Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like
A couple of weeks ago, I did a post about how writers today are steering clear of references to modern technology. Well, Audrey Driscoll, a supremely thoughtful writer, thinker, and gardener from Vancouver Island, British Columbia, commented on the piece in such a provocative way, I asked her to contribute a guest post on the subject.
Here it is, and many thanks to Audrey!
TECH IN FICTION: ARE WRITERS STUCK IN THE 1900s?
by Audrey Driscoll
No, this isn’t about Word or Scrivener – it’s not about using technology as a writing tool, but incorporating it into written works. Right after I read Kevin’s post, “Why does fiction eschew modern gizmos?” I thought of several reasons why modern tech may be absent from current fiction:
Another possibility that occurred to me was that we writers unconsciously spare our characters the tiresome struggles with computers. After spending so much time online writing, formatting, publishing, promoting and blogging, why would we write about someone trying to get their headers and footers to work?
But when I started expanding on my original comments, I realized I disagree with Kevin’s initial premise. I don’t actually think current fiction ignores current technology.
Some fiction genres feature tech quite deliberately, namely YA, science fiction and thrillers. YA intended to represent the here and now often contains texted dialogue or references to apps such as Snapchat. (Middle-aged writers are advised to consult their grandkids about these details. A reference to MySpace, or something equally dead, would be laughable).
Science fiction, especially of the “hard” variety is all about tech. So is steampunk, in a different way. Many thrillers involve cutting-edge or invented weapons and communication devices. Or, to look at it from the other end, tech-geek writers who know about this stuff include it in their fiction, hence the “hard SF” and “techno-thriller” sub-genres. Non-tech types who for some reason want to write credibly in these genres just have to do the necessary research.
Research is usually associated with historical fiction, but when it comes to technology, almost everything other than the present moment is “historical.” Several years ago I wrote a novel that for reasons crucial to the plot was set in a time when CDs were the hot new thing. Even though I was alive and sentient at that time, I had to do research (i.e., consult Wikipedia) to find out exactly when CDs first became available (mid-1980s). While writing a different novel, I casually assumed that the New York City subway existed in 1896; when I checked (thank God for Wikipedia!), I discovered that wasn’t the case. Another time, I had to confirm that those heavy black telephone receivers of the early-mid 20th century really were made of a substance called “Bakelite.”
As a reader, I can say that even fiction that isn’t about technology does contain it – maybe not the bleeding-edge stuff, but in most novels set in the 2000s, people drive cars, travel by air and use mobile phones and computers. That’s commonplace modern technology. It could be that because the references to these devices and modes of transport are fleeting and generic (no brand or model names), they aren’t noticed by the casual reader. And that’s perfectly OK.
Technology, whether it’s a smartphone, a steam engine or a laser sword, is a tool. As new things are invented to perform work, tools change. Our love of novelty makes us think of the new ones as exciting and important, and the established ones as dull and uninspiring. Obsolete technologies may be considered quaint by some and dismissed entirely by others.
Thinking about steampunk got me wondering if some writers have a kind of tech nostalgia. Devices of a bygone age have acquired a retro glamour. So a few decades from now we may see the gizmos of the 2010s popping up in stories by as yet unborn writers.
While I’m not about to tell anyone how to write anything, here are my thoughts on the treatment of technology in fiction:
Writing should accurately represent the period in which it is set, which means getting the tech right. A 1960s, character talking on the phone might be twisting the cord in their fingers. If it’s 2016, they almost certainly wouldn’t be, but they might be worrying about having to charge up their phone. If it’s 2116, they might be sending thought-waves over a comlink. In any case, technology should be present only as much as is necessary to create a worthwhile reading experience consistent with its genre. I think it’s a mistake to insert tech into a scene just to show that you’re “tech savvy.” Better to give more effort to creating lifelike characters in compelling situations than fretting about what apps they would be using.
Visit Audrey’s Amazon author page here and sample The Herbert West Series.