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?