Ruby Cowling speaks to writer and journalist Thomas McMullan about the interplay between fiction and technology.
Does your journalism – exploring tech developments and culture – directly inform your fiction? Is it a case of learn-and-apply-handy-details? Or more of an oblique influence?
It’s hard for me to say. I’ve been covering technology journalistically for around two years now, and it is a very strange culture to enter. The fetishisation. The evangelists. The utopianism. The invisibleness of it all. There are words batted around, like artificial intelligence, but a gap in knowledge about what those words actually mean. There’s a great deal of incomprehension bubbling beneath the keynotes.
In terms of my fiction, I’ve perhaps pulled more explicitly from that world lately. I’ve become a little bit obsessed with cloud server centres. Generally though, I try to steer away from plonking tech into a story. One day I’d quite like to write something about technology culture, but for now I enjoy approaching the topic sideways. A novel I’ve just finished writing, for example, touches on the violence of language in social networks, but is based around a ruined wall on Dartmoor and is – if anything – more directly influenced by a practice during the Chinese Cultural Revolution.
When you address new media/technology in your fiction, are you interested mostly in exploring new forms (e.g. stories that may act as games), or in including contemporary content in existing forms?
I’m interested in both, but normally end up writing fiction to be read one word at a time. “A word after a word after a word is power,” wrote Margaret Atwood in ‘Spelling Poem’. I’m going at that phrase with an ice cream scoop, so apologies to Ms Atwood for putting it in a different context, but I think it’s a true sentiment for fiction versus a more game-like approach. Agency is at the heart of games, and this tends to take power away from the author because they have less control over what is being said when.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that a writer can’t author something non-linear. It just means that the writer needs to think like a game designer. They can predict the moves and missteps a player might make, but they can’t know how a reader will reassemble their writing. This is true for any writing, but more so when readers can go down paths where whole chapters will never be read, like a jigsaw puzzle with too many parts.
I used to work for an immersive theatre company, and a lot of that involved writing speeches or dialogue that would never be seen, at least not by one individual. There’s something nice about that uncertainty around the limits of a text, but it did mean writing ten times the normal amount for a show that length. It hurts your fingers. That said, I did use a game-like approach for a story I wrote for Minor Literature[s] about a photographer, and I’d also really love to collaborate on a video game some day.
Fiction readerships can be, sadly, pretty small. Do you think new forms incorporating digital or new-media paradigms might expand potential fiction audiences? Or might they alienate readers, if in fact, they do prefer historical fiction?
Physical books are an evolutionary pinnacle. There might be small changes here and there, but books – with spines, heads and covers – are bodies that work. As the drop in ebook sales has shown, people love touching bodies. Digital aspects shouldn’t get in the way of that, but they can offer up different shapes for literature to fill.
Our smartphones have a load of tools that haven’t really been used by writers. GPS, messaging services, touchscreens, cameras… There’s scope to do some interesting things with all of that, if a writer came at it from the right direction. A lot of people are already making stuff based around interactivity. It’s just called the video game industry, not the publishing industry. Can games like Inkle’s 80 Days or Failbetter’s Sunless Sea, both of which are largely text-based, be reframed as fiction? What about something like Playdead’s Inside, which has no words?
I think new forms that incorporate digital paradigms can certainly expand fiction audiences, but the shape of this fiction is unlikely to be sold on a shelf in Foyles.
Is there a space in fiction between ‘no tech at all’ and ‘sci-fi’? If there isn’t, and you think there should be, how can we make such a space?
On one level, everything being written right now will have something to do with technology, purely by dint of being written at the current moment, where the rhythms of our lives is so influenced by the internet, smartphones, TVs, car engines, instant messages, social media, airplanes, battery-operated sex toys, guns, combine harvesters, contactless payments, self-checkouts, browser tabs, electric lights, escalators, automatic doors, etc. You could set your story in medieval France and it would still be influenced by today’s technology, because that is your reality.
On another level, fiction that foregrounds technology does tend to be read in terms of sci-fi. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, although it can be frustrating if you’re trying to show the world as it is now. There is so much that can be read as far-flung but is actually contemporary. Vast data centres in remote locations, for example. They seem so alien, but they are what allow you to read this article.
How can writers – who take time to write – address the problem of the speed of change?
Technology moves fast, publishing moves slowly. If you mention that your character has an iPhone 7, then that is going to date very quickly. It will most likely be dated before the story is even published. On the other hand, the ideas around today’s technology, such as communication, consciousness and identity, have been around as long as humans have been farting. The Oresteia opens with a communication chain of signaling bonfires, and that’s dated pretty well. Keep the focus on humans, not hardware.
Thomas McMullan is a London-based writer. He has been published by Lighthouse, 3:AM Magazine, The Stockholm Review, The Literateur and Cadaverine Magazine, and is a contributing editor for minor literature[s]. He is a staff writer for Alphr.com, and has also written for The Guardian, The TLS and New Statesman. He is published in Best British Short Stories 2016. Visit his website or find him on Twitter at @thomas_mac.