Sunday Salon: Current technology in novels

The Sunday SalonA recent episode of the Books on the Nightstand podcast raised the subject of technology in novels, and whether authors deliberately set their novels before 1990 so that they don’t have to take technologies such as mobile phones and the Internet into account. It’s certainly true that a lot of classic stories would make no sense if all the characters had smartphones and GPS. (The podcast gave the example of Romeo and Juliet, where Romeo wouldn’t have sent a letter that got delayed, but instead an SMS. Then again, texts get delayed all the time, so Juliet might still not have got the message in time. Yes, I have thought about this a lot!)

It’s an interesting question, and I have certainly got that feeling about some books I’ve read. (Rather than being set in an older time, I suppose the story could also be set in a place where these technologies aren’t ubiquitous, though that’s getter harder with each year that passes.)

But equally I have read novels set now that handled technology slightly clumsily. And even where it was incorporated perfectly well, I’ve often had the nagging feeling that giving Twitter or iPads more than a passing mention risks dating the story very quickly. It’s a feeling that I had with The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year. But both of those stories would have been odd if they hadn’t incorporated social media, because if someone becomes a media sensation in today’s world, a big part of that is social media.

I suppose another option is to set a novel now but either ignore technology or find a legitimate way to make it not part of the story. I can’t think of any specific examples but I’m pretty sure I’ve read reviews that suggested it so do let me know what titles you think do this.

The final option for authors that I can think of is to set a book somewhere or sometime that isn’t real – i.e. the future, an alternative present, another planet or an entirely fantastical world. Then they’re free to use whatever technology they feel serves the story best. Arguably, this might be why some literary/general fiction authors add an element of science fiction or fantasy to some of their work.

So where are the books in which current technology is handled well? I thought Where’d You Go Bernadette? did a pretty good job. It mentions TED talks and smartphone apps and other things that might be forgotten in 100 years, but that didn’t stand out to me as a potential problem. What other examples are there?

5 thoughts on “Sunday Salon: Current technology in novels

  1. Joy Weese Moll (@joyweesemoll) April 19, 2015 at 3:46 pm

    I recently read Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, written in the late 1980s, but set in the mid 21st century. Lots of inadvertent humor in the way she guessed wrong on future technologies — time travel was possible and video phones were ubiquitous, but there were no answering machines or mobile devices. In some ways, stories were easier to plot when characters could be plausibly out of reach for an important period of time.

    • Kate Gardner April 19, 2015 at 4:27 pm

      Ah now, books set in the near future are a whole new subject. Are the technologies in them predictions or are they literary devices?

  2. Monika @ Lovely Bookshelf April 19, 2015 at 5:32 pm

    This really is an interesting question. It must be tricky for authors to find a balance when they do include technology in present times. Everything changes so quickly, if they’re too specifically it really can feel dated. Enjoyed thinking about this post!

  3. Joanna Papageorgiou April 19, 2015 at 7:21 pm

    I’m trying to think of some in recent books I’ve read. In The First Phonecall From Heaven, cell phones are specifically mentioned because that’s how the dead people get in touch but not so much is made of social media, as far as I can remember (since last week).

    In the Confectioner’s Tale, it’s set in the 80s and so no new technologies. I’m actually reading a second book set in the 80s but I think both of these are set there to take advantage of history – one for a WWII connection and the other a 1909 French connection.

    Good point about Romeo & Juliet – most ‘comedies of error’ as such would have very quick resolutions were it not for lack of mobiles. Most sitcoms too. The easiest trick is running out of battery or no signal.

    I’m reading Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread and so far there has only been mention of a cell phone.

    And then there’s Nikesh Shukla’s Meatspace which is specifically about social media. Hmmm… An interesting question!

  4. matt self May 12, 2015 at 10:41 am

    This reminded me of an essay by J.G.Ballard I read once. I had to look up the quote to remember it exactly (I wish I had one of those brains which remembered quotes word for word!).
    “Science and technology multiply around us. To an increasing extent they dictate the languages in which we speak and think. Either we use those languages, or we remain mute.”

    I think he then went on to talk about Hamlet, and how he never had to pump gas at a motorway service station. The point being that technology and the external world does have an important effect on people and how we think. I believe it’s a fair criticism of a lot of recent literary fiction that they are set in a kind of nowhere time, or avoid considering technology other than for it’s utilitarian function.

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