In Robert Harris’s on-the-button political novel The Ghost, there’s a level of insider knowledge of the ever-so-fictionalised Blair administration that give the book a real authority. It was published in 2007, the year that Tony Blair handed over to Gordon Brown. It’s the story of a disgraced former Prime Minister who has hired a ghost writer to rehabilitate him. Harris is a political insider, who previously worked on Newsnight, Panorama and the Observer.
Technology has to play a part in The Ghost of course, as modern politics is now conducted by the cellphone, the laptop. Yet at one point there’s a convoluted scene, where the puzzled reader can only surmise that the ghost writer has the last laptop in the world not to have a WiFi connection. It’s instructive in how novelists write about technology in their otherwise well-researched books. To a reader who knows about these things it’s a jarring anachronism.
What is fascinating is that whereas many writers will go to the effort of researching most things in their novels, technology is often seen as problematic. Partly, I think, this is because that it’s not just the novelist who doesn’t really understand either the nomenclature of technology or how it actually works, but their agents, publishers and publicists. Few writers have a background in programming or data analytics, compared with teaching, journalism and the like.
Technology partly frightens novelists because it changes so often and also because it has both a specificity – brands names like Sony, Google, Nokia, Apple – and a generic nature – emails, the web, laptops. Zadie Smith in On Beauty updates a letter in Howard’s End into an email, and because she’s clearly of a generation when email is embedded in her life, it rings true. Yet, if she was writing it now, then maybe a Facebook status or WhatsApp instant message would be preferable? One suspects that including emails in novels will date them very quickly, as referring to a communication that only really peaked between 1995 and 2010, whereas the epistolary novel (which an early email adopting writer – Matt Beaumont – exploited with his 2000 novel in emails, e) goes back to the 18th century.
I cringe a little at emails in novels nowadays, in particular their use of the header details to “prove” they are an email. What might have seemed edgy and contemporary now seems a little trite.
Of course, many novels don’t even touch on technology or are set in an earlier period – but its worth remembering that the car, the telephone and the compact disk were “new technologies” once.
And equally, the future doesn’t just appear on our doorstep one day. Just as we see old photographs with horse-drawn carriages alongside motorcars, there will still be people using VHS recorders to watch and video their favourite programmes. Add in the cultural trends that see the “ancient” record player and cassette deck being liberated from storage in people’s lofts, it might mean that a novel set in 2017 that constantly references streaming services, Netflix and Spotify appears dated before the decade is out.
I think this is paralleling of experience is actually something that writers could and should be interested in. Yet a character in the sixties will either go to Woodstock or hang around Warhol’s factory, rarely do both, books often treating world like the parallel cities that are “unseen” in Mieville’s fantasy noir masterpiece The City and the City.
But if there is a defining spirit to the 21st century this far in, it is surely that we are in the digital age, and that novelists writing about the “now” need to either take it for granted, or to foreground it in their work. Ignoring it places the contemporary novel in a place of continual cultural hibernation hoping that change can be ignored.
Perhaps technology challenges too many of the simple tropes of a novel. After all, if we can look back through fifteen years of emails then what “family secrets” can be hidden? If we all have a mobile phone on us then which of us can’t be contacted? I think writers need to be a little more inventive in how they work with this.
Books that foreground technology do tend either to be satirical or heading towards science fiction. In Douglas Coupland’s brilliant 1995 novel Microserfs he writes a pre-internet novel that actually nails the tech boom before it happened, far better than any contemporaneous newspaper article. Updating it a decade later with J-Pod, if it feels overly familiar, and less like we are being let into the secrets of a priesthood, this is because we are now living in the world that Coupland rightly saw was beginning in Microserfs. Not surprisingly J-Pod was made into a short-lived TV series, and in many ways it’s television, with its in-the-moment modernism, that shows technology in a way that the novel won’t or maybe can’t do. Yet we watch The West Wing or 24 now and the advanced technology is maybe not so advanced, and places it in its decade as much as New Wave music and dodgy haircuts places The Breakfast Club in the 1980s. Yet a film such as 1998’s Enemy of the State is – haircuts aside – still ahead of the actual technological curve with its focus on surveillance culture.
Aside from Coupland, who seems almost unique amongst his generation of writers, in actually liking the potential that technology gives a writer, David Eggars in The Circle shows another way it can be done. In this dystopian novel – more Brave New World than 1984 – a company that is an amalgam of Facebook, Google and Apple is slowly but surely taking over all our lives. Eggars never manages the same veracity as Coupland and I don’t think he really tries – he talks about the effects of technology rather than the technology itself. Because it’s a recognisable version of our now, it hardly matters that he doesn’t glorify in a more technological language.
Science fiction enables more scope of course, and that most technological of writers, Douglas Adams, still seems to have created a style and an idiom in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books which makes technology – robots, spaceships, A.I. – no more special than a towel or “bowl of petunias.” Good examples of where this can lead are in Luke Kennard’s recent novella Holophin and Lauren Beukes’ Zoo City which both are entirely comfortable with their futuristic absurdities, by grounding them in recognisable genre.
Kennard is also a poet and one recent poem begins with an image of a DDOS attack – a “distributed denial of service” attack that brings down websites by bombarding them with bot traffic. He admits to not being a technical expert, but in a book (Cain) that is linguistically ambitious, he shows a talent for spotting a tech metaphor that actually works. On the one hand, poetry has had less of a problem with technology than fiction, with from Edwin Morgan’s “The Computer’s Christmas Card”, to the Flarf movement, and those poets that seem willing to grapple with the possibilities and playfulness of contemporary tech language seem more interesting than those who are still writing using archaic terms. Yet for a long time you could go through a mainstream poetry collection and not find a single reference to the information age, even in passing, yet there hasn’t – other than on the experimental fringes or short-lived movements like Richard Price’s “Informationists” – been the equivalent of the 1930’s “Pylon” poets, where Spender and others were criticised for including the modern world in their work.
For the contemporary novelist, in particular, I think the time has gone where they can ignore technology without their own work seeming antiquated. In his influential essay “E Unibus Pluram”, David Foster Wallace talks about how his generation of writers get their inspiration mediated through television rather than from real life. It strikes me that that Infinite Jest was written just before the internet became mainstream, and so may well be the last great novel pre-dating the digital age; yet a quarter century since Tim Berners-Lee came up with the idea for the World Wide Web, I’m not sure that anyone would write a similar essay about digital – not yet anyhow.
Because there are so few novels which have really embraced a digital subject matter or language, its tempting to say that maybe it doesn’t matter – that we are better off with historical fictions like Wolf Hall or The Damned United or fantasies like Never Let Me Go or The Road, all exceptional books. Yet it’s hard to imagine setting a novel squarely in the last twenty years, which can comfortably ignore the way that digital has changed our world – and increasingly our behaviours. As everything from dating to ordering a takeaway or a cab goes online, it’s surely this behaviour change that is of most interest to novelists. LIKE this post; unfollow; In a relationship…it’s complicated; retweet…. this is not just a new language but a range of new behaviour patterns.
A less favourable interpretation of the lack of digital representation may be the innate conservatism of the publishing industry and a readership, who go to novels as a reaction to the modern world – whereas they might go to film, TV and the internet for engagement with it. Certainly amongst the arts, it seems that whereas their have been quite successful attempts to think about digital in the context of music, theatre and visual arts, for literature it has been an uneasy mix leading to awkward mash-up’s like the RSC’s Such Tweet Sorrow, rather than inspiring genuinely new work.
It might well only be now, as a generation of novelists who grew up with the internet and mobile phones emerges, that we see the contemporary novel be emboldened enough to write about technology without falling over its technical terms or creating instant anachronisms.
Adrian Slatcher was a COBOL programmer for nine years, and currently works on digital innovation projects in Manchester. He has an M.A. in novel writing from University of Manchester and his stories and poems have been published in Unthology, VLAK, the Rialto, Confingo, Verse Kraken and elsewhere. He blogs about literature at artoffiction.blogspot.com and is currently writing a commissioned story for the Didsbury arts festival Re:Place event.