Why do so many modern literary authors avoid writing about our technology-driven lives?
From the printing press and the pen to TV and mobile phones – technology transforms our world. But it is the internet that has had the most profound impact on society in the last twenty years. Now, everything we do from browsing for books or browsing for partners happens online. A massive 83% of the UK population is ‘plugged in’ and we spend stupid amounts of time goggling our screens and devices.
Mobile is the fastest growing media industry in history. Anytime, anywhere connectivity is standard. In fact plenty of social commentators believe we rely on technology to such an extent that 21st century humans have, pretty much, turned into cyborgs – according to the word’s strict definition anyway. Yet most modern literary fiction only refers to the internet in passing. Meanwhile the same books are being read on digital 3G devices that can download a new title in seconds while readers tweet about, and retweet, the books they love – and hate.
Sci-fi v literary fiction
Science fiction writers, of course, have been speculating about how technological developments will impact humanity since Swift wrote Gulliver’s Travels back in 1726. In the twentieth century, themes of human and machine co-dependency proliferated – from H.G Wells and E.M Forster to Aldous Huxley and Isaac Asimov. But these writers, and plenty of others of their era, achieved the kind of cross-genre popularity that most sci-fi writers today only dream of.
Despite us living in a version of the techno-futures that Wells and Huxley predicted, modern literary fiction – with some notable exceptions – still seems preoccupied with the past. OK – there’s not much dramatic tension in someone programming a computer or writing an app for their iPhone. It’s dull to dwell on the minutiae of any activity. (My editor suggested several cuts in The Game is Altered where I’d overloaded the narrative with technical details.) But I’m not sure writers are avoiding technology because it lacks traction or is too tricky to describe. It’s part of the writer’s job to imbue all manner of dry subjects with drama and tension. No, something else is going on.
Many writers (and readers), I believe, suffer from left-brain prejudice. It’s like the old ‘science versus arts’ argument at college – you were either a geek or a creative. Never both. Back then your willingness to embrace technology or eschew it, placed you firmly in one camp or the other. Even now the Kindle v ‘real book’ debate illustrates the passionate resistance new technology can evoke. And although it provides us with the tools for entertainment and creativity – computers, software, file sharing, printers – technology is not creative in itself.
Definitely more left-brain than right, sci-fi writers are a weird crossbreed between hormonal mathematicians and Dungeons & Dragons players, aren’t they? Sure, they can string sentences together. But if you’re a ‘serious’ writer you don’t want your work to have a sci-fi label. It’s not real literature. When my publisher asked if I envisaged The Game is Altered being marketed as sci-fi I said, ‘Certainly not,’ without blinking. ‘Anyway,’ I went on, ‘the book is sci-fact. All the technologies I describe are already with us.’ An aspiring literary novelist doesn’t want to find their work consigned to the sci-fi shelves for the men with bad haircuts and body odour to thumb through. Sure, literary readers will recognise names such as David Mitchell, Margaret Atwood, Doris Lessing – who all use recognisable science fiction tropes in their novels – but they wouldn’t pick up a Hal Clement or a Larry Niven without some persuasion.
Science fiction novels aren’t judged in the same way either. There are different competitions for people who want to turn their binary-driven obsessions into a narrative. Literary fiction writers have festivals – and very lovely they are too – with hay bales and colourful tents and lots of nice, middle-class people eating quinoa-based salads in the sunshine. Sci-fi writers have conferences and conventions. People dress up and speak Klingon in huddles. There’s something about sci-fi that smacks of literature’s nerdy teen cousin. It’s not grown up.