terribly complicated. But in total, the number of Stories is something of the order of one point seven googolplex. Story length varies, of course. An atom of a particularly unstable element, such as Francium, may only exist for millionths of a second, leaving a Story which is only one volume in length, or maybe ten if one were to read a more detailed account."
"There's more than one account?"
"As I said before, the Book contains everything - everything, analysed and described from every angle, at every level of complexity and detail simultaneously. Any given Story is simultaneously as short as a single page and as long as the entire Book itself, almost by definition. You will soon come to realise and experience for yourself that each Story is less a concrete account of something which happened than a cross-section of the Universe in which it happened. You'll learn more about that later. Besides which, this is merely the English edition. The Book comes in every conceivable language the Universe has ever known, though of course there are only a trillion or so of them..."
"I guessed a hundred thousand languages at most," I said.
"On Earth, yes," she replied, and that answered my question.
"Where was I? One point seven googolplex is a hideously large number, so you'll understand that even an index of all Stories would itself form an unworkably large library. So we divided up the Stories according to what would approximate to a sort of Dewey Decimal System, giving each one a classification number and description, or in most cases many such descriptions. The meta-index stores the names of all the indices, and the number you can use to find each index within the larger library. If an index is particularly large, then it may well have sub-indices within it, or even sub-sub-indices."
She stopped at a completely nondescript shelf deep within the stack, filled with the same red volumes. She pulled a sliding ladder over from the end of the bookshelf and climbed up to the fifteenth shelf, and returned with meta-index volume seventy million, six hundred and one thousand and nineteen. She flipped it open to a page which had been marked beforehand with a small, yellow piece of paper, and ran her finger down to a particular reference. "Human biographies are stored in index number 70601019-443. I've been down here so many times in the past, I've practically memorised the number."
She led me further into the stack until we arrived at what appeared to be a silver elevator set into the wall. "This is how we reach the indices." It opened as we arrived and she led me in. She typed the eleven-digit number on the keypad and the doors closed. There was a sensation of movement.
"Biography isn't really my thing. What if I get bored reading people's life stories?" I asked as we descended. "What if I want to read some fiction instead?"
"Well, all you need do is find the Story of the author. Or the Story of a library you once knew of, and you can cross-reference the books of that library to find the author. Then you can read not just the novel itself, but how the novel was written. You can find out the rejected working titles and the destroyed alternate versions and the plot twists that the author thought better of, and deleted from the final version. Same goes for movies, although with moving pictures or audio, things become slightly more complex. You'll need to talk to a different librarian about multimedia imagery, because the multimedia capabilities of the Book are, as you might imagine, quite astounding."
"So I could find anything in the Book?"
"Not quite anything. The Universe was finite in time and space, so even the Book has limits, vast though they are. You will never find something in the book which did not happen, though you will of course find chronicles of the thoughts of people who believe something happened which did not. If it was never seen, never known, and never thought of, then you will not find it in the Book no matter how far you look, though, and I mean no offence, the chances of you ever having an original thought such as that are remote."
The elevator doors slid apart and we were at the bottom of another long chasm of books. A hundred floors of the library rose above me, towering towards the now-familiar bright zenith. We strode out into cool, clean air. A sign - "HUMAN BIOGRAPHY INDEX". Another librarian's desk.
"With roughly two trillion human beings having existed altogether, the biographical index at a hundred humans per page for a thousand pages per volume only comes to twenty million volumes. If you have difficulty finding someone's name in the index, ask a librarian," explained my guide.
"What about mathematics?" I asked.
The librarian smiled. "Another exception. Mathematics is wholly made up of abstracts, and of course abstracts are not physically part of the Universe. You won't find the last digit of pi," she said. "That would take a truly infinite Book. But you will find every digit that anybody ever calculated, correct or not. Nor will you find every single proof of every single theorem, but you will find every theorem anybody ever proved or even thought of. You will even find the truth about Fermat's Last Theorem."
She paused, and seemed to switch gear slightly. "What you will find in the Book, more than anything else," she continued, "is the truth about the Universe and the truth about yourself. Obviously, your own Story is in here somewhere. The Story of your own thoughts. So are the Stories of your mother and father, of your friends, your leaders and teachers. So are the Stories of Jesus Christ, of Mohammed and Siddhartha Gautama, and their true thoughts. You may find more truth in the Book than you would like. You may also find that there was less truth in the world than you would have liked."
More important questions are arising in my head. "You implied earlier that other people visit this library. I've seen one or two of them here and there, they were not just librarians. Who comes here? And how do they get here?"
"Everyone comes here. Everyone comes here eventually. You mean you don't know? Well, ask yourself, why are you here?"
"I don't know. I came through the front door... I thought. But when I came back to your desk there was no front door. Just more library. A googolplex of books would undergo gravitational collapse if this was the real world. Are we outside the Universe somewhere? Or is this a virtual reality? You keep referring to the Universe in the past tense. And what about the library itself? Does the library itself have a Story? Does the Book have a Story? A Meta-book?"
"The Book and the Universe are inextricable from each other. They are the same thing, presented in different formats. Of course there is no Meta-book. It would be larger than the library itself."
"Who wrote it? Who wrote the Book? And what is his Story?"
"You surely know this already. Otherwise, how have you come to be here?" The librarian stared at me for a long moment. It seemed as if she was listening to some inner voice. Eventually she said, "There has been a mistake. You should not be here yet."
And the light pouring through the windowed ceiling became brighter, so bright I could see nothing but whiteness.
The title is a quote from Jorge Luis Borges and was given to me as a challenge. Borges is the author of the short story The Library of Babel, but the Library of Babel didn't sound much like Paradise to me.